SPOILER WARNING: Do not read if you have not seen “Black Widow,” currently in theaters and available on Premium Access on Disney Plus.
For most of her interview with Variety, Cate Shortland was an open book: Candid and funny and thrilled to get to talk about her experience directing Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow.” That is, until she was asked about the film’s post-credits scene.
“Are you listening to this,” she asked the unseen (and totally silent) publicists overseeing the Zoom interview. “Are you listening to this, my friends?”
Even after further assurances that whatever she says won’t be published until after her film’s release, Shortland practically caved in on herself with worry.
“I’ve been told I’m not allowed to speak about it!”
Shortland’s hesitation is understandable given Marvel’s legendary aversion to spoilers — and especially given what happens in the post-credits scene, after “Black Widow” ends with a reunited family and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) setting off to bring the Avengers team back together once more.
In the scene, Yelena (Florence Pugh) pulls up in a truck with a dog, parking in a bucolic, woodsy setting. She walks up to a grave, and we see that it’s Natasha’s — we’ve jumped from the events of “Black Widow” (which took place between 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War”) to some point after the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” when Natasha sacrificed her life so the Avengers could acquire the Soul Stone.
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Her gravestone reads “Daughter Sister Avenger.” The gravesite reminds the audience that the Avengers are celebrities: It’s covered in stuffed animals, which Yelena rearranges as she cries (and whistles, like she used to do as a kid with her sister). As Yelena mourns, a woman standing next to her artlessly blows her nose: It’s the Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was first introduced on “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney Plus.
“Sorry,” the Contessa says to Yelena. “I’m allergic to the Midwest.” (This statement reinforces that Nat has been buried in Ohio, where the opening scenes of “Black Widow” were set.)
“You’re not supposed to be bothering me on my holiday time, Valentina,” Yelena says.
“Bothering you? No, no, no, no — I’m just here paying my respects,” the Contessa answers. “You know, coming here makes you look desperate,” Yelena says. With a barky laugh worthy of “Veep’s” Selina Meyer, the Contessa says, “OK!”
The Contessa then takes a tablet out of her purse. “I’ve got your next target — thought I’d hand deliver it,” she says. “Maybe you’d like a shot at the man responsible for your sister’s death.” She hands the tablet to Yelena, and the man in the photo is Clint Barton (AKA, Hawkeye, AKA Jeremy Renner).
“Kind of a cutie, don’t you think?” the Contessa asks teasingly.
The movie ends with Yelena looking at Clint’s photo.
From this scene, we learn several key things about Yelena since the events in “Black Widow”: She works for the Contessa, likely on the same team for which Val recruited “Falcon and Winter Soldier’s” John Walker (Wyatt Russell). And though Yelena is clearly annoyed by her boss, she does appear to be living her life on her own terms, which is what she wanted after her liberation from her forced duties as an assassin for General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). It’s also emotionally satisfying to know that Yelena stayed close with Natasha.
But what’s most important about this scene is how it indicates the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Yelena’s part in it. She’s being sent to kill an Avenger under the pretense that Clint — Nat’s best friend, and for whom she sacrificed herself so that he wouldn’t die to get the Soul Stone — is “responsible” for Nat’s death.
The scene sets up, in other words, Yelena resuming her MCU journey later this year on the TV show “Hawkeye” when it premieres on Disney Plus.
Pugh and Shortland spoke with Variety about how the scene came together, and how Johansson’s presence was felt even though she wasn’t there.
The scene was shot during the “Black Widow” reshoots in early 2020.
Pugh said the end credits scene wasn’t part of the movie’s original production schedule, which took place from May through September of 2019. “We actually shot that scene right around when we did reshoots for ‘Black Widow,’” Pugh said.
The additional scenes were completed in winter 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought production everywhere to a halt. And for Pugh, having just worked with Johansson during the reshoots made filming at Natasha’s grave less emotionally devastating.
“I was doing scenes again with Scarlett, and being strapped to her on various machines, and us giggling again,” Pugh said. “And then the following week, I was at her grave!”
“It was quite shocking to fast-forward that quickly,” she continued. “But wonderful to have only seen Scarlett the week previous. I think it would have been sadder if it had been many, many months later.”
Pugh was especially pleased for Yelena to be featured in the post-credits scene because she said, “I didn’t know that there was going to be one.”
The scene is when Pugh realized that her character was continuing in the MCU — and soon.
“Black Widow” is almost certainly the end of the MCU road for Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff. In an interview with Variety, the actor said: “I really am happy with the work I accomplished in my last decade-plus at Marvel. I feel like I’m going out on a high note with a movie I’m incredibly proud of. I feel like my work with Natasha is complete, if that is such a thing.”
But it’s likely just the start for David Harbour’s Red Guardian and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff — and we know we’ll be seeing Pugh as Yelena soon. But how soon appears to have been a surprise even to Pugh. “There’s always talks, but I didn’t ever really imagine that it would continue quite so quickly,” she said.
And the scene itself gave Pugh direction about what Yelena is doing in the present day, as well as what had led up to the graveside scene.
“She’s going to continue what she’s good at, and despite her sister not being there, she’s back working,” Pugh said. “If you look at her costume, and you look at the way that she’s dressed herself, it shows someone that’s flourishing.”
After all, as Yelena told Nat, she has dreams of what she wants her life to be, if she’s ever truly free of the Red Room — as Pugh put it, “because she’s never had control over her life.”
“So to me, it was just really wonderful to kind of jump ahead and see she has been surviving,” Pugh said of the scene, which also points specifically toward Yelena’s future on a mission to kill Clint. “But, of course, it sets up a whole different challenge — which is Natasha’s fighting partner.”
The scene’s location was based on a suggestion from Johansson.
“Black Widow” ends with Natasha still alive, her ever-changing hair cut to the blonde bob she sports in “Infinity War,” as she flies off to reunite with her Avengers compatriots and ultimately fight against Thanos. Audiences know, of course, that it will be the most important mission of her life — and one that ends with her death. Shortland saw the post-credits scene as the best way to honor that sacrifice.
“I know the reaction that fans had to Scarlett’s death in ‘Endgame,’” the director said. Having Yelena visit her gravesite allowed for a final reminder of how lasting Natasha’s impact was on her sister’s life. “The fact that we got to see that moment between her and her sister, it means that to me, she is eternal, you know?”
Where that gravesite was located turned out to be just as important to achieving that goal. Throughout “Black Widow,” Natasha is reminded of just how famous she’s become as an Avenger, and the MCU has already depicted how the Avengers’ fame perpetuated after their deaths, like the ubiquitous memorials to Tony Stark in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and the museum exhibit dedicated to Steve Rogers in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
Johansson, however, knew Natasha would want to avoid that kind of attention as much as possible. “Scarlett talked to me about it: Her character would have hated a public funeral,” Shortland said. “So I felt like the fact that she’s buried in a really private place, in the boondocks somewhere, is perfect.”
Yelena’s whistle almost got a response.
When Yelena whistles while standing at Natasha’s grave, it’s the same pattern she’d used with her sister as kids — and one that Natasha would always respond to with her own whistle. Shortland holds the moment for an agonizing beat, as Yelena — and the audience — waits to see if somehow Natasha will magically respond.
She doesn’t, perhaps final proof that the character is well and truly gone. But that wasn’t always the case.
“I heard that whistle, too,” Shortland said, referring to Natasha’s phantom response. “I think we even — no, we never put it in. But we talked about it.”
Working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus is exactly like you think it would be.
Before the pandemic, “Black Widow” was going to debut a few months before “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” premiered on Disney Plus, so when Shortland shot the post-credits scene, it was the first time Louis-Dreyfus was playing the Marvel Comics icon who historically has had ties to the nefarious organization Hydra — and a complicated history with SHIELD chief Nick Fury.
So what direction did Shortland have for the multi-Emmy-winning actor?
“Nothing,” Shortland said with a laugh. “I think I told her that I really loved her. I think at times I just asked for really, really small things between them. But she came on as a fully formed genius. There’s not much I could have done except mess her up.”