Black Widow is a (dysfunctional) family affair, say movie's cast
Plenty of thrills and laughs made shoot a bonding affair, say cast members
After a pandemic-induced delay of more than a year, Marvel's Black Widow - the swansong for Scarlett Johansson's titular character - is finally hitting cinemas here on July 8.
Covid-19 has also hit the promotion process.
Press conferences have switched from razzmatazz events to near-clandestine virtual affairs conducted across the globe in darkened rooms - which is somewhat fitting for this superhero spy blockbuster.
For this international briefing on Black Widow, journalists from across the planet were greeted with a virtual layout of the stars in their individual windows with oddly stark white backgrounds.
It's a look that could be described as hostage video meets The Brady Bunch titles. Maybe the latter was intentional given the film's familial theme.
While cast members Johansson, David Harbour, Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz interact as much as possible during a recent international Zoom press conference given the seclusion, the film itself - helmed by Australian director Cate Shortland – sees Johansson's heroine experiencing isolation as well.
Set between 2016's Captain America: Civil War and 2018's Avengers: Infinity War, former Russian agent Natasha Romanoff is a fugitive on the run.
US actress Johansson, 36, said: "At the beginning of the film, Natasha is really alone for the first time. She has always been a part of something, then suddenly she finds herself floating in this weird space and she is off her game."
Not that she is alone for long.
Natasha soon encounters Yelena Belova (Pugh), her estranged younger sister-figure who was trained in the Red Room as a Black Widow too and sets Natasha on a collision course with her dark and tormented past.
Johansson said: "Natasha is blindsided by this person from her past, who is just on fire, is a liability and has this crazy energy. It is great to see. We never get to see her like that."
English actress Pugh, 25, describes Yelena as "the annoying young assistant who says all the right things at all the wrong times".
Of course, with more than one Black Widow in the same film, there is plenty of action.
Pugh recalled: "The first sequence we shot was the Budapest fight scene. That was my first week of shooting.
"My first day I was throwing Scarlett against a wall and she was smashing my face in the sink."
It proved to be an unusual but effective way of bonding.
"There is no greater way to break the ice than wrestling Scarlett Johansson to the floor and trying to choke each other," said Pugh.
As with many siblings there is teasing and taunting. One scene in particular makes fun of Natasha's signature fighting stance. A joke Johansson jokingly had a grievance with.
"I spent 10 years building up this iconic pose with such weight to it, and she... In one second she ripped it out, tore it, shredded it up and stomped on it."
Pugh's defence? "You laughed occasionally."
US actor and Stranger Things star Harbour, 46, plays Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian, former father figure to Natasha and Yelena and washed-up Soviet version of Captain America.
Imbued with superstrength, he is also given to over-sharing and telling possibly tall tales.
Many of the film's funnier moments come from Alexei and his insistence that he is still in his prime, despite a late-stage dad-bod.
For Harbour, the character is more than comic relief.
"He has to be bombastic because he cannot stop and feel his failures. So he has to confabulate a psychotic reality where he is the hero, and that's inherently funny," he said.
The "mother" of the dysfunctional spy family is Weisz' Melina Vostokoff, a senior-ranking Black Widow.
The 51-year-old English actress said: "I love stories that are about women and directed by women. It was wonderful to tell a story with three complicated, strong women."
While Weisz is no stranger to action scenes, it was Black Widow's quieter moments that proved to be her favourite, such as the family reunion on Melina's farm.
She said: "Shooting that scene was delightful. We were upstaged by the pigs most days. It was really unlike anything I have ever done.
"It was incredibly intimate and emotional. But I had to steel myself most days to stop laughing at David Harbour."