Eleven years after here femme fatale-ish introduction in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is finally at the center of her own Marvel movie. Carved out from the events of Captain America: Civil War and deepening the backstory teased in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow finds an on-the-run Natasha stumbling into an old life. In Russia, she reconnects with her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh) and their state-sponsored parents, Alexei aka Red Guardian (David Harbour) and the elder spy, Melina (Rachel Weisz). She also uncovers a plot to keep mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins, trained in the same Red Room that turned her into an Avengers-level fighter, in circulation around the world. No stranger to vigilante justice, Natasha and her found family bounce back into action for the first time in years.
For director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), building a movie around Natasha meant dealing with the past, present, and future — please recall that our hero sacrificed herself on an alien planet to recover the cosmic jewel known as the Soul Stone in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame — in one contained-but-spectacular spy story. How do you approach a movie that has to do it all? Based on a conversation with Shortland years after wrapping production (the film was originally slated for May 2020), it’s pulled off with a zeal for challenging and entertaining fan expectations. Here’s what she had to say about cracking the Black Widow movie for Marvel, finally.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Minor spoilers for Black Widow follow.]
Many people work on various stages of a movie of this scale. But when you came in as director, what was your big choice? What decision rippled through the rest of the movie and defined it for you?
Exploring stuff like empathy and kindness, and the idea that she finds it really hard to trust. And that by joining up with these other characters, she learns a lot about herself. That was important to me. And then I think just beauty and spectacle. I wanted the fight sequences to be really gorgeous. I wanted it to be visceral and raw, but for the cinematography and design to be really, really beautiful.
Is there a scene you see as your biggest success in that regard?
It’s such a massive team. And I really think of the visual effects artists in India and New Zealand and all over Australia that made this happen, 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 bridge fight with Taskmaster where we use fire, and the whole bridge is wet and reflective. It’s such a great sort of amphitheater to stage a fight.
Did you find a way to emphasize the female perspective of the movie in the action? Or is an action scene just an action scene with its own set of goals, no matter the character at the heart of it?
Probably what’s exciting is that most women are not as strong, not as physically strong — that’s just part of our makeup. So what happens in these fights is we see Natasha using her ingenuity. And I think what I wanted to bring into that was her humanity. So she’s fighting Taskmaster, and she starts floundering, she starts losing. And I loved the idea that she was every woman, she was a woman walking to the train station, she was a woman who was hitchhiking or pulled over in a car, she was a woman or an apartment, and she was being attacked. And that’s why we’ve got stuff where we’re on the ground with her. I really wanted to feel the violence, and not just be observing it. And I think that’s what, to me, is sort of female [about the action]. We’re often the victims of violence, so I wanted to at least feel it in this film.
Did contemporary conversation about gender dynamics inform the way you illustrated the villain, Dreykov, and the whole concept of the Red Room? Does it feel like a timeless theme or more specific because of how we’re grappling with it today?
Probably within the political environment that we’ve sort of been part of in the last decade, I think a lot of people have opened up and they’re talking more about different topics. But I also think the film is made by women, made by men, and it’s really about talking to the bully. It’s asking people to raise their voices when they see injustice. And I think that’s a big thing within the Marvel Universe, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a female or male thing. I think that’s why people watch the movies — there’s something authentic about that.
And in this film, what we tried to do was use humor to talk to the trauma. Most people in this film who’ve been victimized are actually making jokes about that, because they’re trying to overcome it.
The movie is very funny!
I didn’t want to make something dark. The expectation was, “Oh, it’s gonna be dark, because it’s about Black Widow.” And that didn’t interest me at all. Not for a minute.
Was the movie always taking place in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame? Was Natasha’s death always informing how you thought it would play?
What we wanted it to feel like was that we were answering Endgame, in a way. This film is her actually coming to terms with who she is. And so when she actually sacrifices herself in Endgame, a lot of the stuff that she’s been through is resolved. And it’s resolved in this film. It doesn’t mean that she’s workshopped it or whatever, it just means that she’s forgiven herself. And I think that is also a beautiful thing for people that have suffered trauma.
Black Widow hits theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access on July 9.