Black Widow, the eagerly awaited next helping of Marvel mayhem, isn't exactly the kind of movie that redefines a genre or challenges you with unexpected depth.
But -- you knew a "but" was coming, didn't you? -- the movie uses its Avengers heritage to good effect and, damn, if it doesn't include some agreeable humor, not the winking self-reflexive kind (at least not entirely) but laughs that stem from watching an unsettled family try to define itself.
Right there, in the middle of a Marvel superhero movie, a kind of twisted family sitcom to go along with a story in which the heroes battle a villain who controls the minds of women.
Black Widow begins in Ohio, introducing us to what seems like a typical suburban family. There's a catch: When Dad (David Harbour) arrives home, he tells his wife (Rachel Weisz) that they have an hour to leave town with their two young daughters (Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw). The year: 1995.
Australian director Cate Shortland wastes no time leaping into action, sending a message that whatever else Black Widow will offer, it's not going to skimp on chases, fights, globe-hopping, and a plot that feels as if it might have been gleaned from a James Bond out-basket.
About that family. After their escape and a quick landing in Cuba, they're separated. The film then leaps ahead 21 years.
In these 21st Century scenes, we learn that the family has been torn apart by Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a Russian mega-baddie who has been building an army of automaton warriors by taking over the brains of kidnapped girls trained in a facility known as The Red Room.
Daughter Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), already an Avenger, is living on her own in trailer with help from a guy (O. T. Fagbenle) who brings her supplies. She's running from US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) — at least I think that’s what’s happening.
Because few of us would want to watch a movie about a fugitive living in a trailer in Norway, the movie quickly contrives to put Natasha (a.k.a., The Black Widow) into motion.
For those who haven't pressed every Avengers movie into their book of memories, an assurance: I, too, had to read up: The movie takes place at a time when the Avengers have broken up; i.e., in the interim between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.
Johansson has done her Widow bit in other Avengers movies, but keeps things humming in this semi-solo effort.
Happily, the movie adds Florence Pugh to the mix. Pugh plays the grown-up version of Natasha's younger sister Yelena, a Russian-trained assassin who, like Natasha, must decide whether the ties of early years still have meaning.
Yelena, by the way, has acquired an antidote that can reverse the control Dreykov has over the core of stolen children he has raised to kill, but as is the case with many of these Marvel movies, the plot strikes me as little more than a necessary bother — like wearing a tie to a job interview.
The movie gives the two women a chance to play sibling rivalry games and also reunites them with their mother and father, both of whom have gone their separate ways, as well.
This part of the movie affords Harbour an opportunity to do an amusing comic riff on being a superhero. He's the Red Guardian, once a true believer in Soviet myths and now a somewhat paunchy guy who looks nothing short of ridiculous in his superhero outfit.
One of the movie's major set pieces involves breaking Harbour's Alexi out of a grim Russian prison? Cue the avalanche.
For her part, Weisz plays things straight as Melina, a wily woman who always seems to know more than she lets on.
The underlying motivation is simple enough. Natasha and Yelena want to find the Red Room, destroy it, and kill Dreykov, the fiend has ruined the lives of so many young girls.
Of course, the finale is scaled large.
The movie's variable Russian accents might be a key to understanding the whole enterprise. They're funny, a bit botched, and not without charm.
Even non-Marvelites will get the gist and you don't need to know anything about the Avengers to enjoy the way the movie pokes fun at BlackWidow's trademark pose.
Before striking, she looks like an Olympian about to launch in a speed-skating event, fitting for a movie that’s agile enough not to fall through thin ice.