Why Black Widow’s Smells Like Teen Spirit Cover Works

Black Widow's opening uses a haunting and emotive cover of Nirvana's iconic "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Scarlett Johansson As Natasha Romanoff In Black Widow
Photo: Marvel Studios

This article contains Black Widow spoilers.

Black Widow has one of the best openings of any MCU movie yet, and I will fight you on that.

The story begins in Ohio, circa 1995, where a young Natasha Romanov is living with her Soviet spy family in quasi-but-not-totally-fake family bliss. The domestic dream ends once Alexei has completed his mission, forcing the family to make a dangerous getaway from the suburbs that ends in a tarmac shootout in which Melina gets shot and pre-teen Natasha has to pilot a plane on her own in order to save her family. Once the family lands safely in Cuba, everything falls apart for Natasha and little sister Yelena. They are drugged and integrated back into the Red Room program, which trains (read: brainwashes) young girls into becoming super spies.

We see that process in the film’s opening credit montage, which is set to a familiar song…

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Who Sings Black Widow’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Cover?

Director Cate Shortland does an amazing job packing a ton of expository information into the opening credits of Black Widow, without making it feel like an info dump. She does this by using a slowed-down, orchestral cover of Nirvana’s Gen X angst ballad “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the emotional through-line. The cover is produced by composer collective Think Up Anger, featuring singer-songwriter Malia J, who has also done covers of Seal’s “Crazy” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” in trailers for shows like Bloodlines and The Handmaid’s Tale (this is the second time a Marvel film has used a Nirvana song. In 2019’s Captain Marvel, “Come As You Are” plays as Carol Danvers remembers her life on Earth).

Why Black Widow’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Cover Works

The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” song selection is perfectly period-appropriate. The original “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out in 1991, charting high on music industry charts around the world through 1992, which means it would have been something Natasha listened to in her American life.

Little Yelena’s favorite song may canonically be Don McLean’s earnestly nostalgic but bittersweet “American Pie,” but you know the angry and disillusioned Natasha, who was older and understood the fragility of the sisters’ life so much better than her six-year-old sister, would have been drawn to the anger and pain of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Head canon: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Young Natasha’s favorite song.

While some of the opening credits is devoted to showing us how Dreykov has integrated himself into global politics through the 90s to today, the other main purpose the sequence has is to show us the horrors of the Red Room. We see footage of Natasha and Yelena being torn apart, with Natasha using the last of her effective resistance to give her little sister a photo strip of their life together in America. We see scared girls being trafficked into the Red Room, and then some of what their conditioning there looked like, interspersed with effectively suggestive shots of needles and pig test subjects.

Throughout it all, the “Smells Like Teen Spirt” cover plays, a reminder of just how far Natasha and Yelena’s adolescence is from the one they might have had in the American suburbs or, you know, anywhere outside the Red Room. A reminder of the adolescence that was taken from them. This song, which holds such nostalgic value for an entire generation of Americans coming-of-age in the 90s—but with a female voice to relate it back to Natasha’s experiences—works as incredible cultural shorthand for this emotionally complex theme.

The Story Behind Black Widow’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Cover

According to Consequence Film, when Marvel contacted Think Up Anger and Malia back in February 2020 with the opportunity, they initially thought it was a joke and didn’t respond. Malia explained: “A different version of this cover has been circulating in the TV/film industry since 2015, and I can only speculate that someone from their camp was a fan and wanted to put it in the movie!”

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“I found out during the pandemic,” continued Malia, “and the news lifted my spirits up during such a dark time. I had no idea this song would end up being in a Marvel film, let alone the opening credits. I am such a fan of Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh — to be a part of something they are involved with is a dream come true.”

Black Widow is now available to purchase on Disney+ premier or to watch in theaters.