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How ‘Black Widow’ came to be and why it is so special

‘Black Widow’ shines a light on a hero we’ve seen, but never really heard from

Natasha Romanoff in “Black Widow.”
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as Black Widow in “Black Widow.” The movie shines a light on a hero we’ve seen, but never really heard from.
Jay Maidment, Marvel Studios

Black Widow’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe came 11 years ago. And, in a way, she mattered a lot. She was the first crossover character in another Marvel character’s film. Yes, we had seen Tony Stark in a post-credit scene of “The Incredible Hulk” — a Marvel film many forget — but Black Widow’s appearance in “Iron Man 2” showed us that any hero, at any time, can appear in another character’s movie.

For a while, Black Widow — whose real name is Natasha Romanoff — played that role. She, like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nicky Fury, would pop up in different movies and add an element of surprise. She also weaved the MCU together, although she did it subtly. She was always there, always in the background. Hidden in the dark, but always weaving her web. She became a vital character of the entire MCU without ever having her own film — unlike her male counterparts.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy (led by Star-Lord), Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, all of them saw movies before Black Widow did.

When Marvel released its first female-centric solo flick, it wasn’t Black Widow at the center. It was Captain Marvel — a character who had never appeared in an MCU film before.

And then, finally, we got word of a “Black Widow” film to be released in early 2020. All eyes turned to May. Black Widow in her first solo film — a film about a female superhero to kick off the next phase of MCU projects. The first film of the post-”Avengers: Endgame” era. Though it takes before “Endgam” and “Infinity War,” it’s still considered a Phase 4 film, launching us into a new era of Marvel.

The pandemic hit. And the film was delayed. Delayed. Delayed.

But it always lingered in the background of our entertainment minds. “Black Widow” hid in the dark, weaving its web of hype and build-up this time.

For so long, fans wanted this film, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said at a press conference last week about “Black Widow.” And now the time has finally come. The film is here. And the cast and crew have a simple message — it’s special.

But not all spin-off films, especially ones like “Black Widow,” have succeeded, according to Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. Films like “Electra” and “Catwoman” are prime examples of female-centric superhero films that haven’t attracted a massive audience, and have fallen into the depths of history. (Granted, DC Comics’ films have never been as well received as the Marvel films — at least in recent years at the box office. The original “Justice League,” for example, made $229 million at the U.S. box office in its first four months. At the time, “Justice League” sold less at the box office than 13 of the 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Solo-movies such as “Doctor Strange” ($232 million), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ($259 million) and “Iron Man 2” ($312 million) outsold the film.)

“Black Widow” offers another opportunity, though, for a female-centric film to find success at the box office.

And there’s a lot riding on that success because “Black Widow” kicks us off into a new era of Marvel. Could a film like this — about an older, secondary character — hook Marvel fans for future stories? Will a story about Phase 1-3 character make people excited for Phase 4?

“The key issue is whether it will attract a new generation of fans who will become committed to the next Marvel phase,” Phillips said. “Setting up ‘Black Widow’ as the opening of Phase 4 makes a great deal of sense if it can successfully draw existing fans into the next big story arc.”

How ‘Black Widow’ bridges the gap of old and new

Black Widow entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a woman who could box in “Iron Man 2” — one of the earliest MCU films. She then showed she was a part of SHIELD — surprising even Tony Stark, who saw her as merely an attractive woman. But she proved him wrong. She was a superhero with strength, power and wisdom. But she was seen as — well, let’s let Johansson explained it.

“You look back at Iron Man 2 and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know?” Johansson said, according to HelloBeautiful.com.

Black Widow was “talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever,” Johansson said, per HelloBeautiful.com. Stark often flirts with her in the film. It’s not until later that the movie shows she’s a true hero.

“Yeah, and at one point calls her a piece of meat and maybe at that time that actually felt like a compliment. You know what I mean?” Johansson said, according to BBC News

But times have changed, and so has Johansson. She said back then, self-worth was “probably measured against that type of comment.” Now, she has a bigger opinion of herself.

“Now people, 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 be a part of that old story, but also progress,” she told reporters, according to Collider. “Evolve. I think it’s pretty cool.”

The role of Black Widow has always helped Johansson grow, too. She said, at the “Black Widow” press conference I attended, that she is now “definitely more comfortable taking risks and more comfortable jumping into ... the unknown” because of the role.

She has grown. Her role has grown. And Marvel, too, has grown. “Black Widow,” in a way, is Marvel saying, “my bad.” They’re honoring their biggest MCU female superhero with her own film as a way to kick off this new, diverse world of characters. For a film that’s been long-delayed and a hero that’s been lurking in the shadows, that’s a truly special moment.

They’re leading with a strong, female-centric hero — who has been benched in the past. She’s getting a chance to start. And expectations come with it.

Johansson, though the star of the film, isn’t thinking about herself with “Black Widow.” She understands that it’s bridging the gap between two different eras — the original era of Iron Man, Captain America and Thanos. Now, she’s excited to bring new people into the MCU and expand the world. That includes Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, Rachel Weisz as Melina.

“It’s very exciting,” Johansson said.

She added, “It’s wonderful to see people come into something with excitement and wide-eyed and get to experience the incredible world of Marvel and making these huge productions.”

One of those people is Weisz, who stars as Natasha’s mother Melina, said she loves stories about women, by women, with women. That’s what made the film so special to her. It’s all about women, and it empowers women.

“It was wonderful to tell a story with three complicated, strong women,” she said.

The past and future of the MCU

“Black Widow” might seem like a strange choice of a film to lead off the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why is a story about a dead Avenger leading the next phase of MCU projects? Should we care about a character who we know won’t make it past “Avengers: Endgame?”

Phillips, the Syracuse professor, said “Black Widow” is a film that will fill the gap between phases of the MCU.

“‘Black Widow’ is a chance to reconnect with one of the original core Avengers and, potentially, to move the universe forward,” he told me in an email. “It also seems likely that this film is giving real service to the fans. For many fans, ‘Black Widow’s’ death felt underplayed, especially in light of Tony Stark’s demise. So, here we get a victory lap for a crucial female character who was never really featured in the earlier films.”

That speaks to another reason “Black Widow” is actually the perfect film to lead off the new round of MCU movies. Marvel is embracing diversity. Captain America is Black. ABlack Widow, a female character, has her own MCU film. Elizabeth Olsen is a popular star with “WandaVision.” Marvel is releasing “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — a film about an Asian-American superhero. “Eternals” will have a vast and diverse cast of characters. Natalie Portman as Jane Foster will lead “Thor: Love and Thunder” as the new Thor. There’s so much diversity coming, and it all begins with “Black Widow.” It all begins where it should have started.

Marvel also returns to a less-cosmic world with “Black Widow,” Phillips said. The project is a little more grounded in normality, similar to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” rather than a space-focused battle with Thanos in “Endgame” and “Infinity War.”

Things will get weird in the MCU moving forward. We know this. Just watch “Loki” or “WandaVision. “ And don’t forget about the upcoming “Eternals” movie, which will deal with cosmic forces. “Shang-Chi” looks to be centered around mystical arts and 10 rings of legendary power. “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” is poised for multiverses and craziness.

So can “Black Widow” prepare people for those films? Will it be enough to bring people back to the theaters to see it?

“The big question is whether audiences showing up for ‘Black Widow’ are going to come back to the theaters to see ‘Shang-Chi’ or ‘Eternals,’” Phillips said. “I suspect the reception of those films will really tell us whether the cinematic Age of Marvel is going to continue.”