It has been 718 days since Black Widow was officially announced. Now, after nearly two years of trailers, delays, interviews, and movie posters, it is finally Black Widow week as the first movie of the MCU’s Phase 4 has arrived.
Ever since her first appearance in 2010's Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson has been a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After eight appearances and the seventh-most screen time in the MCU, ScarJo is finally getting the spotlight she deserves in the form of an action/spy prequel diving into the past of Natasha Romanoff. Few actors in this space deserve a tribute movie like this one, but Johansson is most definitely one of the ones that does.
What better way to usher in the new era of the greatest comic book universe of all time than to pay homage to one of its most iconic heroes? The Disney+ trio of MCU shows has proven that elevating underrated characters to new heights is a focus of Phase 4. That focus will continue with the first film post-Infinity Saga being a never-before-seen look into everyone's favorite international super spy.
The finish line is in sight, but the journey to this point has been nothing short of a roller coaster. And despite this being a movie set roughly seven years back in MCU continuity, very few people can confidently guess what the details of the plot are. Fans know where Natasha's story ends, but what other threads could extend to the rest of this cinematic universe?
The goal of this article is to get caught up to speed with the journey to Black Widow, what fans can expect going in, and what people are theorizing coming out. So let's dive in.
1. THE STORY OF NATASHA ROMANOFF
Before diving into the twists and turns involved in the making of this movie, it is important to get a refresher on Black Widow's title character.
While there are only three actors who have been credited in more MCU movies than Scarlett Johansson (four, if you count Stan Lee), Natasha's story is scattered across various ensemble casts and supplementary roles. Both ambiguous and straightforward, there is an inherent mystery with the Black Widow lore that fans are excited to learn more about in her first solo project.
The first look at our hero was in the form of Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2, an undercover spy playing the role of executive assistant to Pepper Potts at Stark Industries. It was later revealed that Natalie Rushman was actually Natasha Romanoff, a top-ranked SHIELD agent with the codename "Black Widow”.
As one of Nick Fury's top spies, she was trusted to be a part of the Avenger Initiative, as well as to be responsible for the recruitment of the big, green fighting machine, Bruce Banner. After she and her longtime SHIELD partner Clint Barton teamed up with Banner, Stark, Captain America, and Thor to save New York, The Avengers were formed and the rest is history.
After the Battle of New York, Romanoff teamed with Steve Rogers to go on SHIELD's most high-priority missions. Through the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Natasha released all of SHIELD's confidential information to expose the parasite HYDRA within the organization.
This led to all of Nat's covers being blown and forced her into Avenging full-time. This time spent with Earth's Mightiest Heroes led to a romantic connection with the man she was tasked to recruit, Bruce Banner. Natasha sympathized with Banner as she too feels she is nothing more than a monster, due to her training and forced barrenness in the infamous Red Room where she was trained.
Natasha became the co-leader of an updated Avengers roster and spent her days' training and fighting alongside the new era of heroes until the Sokovia Accords came across her desk. Tough to shake her double-agent background, she was all for the sanctioning of her world until she turned sides and became a fugitive on the run from the world government. After that, she went on to join Cap's Secret Avengers, fight Thanos' army in Wakanda, survive the blip, lead the post-blip Avengers, and ultimately sacrifice herself for the chance to save half of the universe.
However, fans will get to see Natasha alive and well in Black Widow since it takes place after Natasha goes on the run in Civil War and before she is seen fighting with Cap and Sam Wilson in Infinity War.
2. THE PRODUCTION HISTORY OF BLACK WIDOW
In a lot of ways, Black Widow was the focal point of the movie theater vs. streaming saga of 2020. After being pushed from its original release date of May 1, 2020, the entertainment industry took notice because, if a juggernaut like Marvel Studios can be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, then no production was safe. The unfortunate double-negative of this movie compared to others is that the marketing campaign was in full swing and near completion by the time it was delayed.
By the time Black Widow was pushed to November 6, 2020, audiences had already seen an official trailer, multiple TV spots, featurettes, and interviews from the cast and crew. This led to almost a year of waiting and patience from Marvel Studios and Black Widow fans as the second trailer did not release until April 2021. Because of this, many fans feel they have already seen most of this movie through a slew of additional featurettes and other various clips.
This conundrum came to a boiling point when the third release date of May 7, 2021, was once again pushed by a couple of months to July 9. This date, however, was locked in place by the announcement of a parallel Disney+ Premium Access release for the movie. This was a huge move made by Disney because they held out for so long to avoid taking away from their imminent box office success. Many wonder what the current state of the MCU would look like if Disney pulled this trigger earlier, like Warner Bros'. Wonder Woman 1984.
With all of that being said, the current state of movie theaters is as back-to-normal as it has been since the pandemic hit. And while there is still work to be done to be all the way back, Black Widow is going to be a huge benchmark for the state of the box office moving forward. While there is still an available viewing option on Disney+ for those who are unable to attend the theaters, the price of that option is roughly the same as the average price fans will pay at the theaters (if you go for the drink and popcorn, of course).
More than anything, the response to Black Widow will be an indicator of how many people want to get back into theaters — especially for something as big as the MCU.
3. WHAT IS BLACK WIDOW ALL ABOUT?
While recapping the journey of Natasha Romanoff is fun and recapping the journey of this movie is frustrating, the time has finally come to dive into what Black Widow is all about. Here is the official synopsis from Disney+ heading into the film:
"In Marvel Studios' action-packed spy thriller "Black Widow," Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger."
Very early on, audiences learned the Nat has "red in her ledger" and that she is dead-set on wiping it out. Through this synopsis and trailer promotion for the film, finally addressing that "red" seems to be the entry point for this movie. This gives fans a chance to not only learn about how Natasha came to be SHIELD's top super-spy, but the events that led her to feel the guilt she has felt throughout her journey. The question coming out of this curated pitch from Marvel Studios is: what is the conspiracy that forces Natasha to finally address her past?
Through trailers and featurettes, it is known that Nat will be returning to her roots as she seemingly seeks out her family to help address this mysterious problem. It will be interesting to discover not only what brings this new squad into the fold but also what leads to them being pushed away from Natasha in the first place. The primary suspect for this division of family is the now-infamous Red Room — the Black Widow training facility mentioned in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Natasha and company seem to be focused on taking down the Red Room and stopping them from breading genetically modified super-spies for their own benefit. The background of the Red Room and the "Black Widow Program" is bound to be the driving force for the plot of this film. It is also an opportunity to build the lore of Black Widow, while also using it as a launch pad for this IP moving forward.
It is worth noting that when fans last see Black Widow in Civil War, she is approaching the peak of a character arc that sees her go from a calculating, untrusting super-spy into the team-first leader of the Avengers that was willing to do whatever it takes to save the universe. The romantic relationship with Bruce Banner and gut-over-mind-driven decision about the Sokovia Accords both hint at Natasha turning a new leaf. When she arrives years later to save Wanda and Vision, she has a cemented mindset of one for all and all for one.
The first big chunk, as well as the last piece of that arc are beautifully displayed throughout the Infinity Saga. Black Widow seems to be the missing apex piece of that arc.
4. FLORENCE PUGH IS YELENA BELOVA
It is time to dive into the characters surrounding Natasha in this film. Unlike many recent Marvel films, Black Widow will be made up of mostly new characters in the MCU, even though their introduction is set in the middle of the Infinity Saga story.
Natasha will be reconnecting with her family from her days in Russia and her time in the Red Room. Highlighting the Black Widow gang is Nat's sister, Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh. Pugh is one of the fastest-rising stars in Hollywood, highlighted by her Oscar-nominated role in 2019's Little Women. Critics and cast members alike have been raving about Pugh's performance in this movie, as she is set up for huge MCU push and Hollywood breakout.
In the comics, Yelena has a checkered past and a deep-rooted history with the Black Widow mantle. In Black Widow, Yelena seems to be a fellow Red Room graduate and the one who didn't get out of her situation as Natasha did. Expect Yelena to be the emotional core of this story as she and Natasha will be reunited only to inevitably be torn apart once again.
5. RACHEL WEISZ IS MELINA VOSTOKOFF
Rachel Weisz is playing what looks to be the mother figure of the group as Melina Vostokoff. Weisz has a storied past in blockbuster movies with roles in the Bourne and Mummy franchises. While there is little-to-no information about the character in trailers, her attire, demeanor, and brief action shots lead fans to believe she is also a former Red Room participant and a certified badass.
Early on, there were rumors that Vostokoff could be the masked antagonist Taskmaster that will also be introduced in Black Widow, but those rumblings have cooled in recent months.
In the comics, Weisz's character dons the mantle of Iron Maiden, a Black Widow villain who wears a skin-tight suit of armor to achieve her evil goals. There is no sign of that being the case here as she seems to be playing a linchpin for the family in the trailer.
With a prequel like this where fans know the fate of the main character, stakes have to be manufactured, and that points to the loss of a character being a likely possibility. Vostokoff's lack of presence in the trailers seem to make her a favorite for that trope.
6. DAVID HARBOUR IS THE RED GUARDIAN
One of the most anticipated characters in the film is David Harbour's Alexei Shostakov, aka Red Guardian.
Harbour broke out into the mainstream in the show Stranger Things after bouncing around in minor roles for a few years (omitting his portrayal of Hellboy). Harbour is bound to bring charisma and energy to a cast of serious and dry-witted super spies. The trailers have painted Alexei as the father of Natasha and Yelena, as well as another major candidate for the emotional core of this film.
The Red Guardian is the Russian response to Captain America. Surely given some variation of the Super Soldier Serum, Shostakov is set to be the twenty-first confirmed super soldier in the MCU. Seen in trailers wearing his comic-inspired Red Guardian suit, expect some major bruiser/brawler action from this guy.
7. RICK MASON, TASKMASTER, AND DREYKOV
Three more characters shrouded in mystery heading into Black Widow are Rick Mason, Taskmaster, and Dreykov.
O-T Fagbenle is set to play Rick Mason, a character and former love interest of Black Widow in the comics. Promotion has given fans next-to-no real looks at Mason outside of posters, which leads many to believe this role will be meant to build tension on the identity of Taskmaster.
Taskmaster is a legendary villain in Marvel Comics who has gotten a lot of shine lately, specifically in the video game arena as he was featured in both PlayStation's Marvel's Spider-Man in 2018 and Marvel's Avengers in 2020.
With the skill of "Photogenic Reflexes," the skull-faced villain's calling card is being able to replicate any fighting style upon one demonstration of combat. The opportunities for fun and interesting fight scenes with our heroes are limitless. Sure to be an Easter Egg goldmine, expect Taskmaster to copy the signature styles of the MCU's greatest combat warriors.
The identity of Taskmaster is being portrayed as a major plot driver in this movie. While there are many guesses ranging from new characters in this film to characters from Natasha's past, the biggest tell of his (or her) identity is a brief clip of a conversation with Dreykov, played by Ray Winstone. Dreykob may sound familiar, as it should, because in Endgame, Red Skull calls Natasha "Dreykov's Daughter". That line will surely be fleshed out here as Dreykov seems to be the leader of the Red Room.
8. WILLIAM HURT RETURNS AS THADDEUS ROSS
For just the third time since debuting in The Incredible Hulk, William Hurt will be portraying Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross. This blink-and-you'll-miss-it clip in trailers shows Ross significantly aged down in this film. There are several reasons Ross could be showing up here, but the de-aging would lead one to believe that the Red Guardian may be his prime motive as we see Alexei imprisoned at some point in the film.
The Thunderbolts team has been the talk of the town for years with recent steam coming from the appearances of Zemo and John Walker in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Named after Ross himself, it is safe to assume that another seed could be planted for the anti-hero team in the MCU with many candidates on the board in Black Widow, including Yelena Belova and Taskmaster.
9. THE THEORIES SURROUNDING BLACK WIDOW
The downside to the hyperextended promotion of Black Widow has been the fatigue of footage shown. But the upside to that problem is that after two years of theorizing about this movie, fans have pretty much locked down the three main story theories that have the most weight heading into the film:
a) The Identity of Taskmaster
Ranging from Clint Barton to Bucky Barnes, the roll call for Taskmaster candidates has been as exciting as it has been lengthy. There is no telling who is under the mask, but it is certain to be one of the focal points of the story. The interesting thing to note is that the capability of Taskmaster to replicate body movement is traditionally a mutant ability in the comics. This would rule out any long-standing MCU characters as candidates, if they choose to take that route with the character.
On the flip side of that, trailers have shown tech being a huge player in the Taskmaster tool belt. This is not uncommon for the character, but it would be a classic MCU move to use hyper-technology to replicate a more comic book-y characteristic.
This possibility would push the door wide open for anyone with some decent fight training. There is no telling who Taskmaster could be, but something to think about is that if it is in fact a Barton or Barnes, it would severely limit the use of this character down the line. This is a tough roster spot to burn on a prequel.
Another reason to believe that Hawkeye is not Taskmaster is that we have been told we will finally see what happens in Budapest.
The legendary adventure for Natasha and Clint Barton has been teased since the two first shared a screen in 2012's The Avengers. It is hard to imagine finally seeing this epic event take place without a few shots of Clint involved.
This does not totally eliminate Barton from Taskmaster contention, but it does seem like one twist too many for a character receiving his own solo project debut with Hawkeye later this year.
Nevertheless, fans are finally going to learn about what happened in Budapest so many years ago, and the theory is that whatever does happen will not only be a crucial moment for the story of Black Widow, but the story of Natasha Romanoff as a whole.
c) The Future Of Yelena Belova
For the third time in its thirteen-year history, Marvel Studios will be telling a story that is officially set before the current time of continuity in the MCU. But unlike Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain Marvel, Black Widow is deepening the story of an established character, as opposed to retroactively introducing a new one. This begs the question: how much will Black Widow impact the future of the MCU?
Being the first movie of Phase 4 (and originally scheduled to kick off the silver-age of the MCU) one would have to suspect that it will have a big impact moving forward, despite the side-story/prequel feel of the film. The opportunity for future implications can be found in many aspects of the movie. Taskmaster, the Red Room and others are all in contention. But the spotlight rests primarily on Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova.
"Mantle" has been a theme of Phase 4 so far with Wanda discovering her identity as Scarlett Witch, Sam Wilson taking the shield as Captain America, and whatever the hell is happening in Loki. The Black Widow mantle is one that has been passed around in comics and has every opportunity to do the same in the MCU. A talent like Florence Pugh is a huge get for the MCU and one that they are surely hoping to make the most of moving forward.
Pugh has been reported to be featured in the upcoming Hawkeye series which is set in the main continuity of the MCU. That doesn't mean that Pugh won't be involved with a flashback scene in the Disney+ show, but if she is in that series present-day, that ensures her survival in Black Widow. For better or worse, Yelena has plenty of room to run in the Marvel world and this could be the stepping-off point for the next great super-spy hero...or villain.
10) THOUGHTS FROM THE DIRECT HEADING IN
The Direct has been honored to have a couple of writers get an early look at Black Widow, but most of the staff is waiting on the edge of their seats for July 9 to finally return to theaters for the MCU. Here are some thoughts from some writers at TheDirect.com:
David Thompson, much like many fans, is excited to see Scarlett Johansson get her shine in the MCU.
"This is the most deserved MCU movie of all time. No one deserves a spotlight more than Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff. I can’t wait to give her a proper goodbye."
For many fans, the Black Widow sacrifice at the end of Avengers: Endgame was a fitting death for the MCU's most personal hero. Others thought Nat deserved a funeral to the scale of Tony Stark (despite that being severely out of character), but Black Widow will act as the grand sendoff from the MCU ScarJo deserves.
The Direct's Jack Pues is excited to see the much-awaited Black Widow solo movie but feels it may be a bit jarring considering the delays paired with the prequel story.
"I’m pumped for MCU movies to be back in full swing, and Scarlett Johansson truly deserves this proper sendoff. My main concern is the 'prequel-like' nature of the film, especially since the first three Phase 4 projects have done great work in setting up the MCU’s future. It wouldn’t be the film’s fault, but looking back may feel awkward to some audiences."
The pandemic shifting movie schedules has had an effect on the wallets of studios, theaters, and producers alike. But no franchise has felt the narrative effects quite like the MCU. Black Widow was supposed to kick off the new era and send fans into the future. But two years after Avengers: Endgame was released, the friction of this story may be felt when it hits theaters.
Finally, Klein Felt expressed some concern that this movie may feel a little too old school amidst the wild and crazy stories we have seen so far in Phase 4:
"It could just be me, but this movie feels a little simple compared to the galaxy/reality/timeline-spanning adventures seen in the last couple Marvel projects. I want to be excited, but it just looks maybe a little cookie-cutter with the footage shown so far. Now Marvel bakes delicious cookies, but it might not be the revelatory next step some fans are looking for."
Klein brings up an interesting point. With the pure risk-taking vibes fans get from WandaVision and Loki (and even in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier to some respects), will a two-hour movie with hand-to-hand combat feel watered down?
It will be interesting to see how fans react to a new movie coming out in a world of long-form storytelling they have been living in for the past six months.
GET READY FOR A TRIBUTE TO BLACK WIDOW
There is an energy in the air with this movie.
Anticipation. Nerves. Excitement. And respect for one of the most legendary actors to ever participate in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While fans love to focus on the big picture and how this could impact the greater MCU, it is important to step back and realize what this movie is: a sendoff to a character and actor who has been beloved and admired for so many years.
There are narrative and behind-the-scenes stories that could lead to Black Widow and ScarJo deserving this attention, but they all pale in comparison to what those two have done for the fans and women across the world. There is no Captain Marvel without the work Scarlett Johansson did to pave the way. WandaVision isn't the masterwork character study it is unless Scarlett proved a woman can carry her own in this world.
Thank you, Scarlett.