It’s been two years since a Marvel movie graced the big screen, with Avengers: Endgame wrapping up the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now the wait is finally over, as Black Widow kicks off Phase 4 with a spectacular albeit atypical entry steeped in spycraft and girl power.

Since her introduction in Iron Man 2 in 2010, fans have been clamouring for a stand-alone adventure for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff – aka Black Widow – and her first solo outing is a propulsive spy thriller that’s analogous to a prior showcase for the character, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And considering her fate in Avengers: Endgame, it’s often a poignant and bittersweet experience.

Thanks to the flexibility of the MCU, this beloved character returns at an earlier point in the franchise’s timeline, in what is essentially a stand-alone film that operates outside of the long-running Thanos arc – a side mission, if you like.

Set sometime between the events of Captain America Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Natasha is on the run after violating the Sokovia Accords, with Secretary Ross (William Hurt) in hot pursuit. Separated from her Avenger pals, she hooks up with her adoptive kid sister, Yelena (Midsommar’s Florence Pugh), and the pair set out to bring down the elusive Red Room – the nefarious Russian academy that stole their childhood and transformed them into the ruthless assassins known as ‘widows’ – and its mastermind, Dreykov (Ray Winstone).

But first they must break out their adoptive father, Alexei (David Harbour) – who fancies himself as the Russian answer to Captain America – from a gulag and stay one step ahead of  a mysterious figure in a skull-faced helmet that is relentlessly tracking them…

Australian director Cate Shortland, who helmed the award-winning 2004 drama Somersault, digs into dysfunctional family dynamics to map out Natasha’s past, as well as themes of guilt and redemption. It’s a largely character-driven Marvel movie, but Shortland still delivers the huge explosive action set pieces when required, including the kind of dizzying stunts that are de rigueur for Tom Cruise.

Black Widow does venture to some dark places in revealing Natasha’s family history, but it’s also enormous fun, with Harbour’s oafish and hilarious Red Guardian threatening to steal the movie, and a running gag about Natasha’s trademark crouch and hair-flip. Moreover, the espionage element is further cranked up with some cheeky Bond references – a clip from Moonraker, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) in a supporting role.

Another fine example of Marvel’s chameleonic ability to successfully fold its superhero universe into an established genre, Black Widow is a thrilling and self-contained addition to the MCU that gives its title character a satisfying backstory while introducing some wonderful new players that deserve their own spin-offs.

In cinemas: July 8
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour
Directed by: Cate Shortland

Black Widow at JB Hi-Fi