Russians! Where would contemporary Hollywood be without them? Black Widow has several of them working overtime to ruin the American dream. Fortunately, Cate Shortland’s contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe also has enough heart to even out the stereotyping.

Malia J’s haunting cover of Nirvana’s outlier anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit in the opening credits sets the mood for the dark and cruel origin story of Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow. Before she became an Avenger, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) was stolen from her family and forcibly recruited as a member of a Russian sleeper cell in America.

There’s no respite for Natasha, who, after being separated from her make-believe family – mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), father Alexei (David Harbour) and sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) – forges a lonely path as an Avenger. Natasha reunites with her fake kin to take on Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the head of the sinister Red Room programme through which he controls the minds of countless trafficked women and turns them into assassins.

The Russia baiting is sought to be evened out by the depiction of the Red Room as a centre of patriarchy. The conceit hardly flies, but allows the movie’s key female characters to dominate the narrative.

Black Widow is powered by a likable lead cast and steered by Cate Shortland with vim and a fair amount of wit. The dysfunctional family dynamics and bravura Mission: Impossible-style sequences compete for attention. Natasha and Yelena have a good love-hate thing going, while the Captain America-obsessed Alexei and the mysterious Melina are equally entertaining as a couple that isn’t actually one.

The 134-minute movie is meant to be consumed on a big screen, but has instead been released in India on the Disney+ Hotstar platform. A large television screen is needed to enjoy the action set-pieces, which include a daring prison break (bonus attraction: an avalanche) and a jaw-dropping chase sequence that is set entirely during free fall.

Black Widow (2021).