Black Widow: Bringing Dreykov, Taskmaster, Yelena, and More to Life
Eric Pearson, the writer of Marvel's Black Widow, gives us the inside scoop on developing the MCU movie.
This article contains Black Widow spoilers.
Eric Pearson knows a thing or two about the Marvel Universe. A self-professed comic book nerd, the screenwriter penned the Son of Odin’s third feature film, Thor: Ragnarok. His most recent gig? Another high profile MCU project, Black Widow.
The spy-action thriller takes a deep dive into Natasha Romanoff’s [Scarlett Johansson] formative years, fills in the blanks over her whereabouts between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War and introduces her missing “sister,” Yelena Belova [Florence Pugh]. After reuniting with their “faux parents” Alexei/Red Guardian [David Harbour] and Melina [Rachel Weisz], the siblings become determined to put an end to Dreykov [Ray Winstone], his super-powered goon Taskmaster [Olga Kurylenko], and the brainwashing Black Widow program.
Pearson recently spoke to Den of Geek about telling a personal Black Widow story, the Taskmaster’s shocking identity, his favorite action sequence, the post-credit scene and more….
How much free reign did Marvel give you on Black Widow?
Eric Pearson: There were definitely some pieces already in place. There were a couple of writers who had been working before me. When I came in, the idea of the mysterious family from Natasha’s past was there. Yelena Belova was a given. The Red Guardian was a given. The idea that there would be a mother character was a given, but Melina’s character had to be figured out.
Scarlett Johansson is an executive producer on this. She had been talking a lot with Cate Shortland, Kevin Feige and Brian Chapek about what they wanted. The idea of a family, a sort of American-style, undercover Russian family… the idea of this prologue from some time in the past and then escaping with the MacGuffin, that we figure out what it is later… and the idea of the getting the band-back-together plotline… were all pieces they wanted me to work with.
They had talked a lot about tone and theme and very much that this is Natasha Romanoff’s last hurrah. Cate and Scarlett were talking a lot about this being an exploration of her heart, an investigation of who she was as a character and wanting to really dig deep into who she is and who she was and how she became that person. And, also, from the Marvel side of things, trying to shed some light on these little mysteries of her past that have been alluded to, including Budapest, Dreykov’s daughter, and stuff like that.
How tricky was it crafting a standalone story that not only fit between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, but also filled in the gaps for Natasha?
That was a very hard task, a very difficult task, especially considering the villain plot. The villain stuff always tends to be the most difficult with Marvel movies and giant comic book movies. This was especially difficult going in between Civil War and Infinity War.
Number one, we knew – and this is not a spoiler – that Natasha eventually would be dying in a later movie. So, you knew she was going to survive. Also, we had to have a villain threat that felt credible, knowing that the world is still standing a movie later. We couldn’t say, Dr. Evil-style, “We are going to blow up the moon,” because we know there is a moon. The task I immediately felt befuddled by was, “How do we get a villain whose nefarious scheme could remain undetected in success.”
Fortunately, the spy-thriller genre that comes along with a Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow story allowed for us to come up with this nefarious organization, who is lurking in the shadows and puppeteering things. The villain plot was one of the trickiest things to figure out.
How important was it to tie Dreykov into Natasha and Yelena’s origin story?
Something we talked about right from the beginning was approaching this as Natasha first. That was a lens that I wanted to look at this movie through. Being that we couldn’t put up the threat that Natasha might die, everyone knew she gives her life later, her journey became more of an emotional one. For the villain, the idea of someone from her past, someone who had created all this trauma for her in the past and there’s a loose end from her past, would be a nightmare for her… that felt right.
Also, I’m obviously a big Marvel nerd. For me, it was looking at Natasha’s character. Civil War and before, she felt more closed off. She was very much choosing how she was going to let people know her. Then, I felt like in Infinity War and Endgame, Natasha was a little bit more open, a little bit more emotionally available. We were talking right from the beginning, that we needed to figure out the delineation of what happened to this character to make her open up. The best way was to go into her past.
The other baddie that created plenty of buzz was Taskmaster. How did you land on this villain, and was the identity always meant to be Antonia?
When I arrived to start working on this, it was Taskmaster as a physical nemesis because we had Dreykov as more of a chess master, a puppeteer kind of villain, someone who hides in the shadows and pulls the strings. At first, we were thinking of Tony Masters [the character’s comic book alter ego], but Masters is just a mercenary. We were dealing with the Red Room, this secret organization that has gotten one over on Natasha and remained in the shadows, even though she felt she had brought them down. I could never really make sense of why this mercenary guy, why is he an extension of General Dreykov, who runs the Red Room?
Meanwhile, we had this other mystery of whatever happened to Dreykov’s daughter. The pieces were falling into place. Whereas Tony Masters felt like a square peg in a round hole in this story, the idea of this being a loose end from Natasha’s past seemed to make sense.
We had the mystery of what happened to Dreykov’s daughter. We had Dreykov as someone who was manipulating the human brain. Our family steals the key to freewill in the opening sequence. Something important to me is I felt Natasha was constantly, in other movies, alluding to her dark past. We needed to see something from the dark past, not just the bad things that happened to her, but that she did bad things that she was ashamed of. For me, it couldn’t be, “I was chasing a bad guy and some people accidentally got hurt.” It had to be, “I chose to do something objectively bad as a means to an end, and I justified it to myself.” Natasha, as a natural-born hero, that’s the kind of thing that would haunt her forever.
The idea that Natasha would use this little girl as bait, to defect and get herself a better life and bring down her nemesis from her traumatic early years, that’s something I felt that would keep her up at night for the rest of her life. Then, what makes it even worse, “Oh, actually, you didn’t kill this little girl. She’s there and you’ve made her life so much worse. Everything you tried to destroy has gotten worse in the shadows, and you have to go back and face that. You have to confront all these horrors, and that’s the only way you can move forward.” That’s how we came to it.
How much did Cate want you to lean into the sister relationship between Natasha and Yelena?
We knew that would be the central relationship for this whole movie from the beginning. Even before we knew how it was going to be, it just felt like the idea of Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova would be the two at the center of this movie.
Then, as you write the beginning, you find little things. Something I found early on, which I found very important is, “Oh, Yelena, as a little girl, she’s the only one who didn’t know.” She went into this seemingly great happy family. That difference, the shock and the trauma of that created a big rift for them when the curtain is pulled back. Also, when you have that moment of young Natasha pulling the guard’s gun and protecting Yelena, you see what is important to Natasha.
Now, the movie brings her face-to-face with the fact that she left Yelena there. She put herself first and Yelena has been living this hard life ever since they last saw each other. We were always leaning into that as much as possible. Also, the fact that Scarlett and Florence are so fun together. The sisterly relationship is fun.
The dialogue does two things. When Yelena is needling Natasha about being “one of the big ones,” when it comes to being an Avenger, or making fun of her posing… hopefully it makes people chuckle and it’s charming. But it’s also Yelena being, “Why didn’t you take me with you?” That’s the subtext of her saying, “You left me. You went off, and you were my hero.”
You’ve scripted a Thunder God going into battle. A Hulk smashing. How did you approach Black Widow’s action beats and fighting styles?
We had Darrin Prescott running a second unit, and Rob Inch and James Young on the stunt and fight choreography. A lot of times they would come in with ideas, including when they came back from Budapest and were like, “Oh, yeah, the escape path that Yelena made for herself was this pipe, that she could ride across the building.” I was like, “That’s insane. OK.” Sometimes they would just go out and come back with crazy ideas. I always just try and find the best story and character stuff from it.
My favorite moment was the Yelena and Natasha fight when they first meet. At that point, that set hadn’t been built. I just knew it was an apartment in Budapest. I’m just writing all these cool beats that I can think of for an apartment fight. There’s a gun in the butter drawer…
I originally ended that fight in the bathroom, where it was a shower curtain that got wrapped around each of their necks and they were choking each other. It was important that it ended in a stalemate and the character connection between these two. Even though they don’t know if they can trust each other, even though they haven’t seen each other in a while, I wanted them staring into each other’s eyes, and either one could blast out at any second, but it’s that eye-to-eye connection that makes them start fighting.
The fight team comes back and goes, “We love this. We can’t do it in the bathroom. It’s too small. We have these big 18-foot walls. How about a window curtain?” So, it’s great to have the best people around you, because they are working all the nitty-gritty of the fight, but working together we see, “Oh this moment is really important for the movie and story going forward.” We all got to hone in on that.
Humor is sprinkled throughout the film. How did you land on the Black Widow battle-pose joke? And how surprised are you that audiences have really embraced it?
You never know what people are going to go for. Florence had been teasing Scarlett, and we talked about it. As far as the dialogue, the idea came from Yelena calling her a poser. Talking about Yelena’s character, and how she would be that bratty little sister, how she would needle her big sister who has gotten to live this “fabulous life” as an Avenger, as a global hero. “Poser” is one of those insults that is hard to shake, no matter who is saying it to you.
It became a gift that kept on giving with Florence, the way she would perform the pose in front of Natasha. It takes longer than it does on the page. I think on the page, it was “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” But Yelena has to do it, and she’s sore from the fight. It becomes the thing that you do with your hand, and you whip your hair. Florence is improvising a lot of that performance, and that gets really charming.
Then, as we are doing the third act, we realize, “Oh, there’s a moment where Yelena is sneaking through the vents. She has to drop down to the floor.” I ran over and went, “You have to do the pose, right?” And Florence is like, “Yeah. We have to do the pose.”
I tried to out-clever myself at one point. “What if she just lands and falls on her ass, or completely does something unexpected?” I was like, “Let’s just take the easy way and have her do the pose and then not feel comfortable.” It just felt like the right thing to do, the right thing for Yelena’s character. I think it plays really well.
In the bonus scene, Yelena visits Natasha’s grave. How much of that was designed to appease fans who felt there wasn’t enough time allotted to mourn Natasha during Avengers: Endgame?
I was going to say it wasn’t thought of at all, but it was totally thought of. It’s hard to make a movie entirely in the bubble. For our movie, Natasha’s body is not in the grave, or at least I don’t think it is. Her body remains on Vormir or magically, mystically, evaporated into the great mists of space.
But they wanted to erect a memorial for her in Ohio, where they were together. We don’t say that. The closest thing is Valentina [Julia Louis-Dreyfus] saying, “I’m allergic to the Midwest.” For me, it felt like I wanted to have that personal moment for these characters, how they would want to honor her. And then to have that touching moment be ruined by Valentina… That’s the way I like my entertainment.
Black Widow was supposed to come out before The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. What did you want to establish with that character and was that scene always written for Julia? Had she been cast yet?
They told me Valentina was coming into the universe and that they were getting Julia. We were actually supposed to be the first scene that you saw Valentina, but then the pandemic hit. I couldn’t get to the computer fast enough. I am a humongous fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She just brings it.
I loved helping create Yelena and I wanted them to have a great funny rapport. What we wanted to establish with that scene is that some time had passed. One of the most important things that people either don’t get or it doesn’t register with them, is that they know each other. Yelena says, “You’re not supposed to be bothering me on my holiday, Valentina.”
Not that they just met, or they are supposed to be meeting here. They know each other and have been working together. That’s the interesting first crumb in the trail that could happen next.
What kind of ideas did you bandy around about setting up this revenge scenario between Yelena and Hawkeye?
I didn’t set up anything at all. That was something that they told me would be happening. I didn’t write on that. Honestly, it was uncomfortable to me. As I said to Marvel, I don’t know how this is playing out. They were like, “Don’t worry. Someone is working on that.”
I’m like, “Am I screwing over some other writer? Is some other writer going to have to come back in to pay off a story?” That made me feel guilty. They were like, “Don’t worry.” I don’t know how it plays out, but I can’t wait to see.
Black Widow is now playing in theaters and is available via Disney+ Premier Access.