Joss Whedon talks Black Widow’s painful past, romantic relationships and more

May 05, 2015 | 11:59 a.m.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

Warning: This post contains spoilers.

Rumors are buzzing about the reasons behind “Avengers: Age of Ultron” director Joss Whedon’s decision to leave Twitter, with some observers blaming fan backlash about Black Widow’s role in the Marvel film.

Portrayed on the big screen by Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff, is a spy who abandons U.S.S.R. secret ops to fight for the good guys, joining S.H.I.E.L.D. and later the Avengers Initiative. One version of her origin story in the comics reveals that Natasha was raised by the so-called Black Widow Ops program at the covert “Red Room” complex, brainwashed from childhood and trained in combat and espionage.

It’s this back story that makes its way to the silver screen in Whedon’s “Avengers” sequel in an emotional exchange between Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, with both characters lamenting their inability to have children — Banner because of his gamma-ray-induced Hulkdom and Widow because she was sterilized as part of the Red Room’s “graduation ceremony.”

Joss Whedon waves during an event promoting "Avengers: Age of Ultron" in Seoul, South Korea on April 17. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Joss Whedon acknowledges fans at an event promoting “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in Seoul on April 17. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

“She’s defined by [pain] in a way that she generally doesn’t show, and when she gets to, it’s very affecting,” Whedon said. “I think we went deeper with her than with anybody else.”

Whedon, an outspoken feminist long known for creating complex female characters like the heroines of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” has said that Black Widow is “the most fascinating” of the Avengers.

But while “Age of Ultron” is currently dominating the box office, the movie is drawing some criticism online for portraying Widow as wanting some version of a domestic life and mourning what happened to her in the Red Room. Adding to the controversy are comments by “Avengers” actors Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans, calling Widow a “slut” and a “whore.” The actors apologized, but Renner has since reiterated his sentiments about Johansson’s character. And recently leaked emails from the Sony hack, posted at Wikileaks.org, revealed a conversation between Sony’s Michael Lynton and Marvel Entertainment Chief Executive Ike Perlmutter criticizing female-led superhero films.

Hero Complex sat down with Joss Whedon before the film’s release to talk about Black Widow’s relationships with the male Avengers, his vision for her development since her introduction in “Iron Man 2” and his vision for Black Widow’s development.

Renner said a key aspect of his character Hawkeye was his relationship with Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. "The closest thing I could really link to was Scarlett’s character, Black Widow, because they have a history," Renner said. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel)

Renner said a key aspect of his character Hawkeye was his relationship with Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. “The closest thing I could really link to was Scarlett’s character, Black Widow, because they have a history,” Renner said. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel)

In “Avengers,” we saw a close relationship between Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff.

I find strong bonds between men and women that aren’t sexual not only cool and useful, but very romantic in a broad sense. There’s a lot of hate from the Clintasha crowd. It was never my intention that they were an item. I thought what was awesome was two people who would lay down their lives for each other who are not trying to sleep with each other. People keep saying that doesn’t exist, that men and women can’t be friends unless blah, blah, blah, and I’m just like, “Oh shut up.”

When did the idea of a romance between Natasha and Bruce Banner begin percolating in your mind?

You know, we went there. I was trying to trace it back, because I honestly don’t remember before. We talked a little about the chemistry they had, just together in their scenes, and then I think it started with the lullaby. Like, “If you have the Hulk on the team, you know what would be cool is if Natasha’s the one who could talk him down.” And then it started to tick in my head, like, “There’s actually a truth there about who they are and how they connect that’s now very interesting,” and it built from there. Oddly enough, the lullaby itself is one of the last scenes that we finished because of the effects. And when we finished it, we were like, “This is way more romantic and way more physical than it was when it was post-viz, or a mark on a suit on a platform. It suddenly became that the romance was way more front and center in it than I expected.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, left, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, left, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

What about the words she says?

“Hey there, big guy. The sun’s gettin’ real low.” I actually added that later in the game, I think something basically to get his attention and to have a phrase that he knows, this is about to start. I wanted to do as little with talking as possible, because it’s all going on there [points to his eyes], which is amazing, because two of those are not real — they were created by ILM, and yet they are so full of life. And I hate to say it, but he’s dead sexy as the Hulk.

Black Widow’s transformation from her introduction in “Iron Man 2” to the end of this film is remarkable. How did you go about that process?

The “Iron Man 2” version of her I like very well. “Oh, she’s a spy. Oh, she works for S.H.I.E.L.D. Oh, she kicks ass.” That’s not something that bothers me. I’m always interested in that person. But what’s fun for me is in the “Avengers” movies, I get to spend time with people that don’t have their own franchises. And I’m always looking for pain, because pain usually contains truth and humor.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Entertainment)

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in “The Avengers.” (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Entertainment)

A lot of it comes from the comics, because there’s something I read that’s stayed with me like a lodestar, and I feel bad because I don’t remember who wrote it, but it was a newer comic about Black Widow, and it made the distinction, “You’re not a superhero, you’re a spy.” And I always come back to that, time and again. Duplicity and moral ambiguity and all of the things that a spy needs to excel at are not heroic traits, and that she has been trained to be something that is considered less than a person, whereas a hero is generally considered more. And this whole movie is about saying, “Well, how different are they? And what is good about this whole idea of heroes? And what not so much?” And the word “monsters” is thrown about a great deal, and that’s not for nothin’.

But you know, someone who from in the first [“Avengers” film] reveals that she has to deal with the consequences of her past, that it’s always going to be with her, you take any one of these characters, there’s something in there that they’re not talking about, that’s driving them to be who they are, to do as much as they’re doing. And in this movie, I got to really explore that with her …. Her scene with Mark, in its first iteration, was actually longer, and we ended up cutting out a part of it, which, by the way, is a decision I understand, but it was painful, because they’re so good in the bedroom scene. We all hugged when it was over. I was like, “I’m so proud of you guys.”

About Widow’s sterilization back story. What sort of thoughts went through your head when you decided to include that? It’s sort of like castrating a soldier, but it’s different somehow, and I’ve been trying to equate it to something …

I never tried to. I do think it’s something that disconnects her from life, from the life cycle …. Not everybody wants to have children. It’s very easy to say something that sounds old-fashioned and sexist. But the fact of the matter is that the ability to create life is extraordinary. And I think the idea that she doesn’t have that makes sense for someone to whom life for a long time didn’t mean very much, and to have that sort of come back and hit her emotionally in a way that she’s probably never admitted to herself, let alone to anyone else.

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Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, left, Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Chris Hemsworth as Thor, left, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, left, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Chris Evans Steve Rogers in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Ultron (voiced by James Spader), left, and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, left, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Iron Man's Hulkbuster suit (Robert Downey Jr.) versus the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, left, and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment: Marvel)

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Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), left, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), left, and one of his mercenaries (Bentley Kalu) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Thomas Kretschmann as Baron von Strucker in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), left, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) assemble in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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The heroes of "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," from left: Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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The villainous Ultron Prime (voiced by James Spader) in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, left, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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From left: Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Chris Evans as Captain America in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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From left: Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Don Cheadle as James "Rhodey" Rhodes in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Elizabeth Olsen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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An actor films on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner are seen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Director Joss Whedon and star Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Actors in motion-capture gear on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are seen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson is seen filming 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' in Pont-Saint-Martin on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix / Getty Images)

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Jeremy Renner is seen filming on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix / Getty Images)

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General view of location of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' in Pont-Saint-Martin in Aosta, Italy, on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

Did you worry that you were taking away something inherently female about the one woman Avenger (up until Scarlet Witch) on the team?

No, I never thought about that, because I don’t think it makes her a man. She still resembles Scarlet Johansson …. It’s very unlikely that there’s going to be a huge action sequence that revolves around her giving birth in one of these movies. There was actually an entire issue about Jessica Jones giving birth, of “The Avengers” [comic] that Brian Bendis wrote, but in comics, you have more opportunities. To me, I look at it and I wonder how my daughter sees that, and how she registers it. I don’t know that she does, necessarily. She’s 10. I think to a very young crowd, they’re just going to go, “Well, she’s sad about her past,” and not really get it. But it’s kind of a grown-up notion, and it’s kind of a weird joy that these movies are about grownups, and very few people still make those. I know that they’re like, “Oh, comic book movies are ruining everything,” but to me, I’m like, I’ve got some very interesting people, and the thing about comic book movies is that they give you these grand metaphors to build your characters from and to find them within. So for me, it becomes way more personal, than if that’s what the whole movie was about. But I’ll be curious to see what people’s reactions are to that, because they’ve been varied I think. Some people were very affected by that, and some people were like, “Eh.” I’m just glad they let me put it in the movie. I’m like, “Can we have a scene where she’s really sad, and she tells him this dark secret, and they’re in love?” And they’re like, “OK, put that in our action movie!”

When we sat down before “The Avengers” in 2012, you talked about the testosterone-fueled ensemble needing Cobie Smulders’ character Agent Maria Hill to inject some feminine energy. This time around, we also got Scarlet Witch as well as supporting characters like Laura Barton, Helen Cho, Peggy Carter ….

We brought in a couple of extra dudes, too. But, yeah, you want to level the playing field a little bit. These characters matter to me. My daughter, she’s like, “My favorites are Scarlet Witch and Maria Hill.” And I’m like, “Yeah, they need this. They need to be represented.”

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | @LATHeroComplex

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