Scarlett Johansson Opens Up About Black Widow’s Evolution Away from Early MCU Hyper-Sexualization

Scarlett Johansson explains how her ‘Black Widow’ character moved away from ‘hyper-𝑠e𝑥ualization’ of early MCU films

It’s a sunny day at London’s 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.

Yahoo spoke to Scarlett Johansson during the production of Black Widow in 2019 (Marvel Studios)

Johansson has 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 her character Natasha Romanoff, too.

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.Florence Pugh, Cate Shortland, and Scarlett Johansson put their heads together on the set of Black Widow (Marvel Studios)

“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,” 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 Johanasson and Pugh on the film’s London set.

Why Black Widow takes place post-Civil War

Spoiler alert: Johansson’s Black Widow didn’t make it to the end of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Having heroically sacrificed 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 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.

“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”Scarlett Johnasson and Florence Pugh preparing for a VFX scene on Black Widow (Marvel Studios)

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.”Scarlett Johansson with Jeremy Renner in Avengers: Endgame (Marvel Studios)

The events of Civil War saw Natasha initially on the side of Tony Stark, in favor 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… 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?”Natasha comes face to face with other Red Room assassins (Marvel Studios)

“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.

“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 and Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2 (Marvel Studios/Paramount)

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 𝑠e𝑥ualized,” Johansson says. “[She’s] talked about like she is like a piece of something, like a possession, or a piece of a**, 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.”Scarlett Johnasson as Natasha Romanoff in a new look at Black Widow (Marvel Studios)

“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 favorite, with many calling for 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.Rachel Weisz, Scarlett Johnasson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Marvel Studios)

“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-𝑠e𝑥ualization of this character.”


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