You wouldn’t immediately associate Black Widow, the latest MCU smash hit, with the 2006 comedy flick Little Miss Sunshine. Not unless you spoke to Eric Pearson.
Eric Pearson is one of the sharpest, funniest minds behind the current MCU. Beginning in Marvel Studios’ writers’ program, he wrote many of the one-shot short films, including Agent Carter, which swiftly got turned into a series. Pearson did pre and post-production writing on Ant-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Infinity War and Endgame, but he’s best known for turning out the absolute battering ram of a script for Thor: Ragnarok.
He has a truly deft understanding of how to inject wit into the voices of superheroes; he is, in short, the perfect person to talk to about Black Widow. Pearson wrote the screenplay for Natasha Romanoff’s swan song, so I sat down with him to find out how he goes about crafting his stories.
Eric Pearson: When I saw the name, I was like… Paul Verhoeven?! I mean, what is it like to be someone who loves movies… and also be named Paul Verhoeven?
Kotaku Australia: It’s weird. I mean, I do get mistaken often for a 60-something-year-old Dutchman with a proclivity for nudity and giant bugs.
Pearson: Sorry! I couldn’t help bring it up!
It’s totally fine! And it’s lovely to meet you. I’m such a tremendous fan of your work. Your brain, your writing DNA, is woven into so many parts of the MCU that just tick so many boxes, but this is the first time you’ve tackled a cold-war inspired spy story, right? Where do you draw from, influence wise, for Black Widow?
Pearson: Oh man… I don’t even know! Because normally, spy isn’t my genre. I guess I think of the Bond movies, I think of those immediately. Three Days of the Condor … but this is very different to all of those. This was kind of bombastic, and honestly, when I was approaching this I felt like I’d spoken a lot with Cate and Scarlett about this. And they wanted it to be an emotional investigation by Natasha Romanoff.
I saw this as a family movie! A kind of getting the band back together movie, you know? And maybe that every time we can get to a kind of emotional growth, the ceiling explodes, and assassins arrive, or somebody hits you with a car and you have to go on the run for a bit. Until we finally get to our family dinner scene, where things can actually be hashed out.
Yeah, and it’s clear you tend to really flourish in those spaces, when you have people who are deeply weird and troubled, but very enjoyable to watch, sort of bouncing off each other… I mean, how important is comedy to you in a superhero film?
Pearson: I think it’s very … I mean, comedy … I don’t know. Comedy, yes! Very important. Levity? Even more important. I would think of the opening of Winter Soldier, which isn’t a laugh a minute movie, but opening with him lapping Sam Wilson, and discussing the ideas of things he needs on his list … those aren’t gut busters, but they’re so charming, I love thinking about those kind of things, and the kinds of things you can only say in these movies.
Do you think the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight? Like, little things that provide that perspective, like these are me and my friends, watching the movie, Mystery Science Theatering the movie, right? Sometimes you want to get that perspective in there as well.
A hundred percent. Watching Yelena … she is so funny. These characters are just so likeable, Eric. How do you take characters who exist, and who have a backlog and cache in the series, and make them your own? As a writer, is it challenging stepping into a playground with so many rules, but so much fun stuff to play with?
Pearson: Well for this one, this was a very Natasha-forward story. But in doing that, they also kind of threw the gauntlet down and said, you know, we need to see a different kind of Natasha. So I’m looking at it, and there’s a Natasha pre-Civil War, and there’s Infinity War and after. And in Infinity War, and Endgame, she’s more emotionally open. She just seems like a more open person, and in Civil War and before she’s guarded, closed off, hesitant to let anyone get to know her. You’re gonna interact with her on her terms.
So something happened, but what put her at peace? What made her open up her heart, made her the person who’s gonna jump for the whole universe? And that ended up being, at least the way I saw it, the most fun to have with Natasha was… ok. We’ve gotta knock down those defensive walls. And the best foil to do it is Yelena, a little sister character. You meet her in Morocco, she’s just as violent and dangerous as Natasha, but whereas Natasha’s completely closed off, Yelena has just kind of regained control of her own emotions, and she’s just an emotional volcano.
Natasha’s trying to stay on the mission, stay cool, but there’s Yelena just barfing emotions at her! And she’s very quick to say this is my opinion on that, that hurt my feelings, that’s a lot for her to deal with! Then there’s her oafish, narcissistic father … it was all kind of in service of knocking down the very strong walls Natasha has built around her, and these are the best characters to do it. And that goes all the way up to the family dinner, where she’s literally just trying to state the mission, over and over, and they are just babbling all around her until she loses her mind.
So what you’re saying is you’ve just done Little Miss Sunshine … with guns.
Pearson: (Laughs) I didn’t think of it that way, but yes! I like that!
It’s a family, on a trip, with anger issues … anyway, you’ve got Nathasha and she has this point in the series where she became more chill. And rather than doing ninety minutes of her at a yoga retreat, that being the explanation, you’ve gone, OK. She exorcises some demons, she has some adventures. I’m just really curious as to how it feels having, in the process, injected new characters into the MCU. It’s a tightrope walk, I assume… do you have to go get permission? Or do they come to you?
Pearson: Oh, I just do stuff! And then I get told not to. I made Hela Thor’s half sister without telling anybody. I just turned in a draft. I was like… errrrrrr, hope you like this! I threw in a reference to the Crimson Dynamo in this without asking permission, and people flagged it as funny, as being a reference to another character, it’s not a problem.
Sometimes other things I’ve tried to slip in have not been let through. But it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission when you’re trying to get these things done. As far as inserting new characters into the MCU … it just feels great, and I can only take so much credit. So much extra personality and guidance was given but all the actors. Scarlett [Johansson] in particular established what she wanted to do in opening up her own titular character her, but Cate Shortland, our director, made a point to sit me down with all four main family members, and have two days of rehearsal with them just saying whatever they wanted about the scene, the movie, everything. And that was really important, ‘cos I got some great ideas for that scene, for other scenes, I got to see how they interacted with one another.
I like to think that what I wrote was pretty good, but working with them makes it great. That’s when David Harbour starts waxing poetic about the Communist party, where Florence says they’re gonna keep offering me food, and I’m not gonna eat it. The superhero pose … that was one line, but Florence wanted to act it out, improv it whilst acting as being sore from the previous fight, which makes it even funnier … it all just adds extra charm to them. So I feel great about these characters! It feels like you’re throwing creative children to the world, and you just hope they can live long lives, and do cool things.
Listen, Eric, we’re almost out of time… but do you think we’re gonna see [David] Harbour’s Red Guardian pop up again in the MCU?
Pearson: I don’t know. I would love to see all of them… but then again, in my mind, maybe it’s just me being self obsessed… I would love to see how Natasha and Mason met up, and why he’s in her debt. I would love to see the adventures of the Red Guardian! I would love to see young Melina in the nineteen eighties version of the Red Room. I want to see all of it! But I can’t make any of this happen, sadly…
I can’t give you any of this, by the way, I’m just asking what you want!
Pearson: Well, I wouldn’t mind a ten-minute short, of just Natasha and Clint, trapped in the crawlspace, playing tic-tac-toe!
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and his podcasts, DISH! and Loose Units, are available everywhere you get your podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can find him (he’s very good at hiding).