Black Widow tackles character trauma for grittier narrative

CBC News spoke with director Cate Shortland, the first woman to helm a Marvel film solo.

The 24th instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in theatres and available to stream on Friday

Scarlett Johansson, left, and Florence Pugh star in Black Widow. The film is in theatres and available to stream on July 9. (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios-Disney/The Associated Press)

It's been two years since Avengers: Endgame shook fans around the world — but with Black Widow landing in theatres and available to stream on Friday, the franchise enters a new and darker phase.

The standalone film for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow character, also known as Natasha Romanoff, takes the superhero back into her troubled past. Dreykov — the leader of the Soviet "Red Room" training program that turned her into a Black Widow assassin as a young girl — has developed frightening technology to control his underlings.

Director Cate Shortland told CBC News when she first spoke to Johansson about the film, she knew the movie would be a character-driven exploration of traumatic experiences.

"We talked about trauma, and we talked about, 'How do you heal a broken heart?'" Shortland said. "So as soon as we talked about that, I was in. Because it wasn't about, 'How do we create a kick-ass movie?' It was, 'How do we be true to the character?'"

"The movie is about the subjugation of women," Johansson said in an interview with Glamour in July. "And the trauma that we have to help one another out of. It's a film about women lifting one another up so that they may thrive."

Black Widow director Cate Shortland chats about the new Marvel film

1 year ago
Duration 2:08
Cate Shortland, director of Black Widow, tells CBC News about her first conversation with star Scarlett Johansson, how she feels about heading back to movie theatres and what it was like to work with David Harbour.

Director was hand-picked from indie world

According to the Associated Press, Johansson is the first lead actor to serve as a producer on a Marvel movie — and she picked Shortland to helm the movie. 

It was a decision that made the Australian-born filmmaker the first woman to direct a Marvel instalment on her own. (Captain Marvel's Anna Boden shared directorial duties with Ryan Fleck.) 

But Shortland wasn't plucked from complete obscurity. She comes from the indie world: Her film Somersault was a pick for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and Berlin Syndrome was a 2017 nominee for the Sundance Festival's Grand Jury Prize. 

And through her lens, even during its most explosive action sequences, Black Widow had to remain grounded in its narrative.

"Every action sequence had to have a really strong story. And when we were choreographing the action and working with the stunt people, I wanted it to feel really visceral," Shortland said.

"[This way], you're in the narrative of the story, the drama — and when you go into the action, it still feels like the same movie."

In the true spirit of a Marvel movie, Shortland also wanted Black Widow to be fun, citing inspiration from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!

"I love spectacle," she said. "So I always want it to be fun and beautiful, but to have heart."

The team behind Black Widow are shown at San Diego Comic-Con International in July 2019. From left to right: President of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour, Florence Pugh, O-T Fagbenle, director Cate Shortland and Rachel Weisz. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Women of Black Widow have shared experiences of trauma

One of the film's themes is sisterhood, as Black Widow has its protagonist team up with sister-figure Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another product of the Red Room training program. 

As Johansson told Yahoo! News, that relationship is a symbol for the mutual support between women that emerged during a pivotal cultural moment: the #MeToo movement, which took off in 2017 as Black Widow began development.

"Natasha is the victim of childhood trauma and exploitation — and it's a past that she doesn't want to face, that she's running away from," Johansson said.

"And then her sister, who's this very self-possessed kind of firecracker liability in some ways … [is] basically forcing her to come to terms with that, forcing her to face it."

It was important that Black Widow reflect the character's emotional evolution between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame, screenwriter Eric Pearson told the Associated Press in an interview.

"We're looking at what happened there," Pearson said. "What happened when she went back and confronted her past that unlocked her heart and kind of opened her up to the world, and eventually led her to make that all-time sacrifice at the end of Endgame."

Johansson, whose character perished in Avengers: Endgame after the events in Black Widow occurred, told Reuters it could be the last time she plays the superhero.

"I feel bittersweet about it. I would love to continue working with Marvel in other capacities, but I think this is it."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master's degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca or on Twitter @jennabenchetrit.

With files from Eli Glasner and The Associated Press


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