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Black Widow ‘would have been lining up in food queues as a child’

Black Widow is due to be released in cinemas and on Disney+ on July 9. Here, the film’s director Cate Shortland, discusses joining Marvel and what it is that makes Natasha Romanoff’s character a superhero.

The long overdue and Covid-delayed Marvel movie Black Widow explodes on to cinema screens soon, finally giving Scarlett Johansson’s tragic Natasha Romanoff the story she deserved.

An orphan used and abused by the Soviet state who turned her into a trained assassin, Romanoff eventually came in from the cold to be welcomed by the Avengers. Being the only superhero on the team without any superpowers is what makes her super special, says the film’s director Cate Shortland.

The Big Issue: Have you seen this film in a cinema with an audience yet?

Cate Shortland: No and I’m absolutely thrilled that I can. It was made for the big screen. It’s got that beautiful sound and fantastic action sequences.

Do you have your ticket booked?

I’ve got mine and like 40 of my family, my 12-year-old daughter and my 90-year-old father included. I don’t know what he’s going to make of it.

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You made your name with indie dramas like Somersault. Did you ever think you’d like to take a crack at a massive Marvel movie?

I never ever thought I would make a film like this. In fact, I was frightened when they approached me. I thought, I only want to do something if I can do it well. I’m so glad I jumped over my fear because it’s been a great experience.

I’m sure every director of a Marvel film is chosen because they bring something only they can bring, which makes Marvel directors a bit like a team of movie-making Avengers. What is your special superpower behind the camera?

I love asking questions, delving into who people are. I think we’re incredibly contradictory and I love those contradictions when you see them on screen. I’m not interested in characters that are Teflon-coated. I want to go on a journey with a character and really feel it. That’s perhaps why Marvel was interested in working with me.

Is that why Black Widow is a more interesting character for you, because she’s not a superhuman, scientific genius or god?

What’s interesting to me is the ambiguity in the character. She’s unknowable. Why is she unknowable? She’s frightened to trust. She doesn’t want to trust people because she’s had this psychic break when she was 11 or 12, where she was ripped apart.

Each Marvel film is a piece in a bigger jigsaw – especially this one – how does the process work when it comes to tying all these story strands together?

We start with the character and some themes we want to explore. It’s a tapestry. Kevin [Feige, Marvel movie mastermind] also added one or two strips from the comic books. Scarlett has ideas because she’s been playing the character for 10 years and she knows Natasha better than anybody. I was the outside voice so it was really a collaboration. In the end, what’s great is that it was distilled, the best ideas won out. How does a person who feels unlovable, feels deeply traumatised and ashamed, put themselves back together? And often they don’t do that by themselves. They do it with help from either family or friends or community. In this case it was family, because that opened her up and made her look at what she’d done in the past, and she was able to somehow forgive herself and transcend her situation. And that allows her to go into Endgame and sacrifice herself with real resolve, now that she’s faced her demons.

You worked with a historian to explore how growing up in a crumbling USSR influences her character.

What I learned was that she would have been lining up in food queues as a child because there was such a shortage of food and how the system worked in Russia, in terms of homeless children. We said that on Sundays she used to be taken with other orphans for a picnic. And there was a beautiful statue on the river of Mother Russia. We thought Natasha would look up at this statue and think: I have no family, but this warrior woman is my mother. So we were able to take parts of the geography, and the political and social history and thread them into who she would have been before she joined SHIELD.

At the start of the film, Natasha is on the run. She could have stayed hidden and perhaps not lived happily ever after, but at least lived. But she has to fight for what she believes is right. How can we all tap into that inner righteousness?

If we see ourselves in other people. Instead of just fleeting moments of transaction when you see another human, for just that quarter of a second actually see them and be seen by them. Natasha sees people. She’s been so traumatised, she doesn’t want that to happen to other people. She could never articulate that but there’s something in her that hates the bully. And I think that’s beautiful. That’s the really heroic part of her.

Black Widow is now cinemas and available on Disney+ with Premier Access

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