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[This story contains spoilers for Black Widow.]
Marvel Studios has returned to movie theaters for the first time in two years with the release of Cate Shortland’s Black Widow. The film, which was originally supposed to launch the MCU’s Phase 4 now instead follows the Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. The decision to launch a new chapter of the MCU with a character who sacrificed her life in the culmination of the three previous phases in Avengers: Endgame (2019) initially seemed like a curious choice. But Black Widow, set directly after Captain America: Civil War (2016), and a few weeks before Avengers: Infinity War (2018), is more than a delayed final tribute to a character Scarlett Johannson has shaped for ten years. It’s also an examination of Natasha Romanoff’s legacy, and that of the Red Room in which she was trained. Black Widow isn’t about death, but new life, which unexpectedly makes it a fitting entry to usher in this new phase of Marvel Studios’ movies.
For a character whose past has largely been defined by her death toll, Natasha’s solo film doesn’t prioritize a body count. While there was some fear among fans that Black Widow had missed her big-screen window given the number of other female-centric spy movies in the last several years, Atomic Blonde (2017), Red Sparrow (2018), Anna (2019), The Rhythm Section (2020) and Ava (2020), Shortland’s film takes a different route from those previous entries, focusing on the family dynamics and redemptive arcs rather than self-sufficiency and double-crosses. The film may invite comparisons to James Bond, with Moonraker (1979) getting a couple nods, but Shortland’s isn’t out to make Marvel’s Bond. Black Widow is a dysfunctional espionage movie that prioritizes exploring who these characters are beyond their shadow ops and beloved genre tropes. Lies and denial, the tools of the spy trade, give way to truth and reconciliation that shine a light on Natasha’s past and set her on the course for her Endgame sacrifice.
Although it’s Natasha’s actions that push the film’s thematic priorities forward, it’s the supporting characters who have the most to gain from the act of freeing themselves from the confines of their origin stories within the film’s narrative. This in turn is a boon for Marvel Studios’ storytelling future. Surprisingly, all the characters introduced in the film with counterparts in Marvel Comics survive the events of the film. Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Red Guardian (David Harbour), Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) all remain on the table to be utilized in future MCU projects. The comics and the MCU’s upcoming slate may give some indication of what we can next expect from these characters.
It’s Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Natasha’s younger “sister,” who emerges as the film’s breakout star, and hopefully one of Marvel’s central players going forward. It’s clear from the post-credit scene that Marvel Studios has plans for Yelena, establishing her as working for Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and setting her up with a confrontation with Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). Because of Marvel Studios’ scheduling shuffle, audiences won’t have to wait as long for that confrontation as they would have if Black Widow had come out last year. Hawkeye is set to debut on Disney+ later this year, and Pugh’s appearance as Yelena has already been confirmed.
So, what will this grudge against Hawkeye amount to? Yelena’s comic history is one that saw her on the wrong side of things plenty of times, forcing her to go up against the Avengers. But this version of Yelena is different, and in control of her own actions. And unlike John Walker (Wyatt Russell), Yelena seems like a character who’d be less enthusiastic to follow orders, especially after spending her whole life as a Red Room assassin. Black Widow‘s post-credit scene strikes me as a misdirect with Yelena playing double-agent and using Val for unknown purposes. There’s still a lot we don’t know about Val yet, but if she’s amassing power, she may be Yelena’s means of tracking down the missing Widows that Natasha entrusted her with saving at the end of the first film.
With Shortland expressing interest in a Black Widow sequel with a lead other than Natasha, it stands to reason that Yelena will take up the mantle of Black Widow, or a new identity, White Widow, which she recently assumed in the comics. Yelena may be grateful for her free-will, but the same may not be true for every Widow released from the Red Room’s control? Perhaps, there’s a woman out there whose real life is more horrific than the Red Room. Marvel’s Black Widow comics certainly have a precedent for Red Room spies who can’t be redeemed, most recently Anya aka Recluse who appeared in Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow (2016), and founded the Dark Room, comprised of the remnants of the Red Room and lacking the government ties of its predecessor. Anya would make a fitting adversary for Yelena as she navigates the line between spy and superhero, and explores what freedom means to someone who doesn’t want to be free.
The end of Black Widow sets Natasha’s “parents” on the course for mass-producing the mind-control antidote, alongside a number of freed Widows. While Alexi and Milena took on more sinister roles in Black Widow’s saga within the comics, with Red Guardian battling the Avengers and Milena acting as Iron Maiden and attempting to gain control of A.I.M. alongside a global coalition of female villains, the characters find themselves redeemed within the film. While Red Guardian didn’t get his chance to go toe-to-toe with Steve Rogers, he could still pattern his career off Captain America’s legacy. In the comics, Red Guardian served as leader of the Winter Guard, Russia’s own Avengers, also consisting of Crimson Dynamo, Darkstar and Ursa Major.
The team is playing a prominent role in Jason Aaron’s current run in The Avengers, and given the synergy between Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine an iteration of the team, with Red Guardian and Milena as leaders, appearing in a Black Widow sequel or future MCU project. Given Alexi’s status as a super-soldier, and the suggestion that Milena may have been involved with that project for the Russian government, it’d be interesting to see Red Guardian and Milena meet with the new Captain America, Sam Wilson, or perhaps more appropriate for a fight, John Walker aka U.S. Agent.
While there’s certainly some murky geopolitical territory that could emerge with a Russian team of superheroes, this could be countered by the fact that the Winter Guard is ultimately heroic and more often allies to the Avengers than not. Just as the Avengers don’t always serve the U.S. government, neither does the Winter Guard serve the Russian government. And given how U.S.-centric the MCU has been so far, it’d be interesting to see how other countries respond to the lack of Avengers after Endgame and the Blip by offering up their own global protectors.
Although Taskmaster, Antonia Dreykov, is different from Anthony Masters, her comic book counterpart in Marvel’s mainline 616 universe, her abilities are the same, meaning there’s no limit to characters she can mimic and places she could show up. While some comic book purists have been rubbed the wrong way by the change to Taskmaster in the MCU, even though comic book characters often change between page and screen, and despite the fact that Antonia makes sense for the themes of control that Black Widow explores, there’s certainly room for Antonia to move closer to the sarcastic, double-crossing mercenary from the comics. What’s interesting about Taskmaster is that she doesn’t know who she is yet, and as a result, audiences don’t quite know who she’ll become. Will the salvation Natasha offered her lead her down an altruistic path? Or will a life spent being used as a weapon simply lead her to become a weapon in someone else’s hands? Can she be a master of her own fate, or simply a hired gun in the hands of the highest bidder?
Black Widow feels like the start of Antonia’s journey, which is a fascinating predicament for a film’s central threat to be in. It doesn’t even seem fair to describe Taskmaster as a villain at this stage, despite the comic character working for just about every villain you can imagine. The Thunderbolts, a team of villains who act as heroes, sometimes nobly and sometimes with duplicity, have certainly gained a lot of attention in the rumor mill lately given Zemo’s (Daniel Bruhl) ongoing saga, and whatever team it is that Val is building. Taskmaster has been a member of several iterations of the Thunderbolts, and it would certainly be interesting to see her alongside other Marvel characters, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), Abomination (Tim Roth), and Zemo, who despite their methods, believe themselves to be heroes.
Black Widow may have been Natasha’s exit from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, barring multiversal madness, cloning, and all the other reasons she’d return to the land of the living in the comics, but the world of Black Widow is just opening up. Where we lost one morally complex and beloved character, we’ve just been introduced to four more who have the potential to make the next phases of the MCU just as surprising as the last three.
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