We should be used to Marvel seeking to step outside the superhero movie mould with its films by now.
As long ago as May 2018, Ryan Reynolds surprised fans by revealing that the R-rated Deadpool 2 was “a family film” inspired by Pixar. A year later, X-Men: Dark Phoenix producer Hutch Parker said the new film was an “intimate, character-based” drama. Then, in September 2020, The New Mutants was pitched to audiences in publicity material as “Marvel's first horror film”. Even more recently, Marvel's Disney+ debut Wandavision delved into the unlikely realms of classic sitcoms.
While fans have come to expect the unexpected, few could have predicted that leather-clad, hard-hearted assassin Black Widow would show up in a “family drama” when Scarlett Johansson finally reprised the role in her first solo Marvel outing since she joined The Avengers a decade ago. It seems even she was among those surprised by the concept.
“Who would’ve thought that it would be a family drama?” Johansson tells The National ahead of the film's release this weekend. “I think part of [Marvel Studios chief] Kevin Feige’s genius is that he always thinks about what fans expect out of these films and then gives them something that they never could’ve dreamt of.”
Johansson admits she took some time to adjust to the idea.
“I had to wrap my head around the script because there’s such a big tonal shift,” she says. “As Kevin put it, it’s like another film T-bones the movie that you thought you were going to see, and if it’s not handled well, it could feel really jarring.”
With Australian director Cate Shortland, Marvel seems to have found exactly the right person to handle the change of tone from ruthless killer Natasha Romanoff's all-action past. Shortland is better known for picking up plaudits at festivals such as Cannes and Sundance for intimate indie dramas such as Lore and Berlin Syndrome than for high-octane superhero fare, and Johansson says that the combination hit the mark perfectly.
“Her stuff is so deep and so character-driven, and we left it in Cate's very capable hands to strike the balance. Knowing that she and I would be able to build this character together, I knew that we were cooking with gas.”
Rachel Weisz, who plays Romanoff family matriarch Melina, is no stranger to acclaimed directors, having worked alongside Oscar nominees such as Yorgos Lanthimos and Peter Jackson in films such as The Favourite and The Lovely Bones. She agrees that Shortland was a big draw.
“I was thrilled at the idea of Shortland at the helm of Scarlett’s solo film as Black Widow,” she says. “Cate, as a director, is incredibly instinctive. She can be very serious, very light, very playful, very strong, very kind. From my observations, she’s interested in reality [even] in an elevated universe where people have powers, which are not ordinary.”
Co-star Florence Pugh – best known as a star of high-concept indie fare such as Lady Macbeth and Little Women – plays Romanoff's little sister, Yelena, and she adds a third vote for Shortland being crucial to the effectiveness of the finished film.
“It feels like Cate is directing another one of her specific films, but it just happens to be with this mega MCU storyline behind it,” she says. “She’s always looking for intriguing ways to explain why or how they got there – especially with women. I was equally excited to work with Cate as I was to work with Marvel.”
The film's strong female leads is another area in which Black Widow diverges from many previous Marvel movies, and indeed superhero flicks in general. DC's Wonder Woman may have beaten Captain Marvel to the title of first female lead and director in the genre, but Wonder Woman's sidekicks were all male.
In Shortland's film, although Stranger Things' David Harbour appears as Alexei, the father figure of the dysfunctional spy family, the most important relationships are those between the Romanoff sisters and their mother figure.
“It’s a big deal for young women to see a huge film like this and have a female character at the front and centre carrying a film,” says Weisz. “I think the reason guys like watching action movies is because whether they’re little boys or grown men, they feel like 'that’s me'. So, I think when a girl or a woman sees women being action stars they can identify with the character. You can go along with the story imagining that it's you, which is a lot more exciting.”
Although the studio is clearly having fun stretching the boundaries of what we should expect from a superhero yarn, Johansson says fans can expect plenty of the action associated with their favourite cape-clad characters, too.
“I’m probably biased, but I think there are some of the best fights we’ve had in the MCU. They come from the place of character. It’s an important part of the storytelling to understand where Natasha is mentally in each fight. She has no superpowers, so it’s all coming from her. I’ve had all this time to build this physical vocabulary and I’m finally able to use all of it in this film. It was really exciting and I’m so happy with how it all came out.”
Johansson says this is a testament to the power of strong women. “It was striking how many stuntwomen we had on set at any given time.
“The power of these women in one room together was something I’d never experienced before. It was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by all these women and be able to get down and dirty with them. It was great.”
Black Widow is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, July 8