By JASON MARTIN (@JMartRadio – June 29, 2021)

It feels like we’ve been within a month of Black Widow‘s release for about three years, but in reality it’s been just a shade over 12 months. The pandemic and absence of movies it caused are both coming to a close and finally, Scarlett Johansson’s character centerpiece has arrived. Because of the delays, the usual standards of the MCU in the eyes of its diehard fan base (of which I’m certainly one), and the success of the Disney Plus efforts, the expectations are sky high.

For the most part, the audience will leave satisfied, although it’s doubtful many will regard the film among Marvel’s best. No question, Black Widow has its strengths, but it’s a half-notch below the overall entertainment value we’ve come to expect, if only because it’s so much more of a “MINO” kind of movie. It’s “Marvel in Name Only.” Yes, it’s about Natasha Romanoff, yes there are plenty of Marvel-centric elements, but it’s more a side story to help develop a new character and just have fun with Nat one more time.

And it’s better as a movie than it is a comic book movie. It’s a departure from the kind of movie Marvel is known for, which is at times refreshing and at times a little underwhelming. It has a couple of slow stretches, but when it needs to pack a punch, it brings a roundhouse spin kick along with it.

It appears on the surface to be far more Rogue One than necessary canon, but there IS a larger reason for Black Widow that increasingly makes sense as the movie goes along. At around 2:20 in run time, there’s not a ton of wasted time, assuming you find the movie itself as worthy. The action sequences are the highlights, as these are arguably the most realistic combat scenes Marvel has ever done on the big screen. The plot isn’t particularly deep, but it’s “enough” to first explain why Nat became Nat, where she came from, and what both her childhood and early emergence as an assassin were like.

Johansson is usually good in the Black Widow role, and while she’s arguably been better as Nat in other films, she’s still very good here. Florence Pugh ends up being my favorite performance in the movie, along with David Harbour, who adds a needed touch of humor to a tragic story that otherwise spends much more time creating darkness than light. Pugh plays Yelena Belova, Nat’s sister, and it’s a role that moves from fairly uninteresting to incredibly compelling before the movie finishes up. She is outstanding and plays off Johansson absurdly well. She’s the breakout star of the picture and is a welcome addition to the universe as a whole.

There’s a bit of a Killing Eve vibe that morphs into a familial style of relationship, without the romance of course, but the chemistry between Scarlett and Florence definitely works in that universe and reminds a bit of Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in terms of the quips back and forth and the frenemy tie between the two duos. It’s also reliant upon its Cold War background, which brings visible reminders of The Americans. That is certainly to the film’s credit. Emulating, even if unintentionally, some of the tenets of one of the great dramas of the century, isn’t a bad thing. Harbour even looks like one of Matthew Rhys’ disguises when we first meet him.

As for Nat, her “present” in the film is post-Civil War, after the Sokovia Accords, and when the Avengers are at their most fractured. Black Widow tells its own story, separate from much of what its audience might already know, with only a handful of key comments and questions that reference other MCU events and people. Romanoff’s family is aware of her stardom and ascendancy, but they’re also caught up in a much larger situation that includes Nat and takes us far into an authoritarian conspiracy involving mind control, power, and communism. There may not need to be more said than that. If it sounds like 1985 to you, that’s the right ballpark atmospherically.

Again, the plot isn’t a mile thick, but it’s also relatively easy to follow and as the flowchart often moves from dialogue exposition to heavy action to explanation to sentimental sliver to more action, the story does what it needs to do without being too overwrought or convoluted.

These aren’t comic book action sequences with ridiculous weapons and all sorts of comic book craziness. If you had no idea who and what the Widows were, hadn’t seen a single other Marvel film, and simply walked in the theater blind to that universe, you’d still get 90 percent of what Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson are trying to do with the plot and with Eric Pearson’s screenplay. It’s straightforward and linear, unlike Schaeffer’s other major release this year, WandaVision (which was so great – just had to mention that again). Although Black Widow opens with a flashback, that’s merely the device to introduce us to the cast and inform their current predicaments through the hardships of the past.

The title sequence includes a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Think Up Anger and Malia J. that will blow you away. It’s the most memorable variation of the song since Kurt Cobain wailed out his iconic angsty lyrics in 1991. If you remember the choir singing Radiohead’s “Creep” in the trailer to The Social Network, which stood out to say the least, this is far more powerful because of the emotion, rather than concern for each individual note. It hits the tone of what’s on screen beautifully as well, as does Cate Shortland’s direction from start to finish.

The world has been waiting for Black Widow for quite some time and no one will be disappointed, provided he or she can handle a very non-super hero comic book movie. Now that we’ve seen the likes of Thanos and Thor and so many others, this feels like a great action film (almost rudimentary in “super” comparison) with the technical advances of 2021 in fight cinematography, but a story and a concept much more fitting for release in 1984. It’s also a movie largely dominated by the female members of its cast, which clicks and fits perfectly, though again Harbour is excellent, as is Ray Winstone. Rachel Weisz’ character was a little murky, but lands the plane in the end and as a complete package, Black Widow basically works as designed.

It didn’t knock me over from start to finish, but it was an extremely easy watch and is a solid open to MCU Phase 4. I definitely did leave my feet several times.

It’s not an A+, but it delivers gritty action and a just intriguing-enough story to draw us into new characters and remind us why we always liked Nat. Letter grade? B.

Post-credits sequence? Some don’t like to be spoiled on yes or no, so stop reading here…

You’ve been warned…

You’ll want to stick around to the end of the credits, as there’s a crucial stinger at the very end. It’s predictable, but it also makes much of the past two hours of your life feel more essential.