Review: Dynamic action in ‘Black Widow’ welcomes us back to movie theaters

Fifteen months after the world changed, movie studies still find that it's challenging to lure audiences back to theaters. After all, if we can see just about anything in the comfort of home, why would we sit in crowded auditoriums filled with seats where others recently sat?

But some movies need the mega screen to justify their extravagance.

“Black Widow” – Disney’s latest effort to fill movie houses – tries to bring a sense of conscience to its comic book adventures. And, for most of the film, it succeeds. While this comic book tale is filled with tender exchanges intended to deepen the characters, what sells the movie are the visually thrilling action sequences designed for the big screen. And, though “Black Widow” can be seen at home on Disney+, this one is made to see in a theater. Because that’s where it looks best.

This is a real show. Scarlett Johansson, proving her worth as an action hero, defies gravity in a series of stunning stunt sequences that define her character’s aggressive ambition to save herself from a doomed existence as a trained assassin. As the extended prologue shares its backstory, this woman once spent an idyllic childhood playing with her sister in the American Midwest. Suddenly her parents “get the word” to immediately vacate their suburban home to fulfill assignments as puppets in the devious scheme of an unseen leader. Landing in Cuba, as we soon see, the girls are separated from each other and their parents, beginning journeys with lots of visual possibilities.

I have to admit I have not read the Marvel comics on which this film is based, nor do I well remember the other movie adaptations that created their own narratives. As a result, for the first 45 minutes, I had little idea about what was happening, who these sisters were, why they would constantly run or fight or hide, and how they happened to coincidentally end up in the same places. Not until they reunited with their “parents” from their Midwest assignment did the story begin to make narrative sense. But I still enjoyed the show.

And, regardless of my movie memory, the second half of this film clips along at a dizzy space as Johansson and the magnetic Florence Pugh (as her sister) continue trying to free themselves from destiny. Adding depth to their journey are the maternal observations by a touching Rachel Weisz, making the sisters’ quest more personal than we might expect in a comic book film. She balances the exaggerated performance from David Harbour, as the father figure, who resorts to a cartoon interpretation as he tries to give the bumbling patriarch a sense of humanity and humor.

Ultimately – thanks to the authenticity of Johansson and Pugh – the film offers a sense of conscience that constantly surprises. The visuals are just right for the big screen, as well as the meaningful thoughts these characters express. “Black Widow” proves that it’s not just action sequences that will bring people back to theaters. Sometimes we actually go to the movies for the characters and the stories they share.

More Information

Film Summary: Black Widow

Content: High. This tribute big-screen extravagance - with the best action sequences computers can generate - is ideally suited for showing on a movie theater screen.
Entertainment: High. Thanks to the performance from Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, the movie reveals more than its comic book origins might suggest.
Message: Medium. Even though we don't watch movies like this for a message, this one does have a few things to say about family commitment.
Relevance: High. After all these months away from movie theaters, this one deserves to be seen on a big screen.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie may prompt as much conversation about the size of the screen as the fun of the film.

“Black Widow” is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material.” The film runs 2 hours, 14 minutes, and is showing in theaters and on Disney+.