10:54am PT by Richard Newby
Where the 'Black Widow' Movie Could Go
Another strand has been added to the web of intrigue surrounding Black Widow. On Monday came the news that Florence Pugh has joined the cast of Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which is expected to be a prequel that will center on Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) early years as a spy and assassin trained by the KGB before she joined SHIELD. Details surrounding the film, and the latest draft of the script written by Jack Schaeffer, have been guarded with a level of secrecy befitting a spy pic.
Pugh, who is currently starring in the WWE dramedy Fighting With My Family, has emerged as a breakout actress in recent years. She won the highly coveted role in Black Widow over a number of rumored names, making an impression on Marvel Studios. While there’s little known about the character she’s set to play, including her name, sources say Pugh is playing a spy with a skill level equal to Natasha’s and will be pit against Black Widow as her moral opposite. While that’s not much to go on in terms of sussing out an identity for Pugh’s character, it’s enough to spark speculation based on Marvel Studios’ method of operation and the pages of Black Widow comic books.
There’s a lot audiences don’t know about Black Widow’s history in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have been snippets of information, like the reference to the impossible odds she faced alongside Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in Budapest during The Avengers (2012). And, we saw brief moments of her training in the Red Room under Madame B (Julie Delpy) in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Fans even got a look at the early days of the Black Widow program through the character Dottie Underwood on the ABC series Agent Carter. But for Natasha, who was first introduced in the MCU in Iron Man 2 (2010), there are a lot of blank spaces. This means that there’s plenty of room for Shortland and Schaeffer to move about when constructing the character’s past and setting up her antagonists.
Going to the comic book source material, Black Widow has been the star of several miniseries, but no volumes as long-running as her avenging counterparts, at least not without her in the role of co-star. This narrows the possibilities for the identity of Pugh’s character, assuming she isn’t playing a character original to the film or one borrowed from another comic character’s list of adversaries. The description of Pugh’s character being equal to Natasha immediately brings Yelena Belova to mind. The blonde-haired spy took on Natasha in Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones’ Black Widow: The Itsy-Bitsy Spider (1999). The Red Room’s replacement for Natasha, Yelena saw the older Black Widow as her rival and sought to be her better at every turn. Natasha tried to deliver some tough love to the younger spy and help her see the failings of her Red Room training, but she couldn’t stop Yelena’s downward spiral into villainy and eventually had to kill her. While there’s certainly a chance Pugh is playing Yelena, it’s more likely, given Marvel Studios’ penchant for drawing inspiration from contemporary storylines, that she’ll be playing a more recent introduction to Black Widow’s mythos.
Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s 12-issue Black Widow (2016) series is one of the all-time great stories in Natasha’s long comic history. The series shifts between Natasha’s contemporary mission with the Winter Soldier to her days in the Red Room and her first mission. In the Red Room flashbacks, we learn that Natasha was childhood friends with The Headmistresses’ daughter, Anya, who was considered too soft and emotional for the job of a spy and left untrained. As Natasha became The Headmistresses’ favorite pupil, she learned to be callous and hard, and cut herself off from Anya. The girl grew to resent Natasha, her mother, and her own ineffectual feelings. Years later, Anya reemerged, trained, deadly and under the name Recluse — a reference to the fact that she had been hidden away as a child, and the recluse spider, one of two deadly spiders in North America (the other, of course, being the black widow). Recluse created the Dark Room, a training program for child assassins that, unlike the Red Room, had no government ties. Beyond Recluse fitting the description of Pugh’s character, the actress resembles Samnee’s depiction quite a bit. Plus, it’s easy to imagine her playing a character who shows up as a friend and then reveals herself to be the enemy. If Black Widow ends up being a story about moral journeys, then it would be fitting that Natasha’s ascent to heroism is mirrored by her peer’s descent to villainy.
Should Black Widow loosely adapt Waid and Samnee’s run, it would potentially allow for the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) to play some role in the film, and could see Delpy return as Madame B – The Headmistress. But beyond the potential for further MCU connectivity, Waid and Samnee’s run operates in the vein of a thriller — chilly, morally complicated, character-driven and, though action-packed, more in the vein of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) than Dr. No (1962). These same aspects can be seen in Cate Shortland’s filmography, notably her most recent film, Berlin Syndrome (2017), which beyond being a terrific psychological thriller showcases the director’s skill at tension and steadily revealing ulterior motives. We’re certain to hear a lot more about Black Widow in the coming months, especially with Avengers: Endgame on the horizon and the MCU’s next phase taking shape. But for now, Waid and Samnee’s Black Widow is as good as a dossier file when it comes to figuring out Marvel Studios’ next mission.