The Marvel train kept a-rolling during the pandemic with home offerings like Wandavision and Loki. (A thousand thank yous, Disney+!) However, the blockbuster movies have been on ice for a couple of years. (Screw you, pandemic!)

Well, that blockbuster drought has ended with the long-delayed Black Widow. It’s a fine sendoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, and an even finer intro for Florence Pugh’s new Marvel entry, Yelena Belova, Natasha’s little sister. It’s the film Natasha deserves—meaning the Marvel movie universe is back on the big screen in typically solid fashion.

Say this for Marvel: They do a nice job of telling origin stories and always make the formula feel new. This time, they go with director Cate Shortland, who delivers a heartfelt, gritty ode to the beloved Natasha while not skimping on the action. There are sequences—including an air battle late in the film—that are some of Marvel’s best to date. You won’t be disappointed if you choose to view this on a big screen rather than at home: Black Widow delivers the cinematic adrenaline.

The story goes back to Natasha’s early years—and, no surprise, her childhood truly sucked. Her dad is Alexei, played by the always-fun David Harbour. Harbour’s Alexei is an exiled former Russian superhero dying to put his suit back on, and when he does, there are some extra pounds around the waste … and on the butt, in the upper thighs, etc. Harbour’s character is a flawed man with a terrible dark side, but the actor also shows his humor and humanity.

Rachel Weisz is Melina, Natasha’s mother, a renowned Russian scientist who teaches pigs to do human things. Natasha and Yelena are given a strange upbringing by Alexei and Melina before we meet the film’s main villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Dreykov raises the girls in his Red Room (no relation to Twin Peaks), where they learn the ways of the assassin—via abuse and mind control.

Natasha has always been the most “human” of the Avengers, so it makes sense that the bad guys and the action in Black Widow are a little more down to earth. There’s no time travel, no exaggerated superpowers, and no Multiverse; this chapter’s battles are more realistic. Well, realistic is an exaggeration, but Doctor Strange doesn’t show up with the infinity stones, and Thor isn’t throwing hammers. This one has car chases and fist fights!

Black Widow is, of course, a prequel, primarily taking place in the time before Natasha dyed her hair blonde and headed into the events of Infinity War and Endgame. Credit the writers, and Johansson, for making Natasha’s time onscreen enjoyable and exciting, even though we know her eventual fate.

Oh, and as always … STAY FOR THE END CREDITS. It always amazes me when everybody gets up and leaves during Marvel credits. Will they ever learn?

Johansson and Pugh are an atomic duo—convincing ass kickers with good senses of humor. Their initial meeting is one for the ages, featuring guns and knives. The transfer from actresses to stunt people during the sequence is seamless; again, Marvel has its shit together.

This is Shortland’s first foray into blockbusters, and she aces it. Many things in this movie whirl around and explode, and Shortland keeps the visuals realistic. The film is high and tight on all tech counts.

Johansson, more than likely, is off to roles outside of Marvel; Pugh, on the other hand, has just begun in the universe, with her Yelena playing a prominent part in the upcoming Disney+ series Hawkeye. (Yes, Jeremy Renner will soon be shooting those arrows again.) It’s a fitting, exciting and heartwarming pass of the baton—and a reminder that even though a lot of chapters have closed, the Marvel universe’s future remains very bright.

Black Widow is playing at theaters across the valley. It is also available on Disney+ as a premium rental during its theatrical run.