As a unit, they are an emotionally damaged bunch, making their task throb with not just vengeance but their own psychological healing. Pugh, the fast-rising star of “Lady Macbeth” and “Midsommar” and an actor of ferocious strength and poise, is especially good as Yelena, the younger of the two and the only one of the Ohio clan to not know it was all a ruse.

They all also owe their powers to the crippling, cruel system that made them. For Natasha, this is a discomforting truth always just below the surface. As played by Johansson, excellent here, every action for Natasha is tinged with acceptance and revulsion for her own nature. “Black Widow” becomes, kind of stirringly, a movie not about franchise extension but sisterhood, improvised families and traumatic pasts.

Marvel movies, like the moon, are categorized in phases. “Black Widow” is meant to kick off “phase four,” but it’s not clear if the empire is waxing or waning. Unlike any previous Marvel movie, this one will be streaming at home, on Disney+ for $30 at the same time it lands in theaters — fallout from the pandemic, to be sure, but also a once unthinkable retreat for an unstoppable box-office force. But if “Black Widow” is a sign of things to come — new directorial voices, grittier tones, feet (at least sometimes) on the ground — it’s a promising new direction.

“Black Widow,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. Running time: 134 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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