Unmasking Avenging Black Widow

When editor and plotter Stan Lee, scripter Don Rico, and artist Don Heck created the fictional character of Black Widow in 1964 in Tales of Suspense #52, they never would have dreamed that 57-years later screenwriter Eric would delve into her backstory and deliver the original action-packed spy thriller Black Widow, where Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow confronts the darker parts of her ledger.

“In Black Widow, we get to rip open her past and see what led to her hesitation to open up,” says screenwriter Eric Pearson, whose primary goal it was to service Romanoff’s story. “The ongoing mystery of Natasha Romanoff was compelling—both for audiences and filmmakers. “I think she’s the one Avenger who’s shared the least about herself ever since we met her. She chooses to withhold her past and who she is personally from the audience and the other characters.”

“When you see Natasha in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she’s often this kind of impenetrable force,” says Scarlett Johansson, who returns as Black Widow (2021),  the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), directed by Cate Shortland from a screenplay by Eric Pearson.

“She’s reckless and out of control but still has this amazing intellect. What are her secrets? Her vulnerabilities? I am excited to share her fragility and her strength. She is in a male world, and she projects a certain way of being in that world. What we wanted to do is find out who is the real Black Widow.”

In Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

Screenwriter Eric Pearson

Pearson acknowledges that any superhero movie, “takes a village of super talented people,” all working together to create the best story possible. But the first two people Pearson started collaborating with were the director, Australian Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) and actress/executive producer, Johansson. “They talked a lot about wanting to make the movie more personal,” says Pearson. “Of course, we wanted to have a big villain plot and a lot of action, but as much as possible, make the story an emotional investigation of Natasha Romanoff. We approached it with the lens of ‘This is a Natasha Romanoff story.’ I wanted to see what it’s really like inside the most mysterious Avenger – the Avenger that intentionally closes herself off from people socially and emotionally.

Producer Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president and chief creative officer, says that Natasha Romanoff has sparked intrigue since her big-screen debut in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.” “She has such a rich backstory,” says Feige. “We’ve hinted at it throughout all the other films. But we approach it in a completely unexpected way. She’s been up to a lot all along—in between when we see her in the other movies—some of which will be surprising to people.”

According to Feige, Johansson reached out to director Cate Shortland to consider helming the film. “Cate came to Los Angeles and fell in love with the character and the possibilities,” says Feige. “She realized she could tell a very personal story and do something extremely special on a big canvas.”

Says Shortland, “I think what’s exciting about the film is we’re playing with the audience’s expectations. We’re exploring parts of Natasha that the audience has absolutely no idea about. We explore her family, love and passion, and you get to see all these facets of her we have never seen before.”

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow (L-R) Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Director Cate Shortland, Yelena (Florence Pugh) and Alexei (David Harbour)Photo: Jay Maidment©Marvel Studios 2020″

For Shortland, Romanoff’s psychological journey is the center of the story, having ambiguities instead of being “a black-and-white character.”

For Jac Schaeffer, who contributed to the story, having the wealth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Scarlett’s portrayal as Natasha to draw upon was both lucrative and daunting. “There’s a burden to deliver on this woman that we know, love and idolize in so many ways,” she says. “There is such a rich tapestry to draw from and then we expand upon all of it.”

The end result is a high-intensity, action thriller, says Chapek. “At the same time, our movie answers a lot of mysteries about Natasha’s past,” he adds. “We’ve seen her character evolve and open herself up to us. We’ve given hints about who she is and what makes her tick. In ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ we saw Natasha get to a place in her life where she could make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. Now, we want to tell the story about who she really is as a human being and what led to her being capable of making that heroic decision.”

Executive producer Brad Winderbaum adds, “In every Marvel movie we try to bring a different tone, a different genre, a different idea to the table—something that we haven’t seen before, which lets us make wild swings between something like ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ to ‘Thor: Ragnarok.’ We are always searching for something new and with ‘Black Widow’ we unveil a whole aspect of her history that’s completely unexpected.”

Black Widow’s Journey From Comic Book to Cinematic Superstar


The first and best-known Black Widow is a Russian agent trained as a spy, martial artist, and sniper, and outfitted with an arsenal of high-tech weaponry, including a pair of wrist-mounted energy weapons dubbed her “Widow’s Bite”. Read her biography

The Black Widow’s first appearances in 1964 in Tales of Suspense #52 as a recurring, non-costumed, Russian-spy, was visually updated in 1970: The Amazing Spider-Man #86 (July 1970) reintroduced her with shoulder-length red hair (instead of her former short black hair), a skin-tight black costume, and wristbands which fired spider threads.

In addition to her 2010 big screen debut, Natasha Romanoff has appeared in numerous forms of media, such as animated television series, video games, and films; with Scarlett Johansson portraying the character in several Marvel Cinematic Universe films including Iron Man 2 (2010), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), a cameo in Captain Marvel (2019), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Black Widow (2021).

Black Widow is set before “Avengers: Infinity War. “The film takes place on the heels of ‘Captain America: Civil War,’” explains co-producer Brian Chapek. “Natasha has broken the Sokovia Accords, betrayed Secretary Ross, and the Avengers find themselves disbanded. In the beginning of the movie, we establish Natasha desperate to evade Ross and leave U.S. soil. When she gets an opportunity to start over again, she quickly realizes that there are darker forces out there in the world compel her to return to the action.”

Romanoff was introduced as a Russian spy, an antagonist of the superhero Iron Man. She later defected to the United States, becoming an agent of the fictional spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and a member of the superhero team the Avengers.

In Iron Man 2, directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Theroux, Black Widow was an undercover spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. posing as Stark’s new assistant. Johansson dyed her hair red before she landed the part, hoping that it would help convince Favreau that she was right for the role.

Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2. © MARVEL

It’s a character that resonated with Johansson, “She is a superhero, but she’s also human. She’s small, but she’s strong… She is dark and has faced death so many times that she has a deep perspective on the value of life… It’s hard not to admire her.”

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), written and directed by Joss Whedon, Black Widow was a highly trained spy working for S.H.I.E.L.D. who teamed up with Hawkeye, two members of the avenging group who are skilled warriors – we have no superpowers.  For Johansson, Black Widow was definitely one of the team. “She’s not in the cast simply to be a romantic foil or eye candy. She’s there to fight, so I never felt like I was the only girl. We all have our various skills and it feels equal”

The Avengers (2012) © MARVEL

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)  directed by Anthony and Joe Russo from a screenplay by the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Markus said that Black Widow was a “great contrast” to Captain America, describing her as “incredibly modern, not very reverent, and just very straightforward whereas Steve is, you know a man from the ’40s. He’s not a boy scout, but he is reserved and has a moral center, whereas her moral center moves.”

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier © MARVEL

The Russos noted that she was: “A character who lies for a living. That’s what she does. He’s a character who tells the truth. Give them a problem and they’ll have different ways of approaching it. She’s pushing him to modernize, and he’s pushing her to add a certain level of integrity to her life.”

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier Natasha began to question what she wants and what her true identity was.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), written and directed by Joss Whedon, producer Kevin Feige stated that more of Black Widow’s character’s backstory was explored in the film. “We we definitely learn more about Widow’s backstory, and we get to find out how she became the person you see. All of these characters have deep, dark pasts, and I think that the past catches up to some of us a little bit.”

Avengers: Age of Ultron © MARVEL

In Captain America: Civil War (2016 directed by Anthony and Joe Russo from a screenplay by the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Black Widow allied with Stark. Anthony Russo noted her torn allegiances. “Her head is with Tony’s side of things, but her heart is with Cap in a lot of ways.”

Describing her character’s situation after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Johansson said, “I think that the Widow’s past will always haunt her. She’s trying to move forward, she’s trying to pick up the pieces of her life. Romanoff is at a point in her life where she can make choices herself, without having others have a hand in the decision process.”

Captain America: Civil War © MARVEL

In Avengers: Infinity War (2018), directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Johansson said that Romanoff’s situation following Captain America: Civil War has been “a dark time. I wouldn’t say that my character has been particularly hopeful, but I think she’s hardened even more than she probably was before.”

Avengers: Infinity War © MARVEL

In Captain Marvel (2019) written and directed by Anna Boden, Black Widow only appeared for the mid-credits scene.

In Avengers: Endgame (2019), directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Romanoff commanded several teams from around the galaxy in the Avengers headquarters, which Joe Russo explained stemmed from her inability to move on from their failure to stop Thanos, saying, “she’s doing everything she can to try and hold the community together. She’s the watcher on the wall still.”

Avengers: Endgame © MARVEL

On the decision for Romanoff to sacrifice herself for Barton to acquire the Soul Stone to bring back everyone, Joe Russo stated that it was part of a larger theme exploring the desire to sacrifice, compared to the desire to protect in Infinity War. “When she gets to that [Soul Stone] scene, I think she understands that the only way to bring the community back is for her to sacrifice herself.”

McFeely stated, “Her journey, in our minds, had come to an end if she could get the Avengers back. She comes from such an abusive, terrible, mind-control background, so when she gets to Vormir and she has a chance to get the family back, that’s a thing she would trade for.”