Scarlett Johansson explains how her 'Black Widow' character moved away from 'hyper-sexualisation' of early MCU films
It’s a sunny day in Pinewood in September 2019. We’re still months away from the global pandemic that would repeatedly delay Black Widow’s release, so Florence Pugh — dressed in her character Yelena's white jumpsuit — has absolutely no qualms about sharing her Reece’s Pieces with the gang of journalists — including Yahoo — crammed into a small press tent.
When Scarlett Johansson joins the group, she’s slightly more sombre, decked out in Black Widow’s iconic black costume, which seems to match her more serious vibe. She understands the significance of discussing the first standalone movie to focus on the MCU's first female superhero. She’s waited a long time for this moment, and so have the fans.
She’s done the MCU press circuit for a decade and — in that period — Yahoo has encountered her in the same lighthearted mood as Pugh many times. But she’s older now, more experienced. She has more to say about this one. And this film has a lot more to say about Natasha Romanoff too.
Read more: Marvel shares thrilling new Black Widow clip
After Jon Favreau (Iron Man 2), Joss Whedon (The Avengers/Avengers: Age of Ultron), The Russo Brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier/Captain America: Civil War/Avengers: Infinity War/Avengers: Endgame) indie filmmaker Cate Shortland will be the first female director Scarlett Johansson has worked with during her eight major Marvel movie appearances.
“It’s been interesting to discover it with each director that I’ve worked with, and what they see — what they’re interested in, and what side they wanna uncover,” Scarlett Johansson explains.
“With Cate it’s been so liberating, because she’s not afraid of any of the ugliness or what is perceived to be ugliness, the embarrassing, uncomfortable parts, like the soft underbelly, all that. That’s what she wants to make movies about. I hope you’ll see Natasha in her real true strength in this film more than ever before. And I think Cate will bring that out too."
“When you find her in the beginning of the film, she’s just broke," Johansson adds. "By the end of the film, the goal is to put her back together, but different than before. At the very, very beginning of this we all agreed it was clear that this was best place to start in the timeline, because it gave us a lot of grit and every possibility."
These are the major revelations about Black Widow that we learned from Johansson and Pugh back in 2019.
Why Black Widow takes place post-Civil War
Spoiler alert: Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow didn't make it to the end of 2019's Avengers: Endgame. Having heroically sacrificing herself on Vormir in order to secure the Soul Stone for the Avengers' final battle with Thanos, Marvel Studios had to do some creative time-hopping for Scarlett Johansson's long-awaited Black Widow solo film.
Rather than doing the obvious thing and taking us back to explore Natasha's story pre-Iron Man 2, the studio settled on focussing on her exploits in the wake of 2016's Captain America: Civil War.
Read more: Black Widow to stream on Disney+
“Post-Civil War felt like a good time to start," Johansson said. "I never wanted to do an origin story, because I wanted it to move forward, even though we are going back… It’ll all make sense when you see it”
One of the main reason, she explains, is because it gives fans the chance to finally see Natasha in her natural element: in the field, operating on her own terms.
“Natasha’s always been a part of some operation, she’s always had some safety net. She’s actually never really had to — for better or worse — make any decisions for herself. And whether it was the Red Room, or S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Avengers, she’s had this family, for better or worse.”
The events of Civil War saw Natasha initially on the side of Tony Stark, in favour of Sokovia Accords, until the climatic airport battle during which she switched sides, allowing Captain America (Chris Evans) and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) to escape. This decision forced her into exile, which is where Black Widow will pick up her story.
“After Civil War, it’s all gone, everything is gone, and she’s — for the first time ever, really — just on her own," Johansson adds.
“Obviously she’s very self-sufficient and she has connections everywhere or whatever, but she’s on the lam, and she’s feeling like a fugitive. It gave us a really interesting place to start. All the pieces are everywhere, how do we connect everything back together?”
“We always said that if the Avengers were like 'above' and then, let’s say all the villainous characters were 'below' - there was some dark underground thing, either it was the Leviathan, or the Red Room... All that stuff was below.
Read more: Kevin Feige promises more Avengers movies
"The most interesting thing about Natasha as a character is she can go between the two worlds, seamlessly, and her allegiance is not always so clear. She doesn’t operate with the same moral compass, that grey area was a cool place to live.”
Black Widow couldn't have been made 10 years ago
Scarlett Johansson made her Marvel debut in 2010's Iron Man 2. It was the third film in the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the franchise was still finding its feet, thematically and tonally, but its introduction of Johansson's Natasha Romanoff — working for S.H.I.E.L.D. undercover as Tony Stark's new PA — already feels incredibly dated.
“You look back at Iron Man 2 and, while it was really fun and had a lotta great moments in it, the character is so sexualised," Johansson says. "[She’s] talked about like she is like a piece of something, like a possession, or a piece of a**s really. And I think Tony even refers to her as something along those lines.”
“I’ll say ‘piece of meat’ so that’s more palatable," she laughs. "But maybe at that time, maybe that actually felt like a compliment. You know what I mean? Because my thinking was different. Maybe my own self-worth was probably measured against that type of comment more, like a lot of young women probably feel.”
“And then you come into your own and you understand your own self-worth. It’s changing now. I think a lot of young girls are getting a much more positive message. But it’s been incredible to be a part of that shift and be able to come out the other side and not just be a part of that old story but actually evolve. It’s pretty cool.”
Despite the questionable framing of Natasha in that film, her acrobatic debut made her an instant fan-favourite, with many calling her to get her own film in the MCU. However, Johansson is glad it took so long for Marvel Studios to get round to making it.
“This movie would've been so different if we made it ten years ago. It was another time. I think we can all agree on that,” Johansson says.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me why we didn't do it before now, but in some ways I’m actually very thankful that it’s happening now, because we can actually make a movie that’s about real stuff. Audiences want that. I think they always wanted that, but now the studio’s kinda caught up to that. It’s fine, it’s late in the game, but it’s all good. Better late than never.”
“Obviously ten years have passed and so much has happened. I’ll be 35 years old, I’m a mom, and my life is different. I have a more evolved understanding of myself as a woman. I’m in a different place in my life. And I feel more forgiving of myself as a woman. Sometimes probably not enough, but I’m more accepting of myself I think. And all of that is related to that move away from the kind of hyper-sexualisation of this character.”
The relationship between Natasha and Yelena will be layered and complex
Although primarily focussed on Natasha, Black Widow will also serve as a trojan horse, stealth-introducing a new incarnation of the character in the form of Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova.
“We knew that we wanted to include the Yelena character really early on, but that character really transformed like over the month of prep that we did in development,” Johansson says.
“The story of two women competing against each other and trying to take each other down and dethrone one another felt like not interesting. It just didn’t feel like what I wanted to explore and I think really what audiences want to see. And it just felt very old fashioned and not true.”
“Taking that feeling and kind of running with that instinct, the relationship developed into what it is, which is a relationship that is grounded in a shared experience and a knowingness. With that comes many complicated feelings, of course. You know, all not good fuzzy ones, but visceral, real, grounded ones.”
As in the comics, Natasha will pass the baton of being Black Widow to Yelena for future Marvel stories. Yelena and Natasha have a long history together, with both being trained in the Red Room to become deadly assassins.
They won't be rivals though. Their relationship is more like siblings, as Johansson explains.
“It’s a very special relationship. I think it will be very touching for a lot of people. I have a lot of empathy for that relationship and for those characters’ history and trauma and that shared history, as dark as it is, is what brings them together.”
“There’s a lot of blood between them. The relationship is also contentious and everything else that comes with that kind of sisterly relationship.”
As with all sibling relationships, there is as much rivalry as there is revelry, which will be a rich seam of comedy to mine for the film.
“[It’s a] confusing, bratty, emotional relationship, exactly what you’d expect a younger sister to be like," says Pugh.
"Yelena is deeply annoying and pretty much takes the mick out of everything that Natasha does, but fundamentally they have a very unique and strong relationship that drives them through the film."
Just like Johansson's MCU debut in Iron Man 2, Pugh's debut in Black Widow will showcase her action credentials.
“What I like about the Yelena that we’ve created — even in terms of the costumes — is that there is no messing," says Pugh.
Yelena has all the martial art skills of her older sibling, but where Natasha's brutal edges have been softened by years of fighting alongside the Avengers, Yelena is still very much Red Room-ready.
"There’s no bells and whistles with her. She gets the job done, and whether that’s fighting someone, or verbally abusing someone, it’s all pretty straightforward, and pretty bolshy. I’ve loved playing her. She’s ready to fight, whether it’s an argument or a physical fight, there’s no stopping her,” Pugh adds.
At 25, Florence Pugh's formative years and references skew a fair bit more recent than 38-year-old Scarlett Johansson. So where Johansson may have looked to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley or Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor for inspiration for Natasha, Pugh drew on an early 00s banger.
“I grew up on Charlie’s Angels, and I know that there is no similarity between this and that at all, but the very fact that, coming into this, I was like, ‘Yeah, I get to be a girl and do high kicks!’ And, actually, one of Yelena’s strengths is the fact that she does really good high kicks,” Pugh laughs.
The ‘Yelena green vest’ fan theory is correct
When the first Black Widow trailer dropped in December 2019, eagle-eyed fans were quick to point out that Yelena appeared to be wearing the same green combat vest that Johansson's character donned in Avengers: Infinity War. This, some fans speculated, suggested that Yelena might not make it to the end of Black Widow.
“It actually is an important thing [the green vest],” Johannson reveals. “It seems very superficial, but it’s actually a very meaningful thing. That’s totally a Kevin Feige [Marvel Studios' boss] thing. You know, he loves all of that backstory stuff and things that connect characters to one another. Something that seemed as kinda ‘whatever’ — when we designed it then, it was really just a different look for the character.
"But it’s fun how Kevin’s mind works. He’s like an imagineer in that way. He thinks of all the little hidden things, things that are seemingly innocuous, that people will give some heart. It’s an heirloom. It becomes an heirloom in this unexpected, funny way."
Black Widow isn’t about the Avengers
Black Widow is going to introduce of a new roster of super-powered heroes (including Yelena, Rachel Weisz's Melina Vostokoff and David Harbour's Red Guardian) and villains (the mysterious Taskmaster) who must have been lurking on the background while Thanos laid waste to Earth during the double-whammy of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.
And, as demonstrated by the recent launch of the trailer for Marvel's next film Eternals, fans will want to know how these characters fit into the wider world.
“I don’t know what Yelena thinks about [The Avengers],” Pugh says. “[Black Widow] hasn’t really been focused on that story. It’s more about our family, and where we came from, and how we are broken, and how we fix it.”
“We meet these characters as they develop as adults away from one another. Figuring out their relationships as grownups is obviously tricky, because they still have the same patterns from when they were kids, or when they were parents. Figuring all of that out was so much fun, especially with David [Harbour] and Rachel [Weisz]. And yeah, they’re like the big bonkers, mad, loud, Russian family, and they have a lot of love for each other.”
It’s also about abuse
As revealed in 2020, Black Widow will very much reckon with the #MeToo movement. “It would be such a miss if we didn’t address that stuff, if this film didn’t take that head-on," Johansson told Empire magazine.
Taking things further, Florence Pugh says the film will address systematic abuse too.
“One of the heartbreaks about this film is that it’s essentially about women that have been abused, whether it’s about a system, or whether it’s been about physical abuse, they’ve all been, in some way, trapped, and I think this film is the realisation of the life that was taken from them," Pugh says.
"And that’s how Natasha and Yelena start repairing. I don’t think she’s too happy about [the Black Widow training programme]. But then again, it’s the only thing she’s known.”
The film brings new meaning to Natasha's Endgame sacrifice
Director Cate Shortland, whose previous film Berlin Syndrome debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 2017, worked closely with Johansson to explore new depths of Natasha's character, which in turn adds greater significance to her Endgame sacrifice.
“I think Natasha uses her sexuality as a means to manipulate a situation and be coquettish and sly and then she’s gonna take your legs out, right? She’s seductive in Iron Man 2, in the beginning phase,” Johansson says.
“That’s her power. Her power’s in her sexuality. And then that changed over time. Her strength was actually her vulnerability. That is the place that we’re in now. In some weird, messed up, backwards way, her sacrifice was truly altruistic. I think she really sacrifices herself for love. She saves her friend. She saves everyone, but she saves her friend.
“I think being in that headspace and being able to make that decision, that selfless decision, that selfless act is so incredibly powerful. It’s amazing that she could be in that headspace to do that.”
From that revelation came further truths about Natasha for Johansson, which she hopes fans will be able to explore for themselves when the film finally arrives in July.
Black Widow will launch simultaneously in cinemas and IMAX, and on Disney+ with Premier Access on 9 July.