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‘Black Widow’: Why Director Cate Shortland Knew ‘Really Gritty’ Violence Was Essential

Shortland dug deep into cinema history to find inspiration for decades' worth of bruising battles, helping shape an MCU film that actually leaves a mark.

(L-R):Taskmaster and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in Marvel Studios' BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

“Black Widow”

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Consider it a spoiler for the squeamish: by the time the first act of Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow” has wrapped, Marvel Cinematic Universe fans should prepare to be walloped by the kind of gritty violence not often found in the franchise’s films and series. In short, prepare for not only broken bones, but for unflinching shots of said crushed and snapped cartilage. And that’s before one character snaps a foe’s wrist like a twig.

While Cate Shortland’s film is rated PG-13 like the majority of its franchise brethren, “Black Widow” does push the envelope when it comes to its depiction of on-screen violence and fighting sequences in new ways. As Shortland told IndieWire during a recent interview, that level of realistic — at least for an MCU title — violence was always part of her pitch for the film, an element that goes hand in hand with her interest in bringing real truth to a superhero story.

“What I wanted to do was approach every element with the same truth,” Shortland said. “So, if we’re looking at a scene with violence, then we wanted to feel the punches and we wanted to feel the repercussions of a hit or a kick. The way we choreographed the fights, it was really exciting, because we were working with choreographers that really knew how we wanted to work and that we wanted to make it really gritty.”

Also key: finding the character beats amidst that carnage. Shortland added, “We were also looking at what was in the script and what was the heart of the story within these big, epic sequences, and where was Natasha within that? Because it’s her journey.”

While the Marvel franchise has previously been called out for building action sequences without the input or assistance of its directors — in 2018, filmmaker Lucrecia Martel said she had turned down discussions for her to helm “Black Widow” because she was told “don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that” — Shortland was quick to share her own inspirations for the film’s gritty feel.

“When I came onto the film, because I’d been making art-house films and hadn’t the experience with fights, I kind of made short films exploring what I wanted to explore in this film in terms of physical movement and violence,” she said. “I cut together sequences from the last 30, 40 years of fights that I loved or moments of violence that I loved, even stalking or chase [scenes]. Then we could all look at that and talk about it.”

Shortland has already pointed to inspirations like “No Country for Old Men” and “Thelma and Louise” for the film’s style, but she told IndieWire that its violent elements were directly inspired by films like “Silence of the Lambs” and the original “Oldboy,” along with “lots of European stuff and South Korean films,” plus documentary footage of people fighting.

And Shortland’s “mini films” continued to guide her as they ramped up for production, and the director noted that she spent considerable time reviewing them with second unit director Darrin Prescott (who previously worked on MCU films like “Black Panther” and “Captain America: Civil War”), visual effects supervisor Geoffrey Baumann (another MCU regular), and production designer Charles Wood (working on his seventh MCU film).

“We’d have lots of meetings about how we were going to do this and how we were going to achieve it,” she said. “You do it very incrementally.”

“Black Widow” will hit theaters and streaming on Disney+ via its Premier Access banner on Friday, July 9.

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