“We wanted to make something really epic,” director Cate Shortland (pictured above, centre) tells us when we speak about her and Natasha Romanoff’s latest movie, Black Widow.
As an intricate member of The Avengers, it’s been widely speculated for years why she’s the only member of the super gang not to have her own solo movie. However, that’s all changed with the release of Black Widow, which sees our favourite Russian spy have to confront some secrets from her past when a makeshift family from one of her early missions turns up again in her life.
For Shortland, this was the perfect opportunity to explore Natasha’s character in a way that has never been done before: “We wanted audiences to go on a massive fun ride but then we wanted something really intimate where we could explore the intricacies of Natasha’s relationships and how they would help us open her up.
“Who is Natasha was when she wasn’t being an Avenger? Who is she when she’s a daughter, a sister, a human being?”
To begin unpacking this notoriously mysterious character, Shortland went back to the beginning… “I looked at the comics and her origin story,” she reveals. “Then I looked at all the films that she’d been in. I really enjoyed the films but I was like ‘who is she really? Who is this character?’
“So I worked with a Russian historian in London, a young woman who was the same age as Scarlett [Johansson] and we created a childhood in Russia for her and then we morphed that into her joining the spy program and into the MCU…”
Natasha has been played by Johansson since the character first appeared in the MCU back in 2010 for Iron Man 2 and since then she’s become integral to the character’s development. So much so, in fact, that it was Johansson that brought Cate Shortland in for Black Widow: “Scarlett contacted me and asked if I would be interested in talking about it. She and I spoke about the character, and I saw that there was a lot of things in Natasha that I was really interested in, and Scarlett and I got on so well so that’s how I started speaking to Marvel. She’s very hard not to get on with. She’s really lovely.”
Together with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, they decided that since expectations were high for Natasha’s first solo outing, they were going to go down a different route to the usual origin story… “Kevin was great because he knew that that the expectation would be that it was an origin story, so he wanted to shift it, and that gave us a lot of freedom.”
Unfortunately, there were a few restrictions for the movie in that [SPOILERS] Natasha sacrifices herself at the end of the most recent Avengers movie in Avengers: Endgame, meaning that Shortland, Feige, Johansson and co were making a film for a character that was already dead in the MCU.
“We had a definite time frame and we knew that she was going to sacrifice herself,” Shortland tells us. “So there were parameters. The script was really hard because you’ve got a character that’s really secretive so then it was about finding the heart of that story.”
Speaking of heart, Natasha could probably be considered the big badass beating heart of the Avengers itself. Since her introduction to the MCU, Natasha has really connected with her fellow superhero family. Whether it’s helping out Cap confront his own past in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to her long-lasting friendship with Clint Barton (might we finally find out what happened in Budapest?), to her doomed romance with Bruce Banner, Natasha really has made a makeshift family out of a bunch of people you wouldn’t expect.
However, in Black Widow, we find that the Avengers aren’t the only makeshift family in Natasha’s life. As a young girl, Natasha had been part of a secret undercover mission in the US with fellow Russian spies Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) posing as husband and wife and parents to young Natasha and little Yelena (Violet McGraw and later played by Florence Pugh).
Taking a seminal place in her formative years, it’s no surprise that the short-lived family had a big impact on Natasha and when she’s forced to meet them all again years later, she has to confront those feelings of loss and abandonment.
Creating a family dynamic out of Russian spies that are practically strangers and who haven’t seen each other in years was no mean feat. Luckily, everyone involved was entirely committed to building this strange familial relationship… “The actors are such fine actors, it was really about workshopping the script with them. We did a lot of improv with the script and Eric Pearson, the scriptwriter, was in rehearsals, so we could adapt the script to the actors and to their backstories.
“It was about making it reflect your family, or my family,” she reveals. “What are the truths of family? What are the things that happen and the slights that we carry with us that come out every Christmas…?”
At the centre of this odd little family is the ‘sister’ bond between Natasha and Yelena: “That’s the heart of the movie!” Shortland affirms. “It’s a great love affair, the sister relationship. What’s beautiful is it’s obvious from when people have watched the movie, is how much they get out of it, and how much joy Florence brings.”
Though Yelena isn’t Natasha’s real sister the two share a few attributes, including badass martial arts skills and a quick wit, meaning that even though the movie deals with intense themes, it doesn’t lose that fundamental Black Widow humour: “It was really important to use humour because the film’s about trauma,” Shortland tells us. “It’s not just about trauma, but trauma is an aspect of it. So we wanted to make it fun and to fill the film with laughter. Because even when we’re talking about difficult subjects, the girls are poking fun at it. To me, that says they’ve processed it and they’ve survived. They’re not victims if they can laugh at what’s happened to them.”
Indeed, for Shortland, she hopes that audiences can take a general positive vibe from the movie: “I hope audiences feel uplifted because they’ve seen themselves reflected,” she says.
“I also hope that they’re a little more forgiving,” she continues. “I think what’s interesting is that she has to forgive the people around her but she also has to forgive herself. I want them to think about survival and some of the difficult things that we deal with, both with our own things as women but also as individuals in a family.
“We don’t do it alone, we often do it with the help of the people around us.”
Find out how Natasha’s makeshift family helps her as Black Widow lands on Disney+ on 6 October.