Back in the early 2000s, superhero movies were on the rise again, thanks to the success of X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s blockbuster Spider-Man (2002). But the idea of an interconnected series of superhero movies — the concept that became the Marvel Cinematic Universe — was still a few years away, while many of Marvel’s characters were owned by a wide variety of studios and production companies.
Fox had the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, Sony had Spider-Man, Paramount owned Iron Man, Universal had the Hulk, and Lionsgate had the rights to Russian spy and Avengers member Natasha Romanoff, i.e. Black Widow. All of these were in partnership with the then-fledgling Marvel Studios, headed by Avi Arad, but it was up to the individual studios to greenlight the projects.
Enter screenwriter David Hayter, who had scored a breakout success by being one of the main writers on X-Men (for which he received sole credit) and its 2003 sequel, X2. Hayter had a good relationship with Marvel as a result of those films, and he was recruited by Marvel and Lionsgate to work on a movie based around the Widow.
“It was with Lionsgate, with Marvel, with Avi Arad, and Kevin Feige, who was working with Avi at that point,” recalls Hayter. “I was attached to write and direct. We got, I think, three or four drafts into the script, and we were rolling along pretty well. Then there was one weekend, maybe it was two weekends, where BloodRayne, Ultraviolet, and Æon Flux came out, and all of them died. By that Monday, Lionsgate lost confidence that you could make a solo female comic book movie, which was a shame.”
They didn’t quite come out at the same time, but those three movies — starring Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), Milla Jovovich and Charlize Theron respectively — were all released between December 2005 and March 2006, earning a combined total of less than $90 million at the box office. None of them broke 10% on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes either.
The box office misery and critical lambasting of all three female-fronted action movies was enough, apparently, to spook the execs at Lionsgate out of continuing to develop the Black Widow movie with Marvel, putting the project on the shelf. Although Hayter told IGN at the time that Marvel shopped the property around to other studios, there didn’t seem to be any takers at that point.
“I’m proud of the script to this day,” says Hayter now. “I think you can look it up online. It was just a cool origin story for Natasha Romanoff and the Black Widow Program, and I really loved it.”
Skip ahead to 2010, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in its earliest stages and Natasha was finally introduced in Iron Man 2, played by Scarlett Johansson. The actress went on to play the Widow in in The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
But it is only now, in 2021 — and after the back-to-back success of DC’s female-led Wonder Woman (2017) and Marvel’s Captain Marvel (2019) — that Natasha is finally getting her own movie. Marvel’s Black Widow, not based on Hayter’s script, comes out July 9 after extensive pandemic-induced delays, with the film opening in theaters and available as a premium offering on Disney+ more than a year after it was originally slated to arrive.
Even though he didn’t get to make his version of Black Widow and instead ended up scripting Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen, Hayter says he did get something out of his abandoned film.
“My daughter was born while working on it,” he explains. “I went into Marvel the next day and showed Avi the pictures, and he’s like, ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful. What is her name?’ And I said, ‘She doesn’t have one.’ And he’s like, ‘What about Natasha?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, if it will get the movie made, then fine.’ So my daughter is named after the Black Widow.”
Black Widow arrives Friday, July 9, in theaters and on Disney+.