In July 2019, Marvel announced Black Widow, the long-awaited solo film for super spy and original Avenger Natasha Romanoff, would debut on May 1, 2020. Then the COVID pandemic stopped the world in its tracks. But now the movie has an official release date of July 9, 2021.

When Nerdist visited the set of Black Widow two years ago along with a handful of other outlets, COVID wasn’t a threat. Scarlett Johansson was at the tail end of a months-long shoot, getting ready to share Natasha Romanoff with the world again. Sitting on the Pinewood Studios set, dressed in her trademark black suit with braided hair that looked almost as complicated as her Red Room past, the actress behind 10 years and seven films of Natasha Romanoff reflected comfortably on the alter ego she’s lived with for the past decade. And she teased what fans can look forward to in Natasha’s much-anticipated new story.

Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, and David Harbour in Black Widow

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Staying Together Is More Important Than How We Stay Together

“I think Natasha has a lot of compassion,” Johansson told everyone on the set visit. “We’ve seen glimpses of it and it’s developed as we’ve been able to bring the character to the forefront in different installments. But she’s a very compassionate person. And that compassion drives a lot of her decision making.”

Where the story of Black Widow starts—directly after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War—is an example of that compassion, as Natasha fights (and fails) to keep her Avengers family together in the wake of disagreements caused by the Sokovia Accords.

“She’s always had some safety net,” Johansson shared. “I don’t know if safety net is the best way to put it, but she’s always been an operative and she’s actually never really had to, for better or worse, make any decisions for herself. She’s made decisions, but she’s part of this greater whole. And whether it was the Red Room or S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers, she’s had this kind of family for better or worse. And then after Civil War, it’s all gone. Everything is gone.”

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Black Widow finds Natasha on the run from the government, including Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). While it certainly isn’t the first time the character has gone rogue, it is the first time she’s the core protagonist: the center of a story that’s all about her past, her actions, and her emotional journey.

“For the first time, she’s really just on her own,” Johansson shared. “She could totally disappear into the ether and that would be that. She doesn’t have to return to anything. Which is a pretty terrifying place to be when you’ve been attached to something for so long and now you’re suddenly, like, floating. And obviously, she’s very self-sufficient and she has connections everywhere. But she’s kind of on the lam and she’s feeling like a fugitive.”

I’ve Got Red in My Ledger

Black Widow essentially backtracks, picking up in the past. Well before Natasha sacrifices herself to retrieve one of the six precious Infinity Stones. But the film very much focuses on where the character is now as opposed to where she was a decade ago.

“We never intended on doing an origin story. I never wanted to do an origin story, because I just didn’t want to go back that far. I wanted to go forward,” revealed Johansson.

While the 2021 film does dive into Natasha’s past as she’s drawn into a personal mission involving her old spy family (Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff, David Harbour’s Alexei Shostakov, and Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova), Black Widow lives in the present day, layering what we know of Natasha with the person she was before she joined the Avengers.

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“It’s been an interesting evolution and it’s been interesting to discover [Natasha] with each director that I’ve worked with and what they see, what they’re interested in and what side they want to uncover,” said Johansson, speaking in reference to director Cate Shortland. The director chose to focus on the softness we don’t normally get to see from the character. “With Cate, it’s just been so liberating because she’s not afraid of any of the ugliness or what is perceived to be ugliness: the embarrassing uncomfortable parts, like the soft underbelly. That’s what she wants to make movies about. We see Natasha in her real true strength in this film more than ever before, and I think Cate will bring that out, too.”

From Natalie Rushman to Natasha Romanoff

Natasha Romanoff has gone from Red Room assassin to founding Avenger, from saving New York City to saving the entire universe. But the biggest evolution of the character isn’t the suits or the hairstyles. It’s Natasha herself who has, over the course of the past decade, evolved from guarded team player to selfless hero.

When Johansson first stepped onto the screen in 2010, she was Natalie Rushman: an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. spy who didn’t even appear as her comic book alter ego until halfway through the movie. Johansson, who was only 24 at the time, admitted that the character’s introduction wasn’t that different from how she personally felt about her own self-image.

“You look back at Iron Man 2 and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized and really talked about like she’s a piece of something,” Johansson reflected. “Like a possession, or whatever… a piece of a**. I think Tony even refers to her as something along those lines. That felt maybe at that time like a compliment, you know what I mean? Because my thinking was different. My own self-worth was probably measured against that type of comment more, like a lot of young women, probably. And then you kind of come into your own and you understand your own self-worth.”

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Back then, Black Widow was the lone female Avenger. Today, the character might reference her own quote from Avengers: Infinity War: “She’s not alone.” The MCU has powerful and diverse heroes like Captain Marvel, Scarlet Witch, Okoye, Shuri, and Wasp. New Disney+ programs include Hawkeye (with a focus on Kate Bishop), She-Hulk, and Ms. Marvel.

“Now it’s changing. A lot of young girls are getting a much more positive message,” Johansson noted, reflecting on the progression. “But it’s been incredible to be a part of that shift and be able to come out on the other side.”

And Then I Got This Family

It’s easy to say we could’ve had a Black Widow movie years ago, when audiences clamored for it. But Johansson thinks that making a movie at that time wouldn’t have been as fulfilling—for her or for the character she’s grown up with. “Her power is in her sexuality. And then that changed over time. It kind of became her power… her strength was actually her vulnerability,” Johansson explained.

Audiences saw that vulnerability most clearly in last year’s Avengers: Endgame, when Natasha took on the responsibility keeping together the remaining Avengers during the five-year snap. “I think she is, in some weird messed up backwards way, if any person could be truly altruistic, it would totally be her,” explained Johansson. “’Cause nobody is, obviously. But actually the act, her sacrifice, was a truly altruistic offering. And I think she really sacrifices herself in a way just really out of love. She saves her friend. She saves everyone, but she saves her friend. And I think that just being in that kind of headspace and being able to make that decision, that sort of selfless decision, that selfless act, is so incredibly powerful. It’s amazing that she could be in that headspace to do that.”

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Like anyone who has lived with a character for over a decade, Johansson speaks thoughtfully and passionately about Natasha, attributing the character’s development to not just the changes in pop culture but also to her own changes as a parent, woman, and actress.

“It’s hard because I’m inside it, but I think a lot of that is also from in me,” shared Johansson. “I’m a mom and my life is different… obviously 10 years have passed and so much has happened and I have a much different, more involved understanding of myself as a woman. I’m in a different place in my life. And I feel more forgiving of myself as a woman and sometimes, probably not enough, I’m more accepting of myself, I think. And all of that is related to that move away from the hyper-sexualization of this character.”

Black Widow premieres in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9.