Eleven years after this femme fatale’s introduction into Iron man 2, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is finally at the center of her own Marvel movie. Cut out from the events of Captain America: Civil War and deepen the teased backstory in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow finds a fleeing Natasha who stumbles into an old life. In Russia, she reconnects with her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh) and their state-sponsored parents, Alexei aka Red Guardian (David Harbor) and the eldest spy, Melina (Rachel Weisz). She also discovers a plot to keep mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins trained in the same red room that turned her into an Avengers-level fighter, circulating around the world. Accustomed to self-defense justice, Natasha and her found family are back in action for the first time in years.
For director Cate Shortland (Perilous leap, Traditions), building a movie around Natasha meant dealing with the past, present and future – remember our hero sacrificed himself on an alien planet to retrieve the cosmic gem known as the Soul Stone in 2019 Avengers: Endgame – in a contained but spectacular spy story. How do you approach a film that has to do it all? Based on a conversation with Shortland years after production ended (the film was originally slated for May 2020), it unfolded with a zeal for stimulating and entertaining fan expectations. Here’s what she had to say about the Black Widow movie crack for Marvel, finally.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Minor spoilers for Black Widow follow.]
There are a lot of people working on different stages of a film of this magnitude. But when you first came in as a director, what was your big choice? What decision rippled through the rest of the movie and defined it for you?
Explore things like empathy and kindness, and the idea that she really has a hard time trusting. And by joining these other characters, she learns a lot about herself. It was important to me. And then I just think of the beauty and the spectacle. I wanted the fight sequences to be really beautiful. I wanted it to be visceral and raw, but the cinematography and the design to be really, really beautiful.
Is there a scene that you consider your greatest success in this regard?
It’s such a massive team. And I really think of the visual effects artists in India, New Zealand, and all over Australia who made this possible, and [visual effects supervisor] Geoff Baumann who worked with me. I think the fight in the apartment is really fantastic. Charlie [Wood], the production designer just designed this amazing set. I also think our deck fight with Taskmaster where we use fire, and the whole deck is wet and reflective. It’s such a beautiful kind of amphitheater to organize a fight.
Did you find a way to emphasize the film’s female perspective in action? Or is an action scene just an action scene with its own set of goals, regardless of the character at the heart of it?
What’s probably exciting is that most women aren’t that strong, not that strong physically – it’s just part of our makeup. So what’s going on in these fights is we see Natasha using her ingenuity. And I think what I wanted to bring in there was his humanity. So she fights against Taskmaster, and she starts to flounder, she starts to lose. And I liked the idea that she was all women, it was a woman walking to the station, it was a woman hitchhiking or stopping in a car, it was a woman or an apartment, and she was under attack. And that’s why we have stuff where we’re on the ground with it. I really wanted to feel the violence, not just watch it. And I think that’s what, to me, is kind of a woman [about the action]. We are often victims of violence, so I wanted to at least feel it in this movie.
Did the contemporary conversation about gender dynamics influence the way you portrayed the villain, Dreykov, and the whole Red Room concept? Does it sound like a timeless theme or more specific because of the way we handle it today?
Probably in the political environment that we’ve kind of been a part of over the last decade, I think a lot of people have opened up and are talking more about different topics. But I also think the movie is made by women, made by men, and it’s really about talking to the bully. It is asking people to raise their voices when they see injustice. And I think that’s an important thing in the Marvel Universe, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a female or male thing. I think that’s the reason people watch the movies – there’s something genuine about it.
And in this movie, what we tried to do was use humor to talk about the trauma. Most of the people in this movie who’ve been victimized are actually joking about it, because they’re trying to get over it.
The film is very funny!
I didn’t want to do anything dark. The expectation was, “Oh, it’s gonna be dark, because this is Black Widow.” And that didn’t interest me at all. Not a minute.
Was the film still set in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame? Did Natasha’s death always indicate how you thought it was going to play out?
What we wanted this to look like was for us to respond to Endgame, in a way. This movie is coming to terms with who she is. And so when she actually sacrifices herself in Endgame, a lot of things she’s been through are resolved. And that’s resolved in this movie. It doesn’t mean that she prepared it or anything, it just means that she forgave herself. And I think it’s also a beautiful thing for people who have been through trauma.
Black Widow released in theaters and Premier Disney Plus Access July 9.