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With Summer Underway, Marvel Returns To Focus On The Origins Of Black Widow

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hollywood's had fingers crossed for months about what might finally happen this weekend. It was Vin Diesel's job in June to jumpstart the summer movie season with "F9." Now, it's up to Marvel to prove that jumpstart was not a fluke. Critic Bob Mondello says Scarlett Johansson's "Black Widow" is giving it her best shot.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin in 1995, with 12-year-old Natasha Romanoff, hair dyed blue, playing with her little sister Yelena in sun-dappled Ohio. From all appearances, they could be in a Terrence Malick movie until Dad says it's time for that adventure we talked about, and they're on the run.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING, TIRES SQUEALING)

MONDELLO: Twenty-one years later, after a credit sequence's worth of assassin training and a lot of blood under the bridge, they are still on the run, now from two separate post-Cold War super soldier programs - Avengers on one side, Widows on the other. Understandably wary, they reconnect in a safe house in Budapest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK WIDOW")

FLORENCE PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) I know you're out there.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) I know you know I'm out here. So we going to talk like grownups?

PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) Is that what we are?

MONDELLO: The safe house turns out not to be safe. And the sisters, played by Scarlett Johansson and a heavily accented Florence Pugh, must escape to spar another day...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK WIDOW")

PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) OK, any time now, please.

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) Shut up.

MONDELLO: ...Also to track down the folks who weren't really their folks back in Ohio - Alexei, a robustly full-of-himself Russian spy-version of Captain America, and Melina, a scientist who may know a little something about how an army of young girls could be coerced into becoming assassins. Put these folks around the dinner table and you get a portrait of family, Marvel style.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK WIDOW")

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) Here's what's going to happen.

RACHEL WEISZ: (As Melina Vostokoff) Natasha, don't slouch.

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) I'm not slouching.

WEISZ: (As Melina Vostokoff) You're going to get a back hunch.

DAVID HARBOUR: (As Alexei Shostakov) Listen to your mother.

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) Oh, my God. This...

HARBOUR: (As Alexei Shostakov) Up, up. Listen...

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) All right, enough, all of you.

PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) I didn't say anything. That's not fair.

MONDELLO: Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, who's made a career of shepherding young women through stressful situations in indie films, makes "Black Widow's" sisterly squabbles at once more amusing and more affecting than you might anticipate. It doesn't hurt that the film pairs top-billed Johansson with the sarcastically assertive Pugh, whose sisterly squabbling in "Little Women" recently got her an Oscar nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK WIDOW")

PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) OK. You got a plan or shall I just stay duck and cover?

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) My plan was to drive us away.

PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) Well, your plan sucks.

MONDELLO: I mean no disrespect to the Marvel formula when I say this 24th-quel (ph) benefits at least as much from the chemistry the director elicits from her stars as it does from the presence of a whole murderous - what is a collective noun for widows? A bereavement of widows? A clutch? Oh, right - an ambush of widows.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK WIDOW")

JOHANSSON: (As Natasha Romanoff) How many others are there?

PUGH: (As Yelena Belova) Enough.

MONDELLO: There's also a Bond-worthy villain, some Bourne-worthy chases and quite a bit of "Thelma & Louise"-worthy subtext to keep everyone occupied before "Black Widow" succumbs to superhero bloat, the apparently non-negotiable requirement that something enormous must splinter into shards as noisily as possible for at least 20 minutes in the final reel, preferably with our heroines riding every explosion to all but certain death - wouldn't be a Marvel movie without it. Though in this case, the cataclysm, which has been telegraphed in every ad, is followed by a gentle evocative coda that gives a story that had seemed boxed in by the Marvel timeline a path to future installments, of which there will doubtless be many. What would be the collective noun for them, I wonder. An inevitability of Marvel sequels?

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOMACHINE'S "WE ARE GODS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.