The Russo brothers explain why they felt Scarlett Johansson's character took a soul-wrenching action

By Anthony Breznican
May 02, 2019 at 10:37 AM EDT
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Black Widow has forever questioned whether she’s doing right or wrong.

Now moviegoers are having the same debate about the superhero’s choices — especially over one crucial scene in Avengers: Endgame.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo told EW why they felt Scarlett Johansson’s hero does what she does, and why they think it brings her some resolution.

***Spoilers Below***

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In Endgame, Black Widow is paired with a longtime partner in special ops, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, as they venture back in time to seek the Soul Stone on the planet Vormir, where Red Skull stands as a guardian who will release it as part of an irreversible trade.

The cost: “You must lose what you love.” After all that they’ve been through together — most recently her rescuing him from his bloodthirsty path as the vigilante Ronin — there’s little doubt that Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton love each other.

Now it’s a question of who will go over the cliff’s edge so that the survivor may claim the Soul Stone. Black Widow and Hawkeye find themselves on opposite sides — each wants to be the sacrifice to allow the other to continue.

“It’s a fight to see who’s going to kill themselves,” Joe Russo told EW. “It’s a crazy concept for a scene. And as you’ve seen in The Avengers, she’s a better fighter than he is. So when it comes down to a fight between the two of them, she wins.”

But it’s close. They’re both hanging on the edge after a knock-down, drag-out when Natasha finally does what she has previously been unable to do to her troubled past as a child assassin — she lets go.

Controversial Fallout

Natasha tells Clint he needs to live because undoing the Snap will bring back his family, and some critics have complained that this places his life above hers.

It’s not the first time Black Widow has sparked an uproar among fans. Her nascent romance with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron also angered some moviegoers, particularly a scene in which she calls herself a “monster” because she was forcibly sterilized as part of her Red Room indoctrination as a Russian assassin.

Constance Grady of Vox compared her fate in Endgame to the comic book trope of “fridging,” in which a woman is killed to motivate a male character. (It originates from a Green Lantern storyline that saw his girlfriend murdered and stuffed inside a refrigerator.)

Comics scribe Gail Simone coined the term, and maintains a list of examples at Women in Refrigerators. Although she hasn’t weighed in on this particular instance, her term has been invoked in repeatedly in the past week to criticize the Black Widow storyline. Rosie Knight of Esquire was one of them, writing “it’s hard not to interpret that the character felt Clint had more reason to live thanks to his [kids], whereas she felt her life was somehow worth less because she thought she’d never have one. Natasha Romanoff was a strong character who deserved better than that reductive thinking.”

In an interview conducted before those essays were published, the Russos actually confirm that motivation, but they said they intended it as a last powerful act by a soldier who was willing to give all, not just to save the world but to save a friend.

While the filmmakers don’t necessarily feel Hawkeye’s life is more valuable than Widow’s, the Russo brothers acknowledge that his commitment to restoring his family does factor in.

One For All

“We open the movie on [Hawkeye’s] family,” Anthony Russo said. “She reminds him of it in the scene. They both may have the mission in that moment where, ‘I’m not going to let you kill yourself,’ but Hawkeye has mixed agendas there, which I feel takes the edge off his focus in a way that she doesn’t.”

“To me it’s one of the sadder scenes in the movie because it’s really putting two people in a Sophie’s choice, putting two people in the position where, do you let your friend die or do you die?” Joe said.

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The Russos say Natasha is definitely not throwing her life away — she’s making a choice to place Hawkeye and the universe at large above herself.

“The theme of the movie is, can you change your destiny, and what does it cost to do it? And are you willing to pay that cost?” Joe said. “It’s a resounding yes from the Avengers. In [Infinity War] they said, ‘We don’t trade lives,’ and there was a desire to protect. And in this movie, there’s now a desire to sacrifice in order to accomplish the goal.

“I think that that’s a natural progression, right?” he added. “‘Well, the first thing we’re going to do is try to protect everybody.’ And then when you realize it can’t work that way, then true heroes step up and are willing to sacrifice for the greater good.”

Black Widow Movie

This raises questions about the supposed Black Widow movie that’s rumored to begin filming soon, with Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland directing. Reportedly Rachel Weisz and David Harbour are in talks as costars, and unconfirmed rumors claim Emma Watson is in consideration for a part.

The project appears to be legitimate, although Marvel Studios hasn’t officially announced it yet.

Will it be a prequel? Set in an alternate dimension? We don’t know.

“Natasha is a character whose identity was as a villain, prior to becoming a hero,” Joe Russo said. “In The Winter Solider, that’s an issue for Cap, because she still dabbles in shades of gray, and he’s a black-and-white guy.”

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He continued, “If you go back and look at that film, there’s a scene between the two of them where she says, ‘I’m struggling with my identity, and I want people to trust me because I want to be part of a family,’ and he says ‘I trust you.’ They’re growing, she’s growing to become part of this unit, and I think that she’s learning the true value of community.”

That’s why she can’t move on from the failure to stop the Snap. “By the time she gets to this point in the series, at the beginning of this movie, she’s doing everything she can to try and hold the community together,” Joe said.

That’s why she’s still commanding rapid-response teams from around the world and throughout the galaxy from Avengers HQ. “She’s the watcher on the wall still,” Joe said. “When she gets to that [Soul Stone] scene, I think she understands that the only way to bring the community back is for her to sacrifice herself.”

Active choices

How does the actress feel about the character’s arc?

Johansson told EW that the hardest thing for a strong person like Natasha to accept throughout her journey is the realization, “Oh, I haven’t really made any active choices in my life.”

In this case, however fans and critics may feel about it, Natasha does make a choice for herself.

“She’s come into her own as a woman, saying, ‘Who am I? And what do I want? And what do I need out of my relationships and also out of my own self?’” the actress told EW in our Endgame roundtable, conducted ahead of the film’s release.

“She’s someone who’s understanding her own self-worth,” Johansson added. “And that is such a powerful journey to see anybody take, but certainly to see a woman on screen represented in that way: a flawed superhero with a gray moral compass coming to terms with what’s happened to her.”

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