Black Widow has an oppressively grim tone for a studio that has specialized in uplifting, character-based action epics that largely stick to tried-and-true blockbuster formulas. Not every Marvel film is the same, per se, but the brand promises something to audiences — the relief of returning to an established fictional world filled with colorful characters who save the day in solid, entertaining fashion. Marvel Studios has the best casting departments in the business on both sides of the camera. It generally turns out reliable products. Sometimes even culturally definitive ones. Black Widow won’t be that. It feels destined to be one of the studio’s most controversial entries. That’s fine.

Between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, ex-Avenger Natasha Romanov / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sets out on a journey that sees her come face to face with the past in a way that will change her future and set the stage for her eventual redemption and death during Avengers: Endgame.

What sets Black Widow apart from the other MCU movies is that it embraces the darkness inherent in the premise of the character. Being kidnapped, sterilized and turned into a killing machine isn’t exactly the level of fun as, say, building a reactor in a cave from a box of scraps. Natasha and her sister Widows have experienced horror. There are plenty of femme-fatale spy movies that simply wash over the implications of that type of upbringing. If Black Widow had been made in 2010 — hell, even 2017 — it’s easy to see that being the case here.

Instead, director Cate Shortland and star / producer Johansson understand that the very reason to make a Black Widow solo film is to explore what that type of origin would do to a person (or group of people) and how they might overcome it. At its best, Widow is a really solid character drama. There will be complaints that the film’s villain lacks color and presence, but consider their crimes: Natasha is combating a cartel of men who engage in human trafficking to steal women and turn them into mindless murder-drones. They’re not that far-fetched. I don’t think we should want to enjoy them.

In looking at the overall Marvel catalog, Black Widow reminds me the most of Doctor Strange — a movie about a complicated adult character facing up to their own actions and redefining their place in the world without blaming it all on bad daddies. Christ, there are a lot of bad daddies in the MCU, aren’t there? That said, Black Widow actually does have a lot to say about family; unlike most of the other Marvel movies, the parents are complicated characters here and not just roadblocks for the heroes to overcome.

The film introduces a fellow Widow named Yelena, who was close to Natasha in their youth. She’s played by Florence Pugh, a casting coup for Marvel given the actress’s rising career and undeniable talent. Pugh is practically the co-lead of the film and, frankly, has the best lines and bits. Marvel has done the “found family” stuff before, but the setup differs here and the fallout is far more fraught. Natasha and Yelena’s chemistry and story arc are touching and have shades of what James Gunn tried to do with Gamora and Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 but largely failed to do well. Here, it is actually substantial. Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) round out their little family of spies as the parental figures. Black Widow is a story about four broken people whose lives were stolen from them trying to cling to the idea of what life might be like in an environment where someone will unconditionally love them. They aren’t particularly great at expressing, or even understanding, their own desires.

Thankfully Black Widow has the patience to slow down and let the characters interact between big action set-pieces, of which there are many, including the requisite “gigantic crashing thing” third act that feels too big for this story. Marvel has broken its own third-act mold before, and I wish they’d done so here. In terms of the other set-pieces, I think at this point it’s foolish to pretend Marvel Studios is going to whip out some mind-blowing, breath-taking action choreography. It’s hard to knock this one specifically, although its desire for comparisons to the better Bourne movies or Mission: Impossible are apparent and unfortunately unsuccessful.

In the latter case, Black Widow actually borrows composer Lorne Balfe, who does an admirable job but kept making me think about how much better Mission: Impossible – Fallout is than Black Widow, even though the former movie’s plot is basically incomprehensible. Cinematic action is a language unto itself, and Marvel has steadfastly refused to really learn it even as it perfects its ability to introduce and grow interesting new characters better than any other franchise. I truly hope September’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a martial arts film, fares better in this department.

Some will dig the big swing taken by Marvel here and connect with the themes and character work even though the result is a little messy. Others will balk at what feels like excess in a franchise that has made itself the most venerable in the world by giving audiences exactly what they need and not much more. There is a lot of talking here, and if you aren’t willing, interested or inclined to invest yourself in the characters, it will likely be at the bottom of your re-watch pile.

Black Widow was originally supposed to be the opening film in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their “change or die” moment after redefining cinematic financial success back in 2019 with Avengers: Endgame. Like so many aspects of 2021, it’s interesting to wonder what would’ve happened had it seen release in May 2020, a year after Endgame and only the curiosity of a habituated audience, rather than the fertile ground it now faces as one of the first post-pandemic blockbusters with a hybrid release. (The film debuts in theaters on July 9, as well as on Disney+ for a Premier Access fee of $29.99.) Even within the context of the MCU, the delay may have been fortunate for Black Widow. Disney+ shows like WandaVision and Loki have introduced audiences to a much more nimble and strange MCU while the well-meaning but lousy The Falcon & the Winter Soldier did its best to inject political consciousness into the franchise. Widow brings even more of that gritty reality.

Rather than feel like a follow-up to Endgame, Black Widow now feels like one more experiment by Marvel in its grand journey to further define itself in the wake of hitting the possible zenith of cultural influence. The swings that the film takes make it an interesting entry by the studio, even if its mold-breaking tone and character work aren’t quite enough for it to reach escape velocity from the general weaknesses of the studio’s output. I’m glad the studio was willing to go all the way with it. Here’s to Marvel taking more risks in the future.