Black Widow is a 2021 American superhero film based on Marvel Comics featuring the character of the same name. Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, it is the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film was directed by Cate Shortland from a screenplay by Eric Pearson and stars Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow alongside Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, and Rachel Weisz. Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), the film sees Romanoff on the run and forced to confront her past as a Russian spy before she became an Avenger.
Lionsgate Films began developing a Black Widow film in April 2004, with David Hayter attached to write and direct. The project did not move forward and the character’s film rights had reverted to Marvel Studios by June 2006. Johansson was cast in the role for several MCU films beginning with Iron Man 2 (2010), and began discussing a solo film with Marvel. Work began in late 2017 and Shortland was hired in July 2018. Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson contributed to the script before Pearson joined. The film was written to be a prequel that expands on Romanoff’s history and helps end her MCU story following the character’s death in Avengers: Endgame (2019). Shortland put an emphasis on the fight sequences and said this was the most violent MCU film so far. Filming took place from May to October 2019 in Norway, England, Budapest, Morocco, and Macon, Georgia.
Black Widow premiered at events around the world on June 29, 2021, and was released in the United States on July 9, simultaneously in theaters and through Disney+ with Premier Access. It is the first film in Phase Four of the MCU, and was delayed three times from an original May 2020 release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Black Widow broke several pandemic box office records and grossed over $379 million worldwide. The film received positive reviews from critics, with particular praise for the action sequences and for the performances of Johansson and Pugh. In July 2021, Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney over the simultaneous release, which was settled two months later.
Feige met with Johansson to discuss the direction of a Black Widow film in October 2017. Marvel then began meeting with writers for the project, including Jac Schaeffer and Jessica Gao. Gao’s pitch was influenced by Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), in which Romanoff would have been planted in a high school to assassinate a target and then 20 years later attends a high school reunion where she has to deal with the fallout of her earlier actions. The pitch heavily featured the character She-Hulk, and Marvel Studios executive Brad Winderbaum felt Gao was instead pitching a She-Hulk film that featured Black Widow. Gao would later be hired as the head writer for the Marvel Studios television series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022). Schaeffer met with Feige in December, and was hired to write the screenplay by the end of 2017. Schaeffer and Johansson were set to discuss the direction of the film at the beginning of February 2018.
Marvel began meeting with female directors to potentially take on the project, part of a priority push by major film studios to hire female directors for franchises. By the end of April 2018, the studio had met with over 65 directors for the project in an “extremely thorough” search, including Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Chloé Zhao—who went on to direct Marvel’s Eternals (2021) Amma Asante, and Lynn Shelton. Lucrecia Martel was also approached, but was discouraged when she was told that would not have to “worry about the action scenes”. She also felt the music and visual effects of Marvel films were “horrible”. In the following months, a shortlist of 49 directors was made before the top choices of Cate Shortland, Asante, and Maggie Betts met with Feige and Johansson in June. Mélanie Laurent and Kimberly Peirce were also in the “next-to-final mix”. Johansson was a fan of Shortland’s previous female-starring film Lore (2012), and was the one who had approached her about directing the film; Shortland was hired in July, and watched all of Romanoff’s MCU appearances in preparation for making the film.
The Hollywood Reporter reported in October 2018 that Johansson would earn $15 million for the film, an increase from the “low-seven figure salary” that she earned for starring in The Avengers. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth each earned $15 million for the third films in their MCU franchises—Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), respectively—as well as for Infinity War and Endgame. Despite The Hollywood Reporter claiming that their report had been confirmed by “multiple knowledgeable sources”, Marvel Studios disputed its accuracy and said they “never publicly disclose salaries or deal terms”. The Walt Disney Company later said Johansson had earned $20 million by the end of July 2021 for her work on the film, including in her role as an executive producer.
Because Romanoff dies during the events of Endgame, the film is set earlier in the MCU timeline. It primarily takes place between the main plot of Civil War and that film’s final scene, in which the Avengers escape from prison. Johansson and Feige felt this was “the best place to start” because it is the first time that Romanoff is on her own and not tied to a larger organization such as the Red Room, S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Avengers. This setting means the film is not an origin story for Romanoff, which Feige wanted to avoid because he felt that was the expected direction for a prequel to go. He was influenced by the television series Better Call Saul, which is a prequel to the series Breaking Bad, calling it “a wonderful example of a prequel that almost completely stands on its own… it informs you about so many things you didn’t know about before”.
- Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow:
An Avenger, highly trained former-KGB assassin, and former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Romanoff is on the run and alone following the events of Captain America: Civil War, which Johansson saw as an opportunity to show the character as “a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself”. Director Cate Shortland said Romanoff’s ambiguous psychological journey was the center of the story, and writer Eric Pearson said the film would show Romanoff become the “more emotional, vulnerable and at peace” version of the character seen in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Because the character dies in Endgame, Johansson said Black Widow allowed her to leave the MCU “on a high note” and said her work portraying Romanoff was now complete. Ever Anderson portrays a young Natasha Romanoff. Anderson, who speaks Russian, felt her background in taekwondo and gymnastics training was helpful for the role.
- Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova:
A sister to Romanoff who was trained in the Red Room as a Black Widow. Johansson said Belova was an early inclusion in the film who could stand on her own alongside Romanoff. Pugh said there was a generational difference between the two, and described Belova as “unapologetic, and confident in herself, and curious… and emotionally brave”. Pugh admired Belova’s bluntness and determination, and noted that the character is a skilled fighter who does not know how to live a normal life. Shortland said Romanoff would be handing the baton to Belova in the film, and during filming Pugh looked to Johansson for guidance on meeting the demands of making Marvel films. Johansson wanted to avoid an antagonistic dynamic between the two characters, instead having a sister-like but contentious relationship that Pugh characterized as “a sister story that really hones in on grief, on pain, on abuse, on being a victim—and living with being a victim”. Violet McGraw portrays a young Yelena Belova.
- David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian:
The Russian super-soldier counterpart to Captain America and a father-figure to Romanoff and Belova. Harbour said Shostakov was not heroic or noble, and was both comically and tragically flawed. Shostakov claims that he fought Captain America in the 1980s, and Pearson felt the character actually believes this despite it being impossible in the MCU timeline. For Harbour’s portrayal, he and Shortland discussed Ricky Gervais’s performance in The Office and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in The Savages (2007), described as “comedy that comes out of real domestic need”.[ Harbour had already grown his facial hair for the fourth season of Stranger Things, and he gained weight for the role to be 280 pounds (127 kg). He then lost 60 pounds (27 kg) over the course of filming to portray a younger version of the character in the film’s opening flashback sequence.
- O-T Fagbenle as Rick Mason:
An ally from Romanoff’s S.H.I.E.L.D. past who is romantically interested in her. Fagbenle described Mason as a “finder for people who aren’t so affiliated with armies” who assists Romanoff in that manner. On why a romance between Mason and Romanoff is not explored in the film, Fagbenle said the film was “bigger than that” and their relationship was part of Romanoff’s larger family instead. Beyond Pearson’s script, Fagbenle developed Mason’s backstory with Shortland and Johansson. As Taskmaster’s identity was kept secret, many people assumed Mason would secretly take up the mantle, which Fagbenle had to deny even to his personal trainer. The film’s final scene, in which Mason provides Romanoff with a Quinjet, was added during reshoots in early 2020 after test audiences liked seeing Romanoff and Mason together.
- Olga Kurylenko as Antonia Dreykov / Taskmaster:
Dreykov’s daughter who completes missions for the Red Room. She has photographic reflexes that allow her to mimic opponents’ fighting styles, and uses techniques from superheroes such as Iron Man, Captain America, the Winter Soldier, Spider-Man, and Black Panther. Several body doubles were required to portray the character’s various skills. Kurylenko said much of Antonia’s pain is internal, and described her relationship with Dreykov as abusive since Dreykov uses her “as a tool [and] has her do whatever he wants”. Taskmaster is revealed to be Antonia in the film instead of the comic book counterpart Tony Masters since Masters did not fit into the film’s story and it was more natural to Pearson to tie Taskmaster into a “loose end from Natasha’s past”. Ryan Kiera Armstrong portrays a young Antonia Dreykov.
- William Hurt as Thaddeus Ross:
The United States Secretary of State and a former U.S. Army general. Regarding Ross’s mindset in Black Widow following the character’s attempt to control the Avengers in Civil War, Hurt said there was “fatigue setting in” and Ross was a “soldier on the last hill… the way he can strike back against the changing world would be by capturing Natasha Romanoff.”
- Ray Winstone as Dreykov:
A Russian general and the head of the Red Room. Pearson felt the film needed a villain that could fit within its timeframe undetected so as to avoid contradicting the events of Infinity War. He described Dreykov as a coward who is “puppeteering things” from the shadows and does not care about hurting others.
- Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff:
A seasoned spy trained in the Red Room as a Black Widow and a mother-figure to Romanoff and Belova who is now one of the Red Room’s lead scientists. Compared to Vostokoff’s comic book counterpart, who becomes the supervillain Iron Maiden, Weisz felt the film’s version was more ambiguous and layered, with a deadpan personality and no sense of humor which Weisz found amusing. Weisz was given a tailored Black Widow suit for the film which she called an “iconic” piece of clothing that was “a lot to live up to”. Weisz reworked Vostokoff’s portrayal to be more affectionate towards Shostakov, rather than dismissive.
July 9, 2021
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