When Black Widow finally arrives on July 9, it will introduce audiences to one of the character’s longtime comic partners: Yelena Belova. After it was announced that Florence Pugh had signed on to the film, fans expected to see a relationship similar to the comic stories, where Yelena and Natasha are more antagonists than allies. But in Black Widow, the only antagonistic connections fans should expect are the ones inherent of tricky family dynamics.
“Confusing, bratty, emotional, and exactly what you’d expect a younger sister to be like” is how Pugh summed up the relationship between the two characters when Nerdist visited the set of Black Widow in the fall of 2019. “Yelena is deeply annoying and pretty much takes a piss out of everything Natasha does. But fundamentally, they have a very unique and strong relationship that drives them through the film.”
Scarlett Johansson, for her part, holds a similar mindset. “I have a lot of empathy for that relationship and for both of those characters’ history and trauma. And that shared history, as dark as it is, is what brings them together,” teased Johansson. “There’s a lot of love between them. But their relationship is sort of contentious and everything else that comes with that sort of sisterly relationship.”
“We knew that we wanted to include the Yelena character really early on, but that character really transformed over the months of prep that we did in development,” shared Johansson who, in addition to working closely with writer Eric Pearson, also acted as an executive producer on the film. “The story of two women competing against one another and trying to take each other down and sort of dethroning one another felt not interesting. It just didn’t feel like what I wanted to explore and I think not what audiences wanted to see, and it just felt very old fashioned and not true.”
In Black Widow, Pugh’s Yelena is not just a sister figure to Natasha. She’s a significant part of the character’s personal and emotional arc, something that helped the creative team shape the character into what fans will see on screen.
“Taking that feeling and kind of running with that instinct, the relationship developed into what it is, which is a relationship that is grounded in a shared experience and a knowingness and sisterhood,” said Johansson. “And with that comes many complicated feelings. Obviously, not all good fuzzy ones, but visceral, real, grounded ones. It’s a very special relationship and I think it’ll be very touching for a lot of people.”
A Family Reunited
Black Widow will introduce us to the family Natasha had before meeting the Avengers: her mother figure and fellow Black Widow Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), her father figure Alexei Shostakov a.k.a. Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Pugh’s Yelena. The group of spies went undercover when Yelena and Natasha were both young girls, a hybrid of a found family that might even be more dysfunctional than the Avengers. But speaking of the Avengers, don’t expect Yelena to have opinions on Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, because that’s not the story that Black Widow is here to tell.
“It’s more been about our family and where we came from and how we are broken and how we fix it,” says Pugh. “We meet these characters as they’ve kind of developed as adults away from one another. And figuring out their relationships as grown-ups is tricky because they still have the same patterns as when they were kids or when they were parents. Figuring all of that out was so much fun, especially with David and Rachel. They’re like this big bonkers mad loud Russian family and they have a lot of love for each other.”
The Red Room
In many ways, the heart of Black Widow is about how our past shapes us and how we can overcome it. In addition to revealing Natasha’s family and life before her time with Marvel’s core superhero team, Black Widow will touch on certain aspects of the character’s past that have, until now, only existed in brief flashes—namely, the Red Room.
As the trailers have indicated, Natasha and Yelena will find themselves teaming up for a personal mission that brings the two sisters together for the first time in many years. We know how Natasha’s life turned out—how she defected to S.H.I.E.L.D. and eventually found the Avengers. But we don’t know anything about Yelena’s story and it’s safe to say she went in a very different direction.
“I think that’s one of the heartbreaks about this film—that it’s essentially about women who have been abused, whether it’s about a system or whether it’s about physical abuse,” says Pugh. “They’ve all been, in some way, trapped. And I think this film is a realization of the life that was taken from them. And that’s how Natasha and Yelena start repairing it. I don’t think she’s too happy about [The Red Room], then again it’s the only thing she’s known.”
Yelena’s MCU Future
Pugh, who before she joined Marvel was steadily making a name for herself in films like Midsommar, Little Women, and Fighting With My Family, was no stranger to undertaking complex roles or working with top-tier talent. But Black Widow proved to be a different experience.
“I’ve never been on a film this scale, but it’s incredibly daunting coming up to this and knowing what prep you should be doing in your own time, what is the prep Marvel expects you to do, how physical are the roles,” Pugh admitted. Thankfully, her on-screen “sister” was more than willing to do what any good Avenger would do: take a new superhero under her wing and show her the ropes. “Scarlett was super helpful with all of that,” Pugh continued. “Just sitting there and listening to what she said about the last nine years of her career in this Marvel Universe.”
Despite her no-nonsense attitude and newcomer status, Pugh is hopeful audiences will fall in love with the MCU’s newest super spy the same way she has.
“What I like about Yelena, and the Yelena we’ve created even in terms of the costumes, is that there is no message. There’s no bells and whistles with her. She kind of gets the job done and whether that’s fighting someone or verbally abusing someone, it’s all pretty straightforward. And I’ve loved playing her. She’s ready to fight, whether it’s an argument or physical—there’s no stopping her.”
Featured Image: Marvel Studios