HEAT VISION

Is Florence Pugh the Future of 'Black Widow'?

There may be more to Yelena Belova than meets the eye.
Marvel Studios
There may be more to Yelena Belova than meets the eye.

One thing in particular stood out in the Super Bowl spot for Marvel’s Black Widow this weekend: There was a lot of Florence Pugh in there.

On the face of it, that only makes sense; buzz for Pugh is high right now, after a year that included much-discussed roles in both Midsommer and Little Women, and she’s certainly one of the primary draws in the Scarlett Johansson vehicle, so why not push her in the Super Bowl ad? There may be more to it than that, however, especially with the final scene before the title card, where Pugh and Johansson stand together, defiant, beaten and bruised and staring past the viewer before the words “Black Widow” appear on the screen. What if Florence Pugh is Marvel’s next Black Widow?

Coming after Avengers: Endgame — a movie that killed off Natasha Romanoff, seemingly permanently (the Marvel movies, unlike Marvel’s comics, haven’t settled into a revolving door at the pearly gates just yet) — the choice of a flashback to Black Widow’s past felt like a curiously retrogressive step for the Marvel CInematic Universe. Sure, Romanoff had been a fan-favorite character that audiences had been clamoring for more of for almost a decade, but why finally fulfill that need as the first Marvel Studios release proper after Endgame? Why go backwards, instead of forwards?

One answer might be, of course, that it’s a movie that does both things at the same time.

It’s already known that Black Widow — set in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War — will introduce a number of new characters to the MCU, including Taskmaster, Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), all of whom play roles in either Black Widow’s comic book past or the wider Marvel comic book universe. But Pugh’s character, Yelena Belova, is one of the most important new additions in terms of her importance to the comic book Black Widow mythology, because Belova was originally introduced as the second Black Widow, intended to replace Natasha in the role.

Belova debuted briefly in 1999’s Inhumans No. 5, before being given a full introduction in that year’s Black Widow No. 1, in which she confronted Natasha with a blunt summary of her purpose. “I am the first student in the history of the Red Room to surpass your marks. I may lack your experience, but I am your equal or your better in every other respect.”

While Belova didn’t manage to permanently get rid of the original Black Widow — although not for lack of trying, including at least one murder attempt she believed had been successful for a period — she nonetheless took on the Black Widow title for herself, both in-story and in reality, with Marvel releasing one comic book series — 2002’s Black Widow: Pale Little Spider — that featured her as the only Black Widow to appear. It wouldn’t last; the next Black Widow comic series, two years later, featured Natasha back in the lead role, and Yelena was pushed to minor villain status the following year in the New Avengers comic series.

Introducing the character into the MCU, with such a high-profile actor in the role, with the knowledge that Natasha will be dead a few years later, feels as if Marvel Studios might be preparing to use the Black Widow movie as a way to introduce the next generation of Russian super spies, and a character to carry the torch in the same way that Captain America gifted the shield to the Falcon at the end of Endgame. It would be a move that shifts the movie from retrospective to forward-facing, and underscore the idea that there’s a new generation of heroes rising to replace the original Avengers.

Of course, going by comic book lore, Natasha has beaten death on more than one occasion, so all of this might be a feint to build up an unlikely return from Johansson herself in a future movie, with Pugh merely a red herring to distract from the ultimate goal. After all, Black Widow is an espionage movie. Aren’t we supposed to be distracted and confused by what’s going on in those?

Black Widow opens May 1.

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