By now, you're either a Marvel Cinematic Universe devotee or you're sick of it but, if you have a little wiggle room, I'm here to tell you "Black Widow" is entertaining on its own, without a million prerequisites.
"On its own" is the key phrase. Somehow, the MCU has convinced us that it's fine for most of its movies to connect to two dozen other ones, with beginnings that require research, "plots" that are mostly just things blowing up and endings that don't end anything. There are a few exceptions, obviously, but "Black Widow" feels like a restart for the MCU because it has an actual beginning, middle and end, rather than a middle, a middle and a middle.
It starts especially well, driven by something we almost never get in Marvel movies: suspense. Two girls and their parents (played by Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) are living small-town American lives when they get word that they must grab a few belongings and go on the lam. Director Cate Shortland, with a background in movies whose entire budgets wouldn't pay for a day of Weisz's "Widow" salary, makes the family feel intimate and real, so their desperation as they flee means something. Even as we notice their accents slipping into mysterious territory, we believe in them. We want them to be safe.
We also may wonder: Where are the Marvel people? One of them, Scarlett Johansson's Natasha/Black Widow, shows up when the action flashes forward. Her Natasha was one of the kids (the other, Yelena, is played as an adult by Florence Pugh, who is just as fierce as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in "Little Women"). On the outs with her Avenger pals, Natasha's trying to reckon with her childhood, when her parents were Russian agents with secrets so deep that, 30 years later, she cannot get past them.
That sounds like it's packed with drama. And, when family recriminations are tossed around, "Black Widow" sometimes feels like "Long Day's Journey Into Nyet." But "Black Widow" is really funny, too. The sisters, both members of a team of "black widow" mercenaries, reluctantly reunite with parents Alexei and Melina, now farmers with plenty of spy left in them, to work through the psychodrama. They also engage in banter that nods to both the weirdness of their family and the Russian tendency toward amusing understatements ("You have killed so many people," says Alexei to Natasha. "I couldn't be more proud of you.")
But the family that slays together does not stay together. "Black Widow" — set after the Avenger-shattering events of "Captain America: Civil War" — is about Natasha making sense of her life while welcoming her family into the MCU. All four leads are given interesting, recognizably human characters to play, with Johansson doing more acting than in the nine previous Marvel movies put together.
The result is that "Widow" doesn't stint on fun (Ray Winstone is charismatic as a spittle-prone villain) but is guided by an awareness that movies are best when they focus on people.
At the end, things go awry. You'll want to stay through the credits for the introduction of a new and delightful Marvel movie actor but the cliffhanger appearance also messes with the idea that "Black Widow" stands on its own. I get it. There are three MCU movies coming out this year and they have to fit into one another's world.
But, the rest of the time, "Black Widow" is evidence that Marvel's Avengers are most interesting when they don't spend all their time avenging.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence.
Theater: Wide release and Disney Plus.