We’re getting a good picture of the next-gen Avengers, thanks to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and, earlier this year, “Black Widow.”
Inspired by their families, Shang-Chi and Black Widow have reason to rid bad guys from the world.
Like “The Americans,” “Black Widow” begins with one of those sketchy pasts. Natasha Romanoff’s family is caught up in the KGB and has to flee a small town in Ohio. The parents scatter; the sisters are separated. Flash forward 21 years and we see Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) trying to figure out where that “big adventure” took her family. Are they dead? Imprisoned? Enemies?
Gradually, director Cate Shortland fills in the blanks. Romanoff is being pursued by an evil force that wants her dead. She’d know this, of course, if she opened her mail. But that wouldn’t lead to an explosion and an encounter with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a highly trained spy who isn’t afraid to dis Romanoff’s friends. In a standoff, Belova says, “Where’s an Avenger when you need one?”
Eventually, the two women realize they have shared objectives and begin working together.
Pugh deadpans much of this, nailing the Russian accent and embracing the humor. She’s good at fighting, too, and has several “mirror” sequences that seem more spectacular than ones done with CGI.
Through the course of this relationship, we learn about the Red Room, which trained women to become elite assassins called Black Widows. The two share the background and wonder about a third.
“Black Widow” has a fairly lengthy middle section that involves talking and taunting. There’s the threat of brain surgery (how long has it been since we’ve seen that?) and the return of a man who could be a friend or a master foe.
While the action sequences are typical for Avengers films, this one could have tossed a few and still retained its cred. Because characters wear plenty of Iron Man-like masks, it’s very clear this is a stunt man competition, not an acting exercise.
What helps is the music by Lorne Balfe, which suggests what moods you should be in at any given time. It enforces what Shortland is doing with her spy thriller.
“Stranger Things'” David Harbour is here, too, trying for a different vibe than the one he exhibits on the TV show. He doesn’t quite have the accent down the way Pugh does, but his subplot gives her and Johansson time to breathe.
They need it -- they're that busy and that good.