Warning: Full spoilers follow for Black Widow.
Screenwriter Eric Pearson would seem to have the Marvel Cinematic Universe running through his bloodstream at this point. After enrolling in the Marvel screenwriting program in 2010, he wrote the four Marvel One-Shot short films that were released from 2011-2013. That led to his working on the Agent Carter TV show before he co-wrote the screenplay for Thor: Ragnarok while also handling various uncredited script doctoring assignments for the studio. And his latest MCU project, Black Widow, just hit theaters and Disney+ Premier Access.
Pearson chatted with IGN to fill us in on the process behind penning the return of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, which just broke pandemic box office records. We discussed the changes made to the Taskmaster character, what’s really up with Red Guardian and Captain America, the big Easter egg he really wants to drop in the MCU, and more.
Red Guardian’s Captain America Stories
David Harbour’s Red Guardian/Alexei Shostakov is one of the highlights of Black Widow, a blowhard Russian version of Captain America who tells seemingly tall tales about fighting Cap back in his glory days. The movie has some fans debating the question of whether or not Red Guardian and Captain America ever really battled it out, because while it’s true Cap was on ice in 1984 when Alexei says they fought, we also know Steve Rogers has travelled through time (and therefore could’ve shown up in 1984). For his part, Pearson doesn’t think Alexei is lying. Which doesn’t necessarily make his stories true…
“I think that Alexei Shostakov believes every word he says,” says Pearson. “Whether or not it’s true, time will tell probably. I love him as a dopey adversary. Steve Rogers is great because he’s a scrawny guy who only wishes he were bigger so he would have a chance to fight the bad guys. And in the arms race of the Super Soldier serum, the Soviet Union — I just like to find the comedy in it — and they gave it to a guy who’s narcissistic and already big and strong. And all he wants to do is be Steve Rogers on the front lines with his shield. But instead, in kind of being ahead of the game of the Cold War, they make him go undercover. So he literally has to pretend he’s not strong. That is really fun for me. And that makes it fun for Alexei as a character who constantly feels the need to remind people that he’s great. And especially when you’re thinking of an embarrassing dad, what could be worse? Someone who’s talking about how great they are.”
Red Guardian’s Connection to Black Widow (and Captain America)
Of Crimson Dynamos and Dreams of Latveria
At one point in Black Widow, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova refers to Red Guardian as “Crimson Dynamo” — either by mistake, or purposely to bruise his ego. But Crimson Dynamo is actually another Russian hero from the Marvel comics; he’s sort of an Iron Man from behind the Iron Curtain. And indeed, Red Guardian and Crimson Dynamo have both served on the Russian superhero team the Winter Guard. (The original Crimson Dynamo in the comics also shared a name with Mickey Rourke’s character’s father in Iron Man 2.) Pearson says the reference is more for fun than any concrete evidence that the other Winter Guard characters exist in the MCU, however.
“I’m not sure if they do or do not exist,” he says. “Weirdly, I remembered the Crimson Dynamo [while writing]. That was a pure callback back from having read comics as a kid. And the idea of just someone calling him the wrong superhero name, I just put that in there. Whenever I’m writing for one of these, I always try and add in extra references, just in case an Easter egg works. For Thor: Ragnarok, there were a couple of different times [we did that]. There was Beta Ray Bill showing up here, or he’s over here, just little passing by things. And ultimately we decided it was too distracting and didn’t work. [Though Bill did still get a different shout-out in the film.] But in this one, I remember just writing the dialogue, knowing [the character]. I did a quick check to be like, ‘I am thinking of a Marvel character, not a DC character?’ I was like, ‘Yep. It was Marvel. I’m just putting it in.’ And then it never got flagged. And I think it gets a pretty good laugh too.”
That said, even for someone who has worked so extensively with Marvel, Pearson is still not sure what goes on behind closed doors that determines which Easter eggs make it through and which don’t. He does have a particularly notable Marvel reference that he’s been trying to push through, though.
“I might’ve had a reference to [Doctor Doom’s home country] Latveria in there — I might have, but I don’t think so. I don’t think that lasted very long,” he laughs. “I’m always trying to throw Latveria into stuff. … It’s like one of those things where you want to be the first one to say it on an Instagram post or something!”
The Transformation of the Taskmaster
One of the biggest ways the Black Widow movie differs from the Marvel comics is in its depiction of the secondary villain the Taskmaster. In earlier versions of the story, the character was a guy named Tony Masters (like in the comics) who Nat had a run-in with in Captain America: Civil War or Captain America: The Winter Soldier and they had “some sort of past,” says Pearson. “But it felt less than [satisfactory] to just be like, ‘Hey, I’m this guy with this power for some reason. And I hate you.’ I wanted to make it resonate more for who she is and her journey.”
In the film we eventually learn that she’s Antonia Dreykov, the daughter of primary villain General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who was badly injured in an attack by Natasha years earlier. Essentially mindless now — or trapped in her own mind — she is like a walking, not-talking killing machine who her father utilizes for high-stakes missions.
“We knew that Taskmaster would be there as this kind of Terminator-like villain, a physical villain,” says Pearson. “I was focusing on the bigger picture of the Red Room and Dreykov and what’s the appropriate adversary, big picture-wise, for Natasha. And it really just fell into place. … Okay. They stole the key to freewill and the ability to deconstruct the brain from Ohio [during the undercover assignment in the film’s opening flashback scene]. Okay. Dreykov is running this, and [Nat] tried to kill him, and it didn’t work. Okay. She’s got a dark secret from her past that she’s really ashamed of. And in the opening, we see her as a child, most passionate about trying to protect Yelena. So protecting little girls, girls that are younger than her, that’s very important.”
So from there, it became a question of what would be the darkest thing that Nat could have done? The thing that she’d be the most ashamed of?
“Oh, she intentionally put a young girl [in danger],” continues Pearson. “That felt like something that was a good emotional wound for Natasha to have to overcome. And then also for Natasha, as someone who likes to be in control of their life and information, the idea of a secret from the past, or a loose end, is something that she would hate. So this thing that you thought you did, it actually wasn’t that way. Plus, we’ve got this mystery of Dreykov’s daughter. … I was like, well, this seems to make sense a lot, and it gives her something to not expect in the final confrontation of like, ‘Oh wait, no, there’s a face to my haunted past that’s really traumatizing.’”
Yelena Belova and Not Passing the Black Widow Torch (Yet)
Marvel certainly seems to be positioning Pugh’s character Yelena to replace Natasha as the MCU’s new Black Widow, even if the Black Widow movie’s post credits scene sets her up as an adversary for Clint Barton in the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ series. Either way, Pearson says that he never saw Yelena in a “passing the torch” sort of way.
“I didn’t see it that way, just because every time you try and look forward too much in writing a Marvel movie, they remind you of how much work you still have to do on this movie,” he laughs. “It also feels kind of arrogant and obnoxious to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, this character is going to just go on to run millions of franchise.’ Well, you haven’t done one yet. You have not completed one movie with this person yet. So why don’t you stop patting yourself on the back and do some work? That’s the attitude that I’ve found there. And also, as far as me as a fan though, I would love to see more stories of all of these people.”
From Pearson’s first talks with Marvel about Black Widow, there was already in place the film’s basic idea around Nat’s secret family — their past together, then the years spent apart, and then “getting the band back together,” as he puts it. When it came to Yelena, the writer felt Natasha needed “a good foil” — not an adversary, but someone who could take on Natasha where her defenses are greatest, namely her emotional dimensions.
“There’s a clear delineation in Natasha Romanoff’s life,” says Pearson. “She had a traumatic upbringing in the Red Room, and then she defected and went to S.H.I.E.L.D., where she got to reinvent herself exactly how she wanted to be. And you see that in Winter Soldier and these other movies, where you never really know what you’re getting from her. She’s only speaking when she wants to. She’s controlling how much you know her, how much she knows you. This movie, we had to knock all that down. So the best way to do it was with these people who know her in a way that she can’t control. And for Yelena to come in… contrary to Nat, she’s like an emotional volcano. She’s just so willing to state her opinion, say what she thinks, talk about how her feelings were hurt. She’ll just say it all. What could make Natasha Romanoff more uncomfortable? It was great to come at it from, ‘Okay, I’ve got to dig into Natasha. It’s Natasha’s movie. And now we’ve got this powerhouse in Florence, but how are we going to get the best out of Natasha? It’s by having the appropriate Yelena to screw with her.’”
What did you think of Black Widow? Let’s discuss in the comments!