‘Black Widow’

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. Opens in theaters July 9 and on Disney+ with Premier Access for a onetime additional fee.

It happened several years too late, but Marvel superhero Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finally gets her own solo movie. The result is underwhelming since it comes after — spoiler — the character died in “Avengers: Endgame,” but she gets a mostly decent sendoff. I just wish it hadn’t come in the form of a prequel with almost no stakes.

Taking place between the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” Natasha Romanoff is on the run and ends up entangled in a conflict from her pre-Avenger days, when she was far less heroic. To defeat a villain (Ray Winstone) from her past, she’ll need help from fellow spies (Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) who once posed as her family.

Through no fault of its own, “Black Widow” is hitting theaters under the crushing weight of expectations. The flick is fine — a standard spy thriller similar in tone to “Captain America: Winter Solider” — and if it had opened a year after “Endgame,” as planned, it would’ve served as a nice coda to Romanoff’s story. But, due to a global pandemic nobody could’ve anticipated, the movie has been overhyped as “Marvel’s triumphant return to theaters!”

The opening sequence is fantastic, mostly because it plays like a really expensive episode of FX’s series “The Americans,” and the cast is strong — particularly Pugh and Harbour. But, overall, Johansson feels sidelined in her own movie to make room for her (admittedly excellent) replacement. It’s a bummer since the flick would’ve been mind-blowing in the early Marvel days, before “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” beat Black Widow to the cinematic punch.

Grade: B-

‘Fear Street Part 2: 1978’

Rated R for bloody horror violence, sexual content, nudity, drug use and language throughout. Available on Netflix July 2.

In the second installment of Netflix’s surprisingly fun “Fear Street” trilogy (loosely based on R.L. Stine’s ’90-era YA horror novel series), viewers learn more about the bleak mythology of Shadyside, a town haunted by a witch’s curse. In 1994, a group of teens are being picked off by supernatural killers when they learn about a unique survivor of a similar massacre at a summer camp in the 1970s.

In the opening moments of “1978,” sibling protagonists Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) visit the traumatized woman (Gillian Jacobs), who tells them about her terrifying week at Camp Nightwing. Through flashbacks, she recounts how an ax-wielding psycho (McCabe Slye) attacked several unsuspecting teens (including Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins and Sam Brooks) and murdered her sister. However, the tragic event might help them discover how to break the centuries-old curse once and for all.

Leigh Janiak (who directed all three films) breathes new life into tired tropes, throwing in everything viewers expect from slasher films but putting a modern spin on them. They’re similar in tone to genre classic “Scream,” but they have their own distinct personalities. Just as “1994” actually seemed like it was made in the ’90s, “1978” feels like it came out the same year as the original “Halloween” — aside from the genuinely shocking gore.

That’s partly because it’s funny and scary in equal measure, but also because the actors — especially Sink and Rudd — make their characters realistic and likeable so viewers care what happens to them. The blood doesn’t start flowing until 30 minutes or so into the flick, but once it does, Janiak makes it hurt. I can’t wait for next week’s finale, “1666.”

Grade: B+

Book Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel’

Now available in paperback.

Quentin Tarantino’s first novel isn’t a new story. Instead, he fleshed out the screenplay of his recent movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” giving it more room to breathe and allowing himself to take plenty of detours into 1969 Hollywood — an era he’s nostalgic for.

Those who’ve seen the film know it revolves around fictional washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who spends his days drinking and being chauffeured by his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). But it also includes subplots with the very real Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), who seemingly share a horrific connection.

Tarantino fans who wish his nearly three-hour epic was even longer are going to find plenty to love about the auteur’s debut novel. There’s much more insight into Cliff’s backstory, including a definitive answer to the question of whether or not he killed his wife, but Rick pretty much remains a big question mark (aside from the revelation that he has an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder.)

On the other hand, detractors aren’t going to find anything that suddenly makes them see Tarantino in a new light. If you thought his movie was slow or can’t stand the filmmaker’s stylistic dialogue and fetishes (guess how often he mentions his female characters’ bare feet?), you’ll probably bail after a few chapters. It’s the movie, but more so.

Still, most of the movie’s big moments — including that shocking, history-altering finale — happen in the first half of the book, meaning I was genuinely in the dark for the last 200 pages. I had no idea what was going to happen next. The answer is not much, but in Tarantino’s trademark, tangentially entertaining fashion.

Grade: B

Home Video Spotlight ‘48 Hrs.’ and ‘Another 48 Hrs.’

Rated R. Now available on Blu-ray.

“48 Hrs.,” the 1982 action classic that helped turn Eddie Murphy into a superstar, along with its 1990 sequel “Another 48 Hrs.,” hit Blu-ray this week as part of the Paramount Presents series. Both films have been newly remastered from 4K film transfers and are presented with new bonus content, including thoughts from director Walter Hill and vintage behind-the-scenes footage, as well as digital copies.

In the first film, Nick Nolte plays hardnosed police inspector Jack Cates, on the hunt for two vicious cop-killers. He needs help from convict Reggie Hammond (Murphy) to track them down, so he’s given 48-hour leave from prison to tag along. In the sequel, Hammond is about to be released from jail when Cates once again enlists him in a mission to nail a ruthless drug lord.

“Defending Jacob”

Rated TV-MA. Now available on Apple TV+, DVD and Blu-ray through manufacturing-on-demand.

This critically acclaimed Apple TV+ series recently made its DVD debut, boasting an outstanding cast including Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, J.K. Simmons and Cherry Jones. The thriller revolves around a shocking crime that stuns a small Massachusetts town and forces an assistant district attorney (Evans) to choose between his job and his son. The three-disc set includes all eight episodes, along with deleted scenes and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

“Percy vs Goliath”

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements. Now available on DVD.

Based on a true story, Christopher Walken plays a small-town farmer who takes on one of the largest agricultural and food manufacturing corporations in an epic legal battle. Zach Braff and Christina Ricci co-star as an attorney and environmental activist who join him in the fight. The DVD comes with a digital copy of the film.

Twitter: @IAmJoshSewell