Warning: This post contains big spoilers for Black Widow.
Natasha Romanoff may be gone, but her “sister” Yelena Belova is staying in the “family” business of superheroing — and she’s got her sights set on taking down another sharp-shooting Avenger. That’s the big takeaway from the post-credits sequence that closes out Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson’s feature-length farewell to her signature Marvel Cinematic Universe character, and the first Marvel Studios feature to debut in theaters since Avengers: Endgame way back in 2019. (The Cate Shortland-directed film is also available on Disney+ as a “Premier Access” video-on-demand title.)
And Yelena (Florence Pugh) isn’t working solo: she’s under the employ of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s mysterious operative who joined the MCU during the six-part streaming series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That show ended with her recruiting everyone’s least favorite Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), to be her personal “U.S. Agent.” The fact that she also has a Widow on her payroll strongly suggests that Valentina may be building a super team of her own for yet to be specified purposes.
In Marvel’s original plans for Phase 4, the Countess’s recruiting efforts would have been slightly amended. Before the coronavirus pandemic upended Hollywood’s release calendar, Black Widow was supposed to arrive in theaters in May 2020, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would have followed in August. Louis-Dreyfus likely filmed her role for both productions at around the same time, and Marvel fans would have been able to follow her from movie theaters to Disney+.
Instead, the Veep star made her first FAWS appearance in April, and then took a three-month time-out until Black Widow’s theatrical premiere. “She’ll be making waves sooner rather than later,” FAWS executive producer Nate Moore teased following her first appearance, suggesting that Louis-Dreyfus will likely pop up again… and again… and again as Phase 4 continues to unfold, similar to how Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury had a constant presence through the earliest phases of the MCU.
Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige recently confirmed that Val’s introduction was scrambled by the pandemic. “There’s an Easter egg that originally was going to appear first in Black Widow and then show up in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and because of the pandemic, the only thing within our Phase 4 that was twisted a little bit,” the producer told On the Red Carpet at the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. “So for fans that watch Falcon and the Winter Soldier, there’s something waiting for them as an Easter egg in this one.”
In the comic books, Valentina has a long history of playing both sides, and it seems like her MCU counterpart’s allegiances are similarly fluid. When she approached Walker, she made it clear that she likes to operate in a “legal grey area,” and her post-credits conversation with Yelena confirms that she tends to shun organized groups like the Avengers. In fact, she seems actively interested in working against Natasha’s other family. Meeting Yelena at Nat’s tombstone — which identifies her as “Daughter, Sister, Avenger” — Val makes the presumptive new Black Widow an offer she can’t refuse. “Maybe you’d like to take a shot at the man responsible for your sister’s death,” the Countess offers, handing over a picture of none other than Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner.
Everyone who saw Endgame, of course, knows that Clint did everything he could to prevent his friend and comrade’s death. But Yelena wasn’t on the distant planet Vormir when the duo had to make a snap decision about which of them would make the ultimate sacrifice to help undo Thanos’s apocalyptic Snap. And Val takes advantage of the younger Widow’s ignorance, nudging her onto a collision course with Barton who, conveniently enough, has his own Disney+ series coming up later this year.
Pugh’s participation in Hawkeye was reported by Variety last December, when the show began filming on location in New York City. Paparazzi photos snapped at the time showed Renner back in costume, alongside Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop — the young archer who takes over the Hawkeye mantle. “It’s such an honor to be playing this role,” the Bumblebee star told Fandom in January. “It’s going to be really fun, and I’m excited for people to see it.”
Watch Scarlett Johansson on passing the torch to Florence Pugh:
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Pugh got emotional when talking about inheriting Black Widow's baton from Johansson. “I could praise Scarlett all evening, and I will do," the Oscar-nominated Little Women star remarked. "Obviously it’s incredibly daunting joining a big family like that. But Scarlett was so unbelievably welcoming, and only wanted me to feel as safe and as welcomed as possible. So for the potential for me to learn and take in what that world was like, and what it’s like to make a movie like that, was all there for it to be easy. … And watching the Black Widow do her stunts was definitely a ‘pinch-me’ moment every day."
Here are some other notable MCU Easter eggs to look for in Black Widow.
Between two wars
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be the first big-screen Marvel movie that moves the MCU timeline forward. Black Widow instead transports viewers back in time to 2016 during the two-year gap that separated the end of the Avengers’ Civil War and the beginning of Thanos’s Infinity War. With her own super-team in disarray, Natasha has gone off the grid, hiding from former allies like Tony Stark (who doesn’t appear in the movie, despite rumors that Robert Downey Jr. had filmed a cameo) and antagonists like Gen. Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, reprising the role he first played in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), who is still smarting over her perceived violation of the “Sokovia Accords” that he helped institute after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The one person she can still contact for help is Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenie), an independent contractor who supplies his top-tier clients with all the equipment they might need to stay undercover, from stealth aircrafts to hair dye. Speaking of dye jobs, Black Widow depicts how Natasha ditches her red tresses for the shorter blond ’do she sports in Infinity War and Endgame.
The Budapest incident
Even before Valentina shows Yelena his picture, Clint Barton’s name comes up a lot during the course of Black Widow. The movie fills in a key part of Natasha and Clint's history — their oft-referenced, never-explained joint mission in Budapest that was first mentioned in The Avengers when the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents joined Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Hulk to defend New York City against invading Chitauri forces. Turns out they were in Hungary’s picturesque capital city in order to take down a dark figure from Natasha’s past: Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the leader of the Red Room program that turns young women into lethal killing machines. Executing Dreykov was intended to be Black Widow’s S.H.I.E.L.D. initiation, and she and Hawkeye seemingly passed with flying colors... although they then had to get out of the city alive for extra credit.
Watch Scarlett Johansson explain how 'Black Widow' became the MCU's #MeToo movie:
In Black Widow, Natasha learns that Dreykov not only survived their assassination attempt, he’s only grown more powerful. The person who sustained the brunt of the damage was his daughter, Antonia, and the general went to extreme lengths to save her life. Antonia (played as an adult by Olga Kurylenko) has been transformed into Taskmaster — a silent assassin capable of mimicking anyone’s fighting style. And much like the Red Room corps, her mind and body are controlled entirely by her father. Natasha and Yelena’s new mission is to free all of these women from the grip of a powerful man, a storyline that was specifically written to speak to the current #MeToo age.
“We had to comment on what is this incredible movement of women supporting other women, and coming through these shared experiences of trauma on the other side by really coming forward and supporting one another,” Johansson recently told Yahoo Entertainment about Black Widow's timely mission statement. “At the very beginning of really seriously talking about what this could be about, it was right during the beginning of the #MeToo movement and felt like, you cannot miss the opportunity to draw the comparison between these two things.”
Which Cap went Red?
To paraphrase the Fresh Prince, Alexei Shostakov, aka the Red Guardian (David Harbour), thinks he could beat Captain America. In fact, the Soviet answer to Steve Rogers likes to boast that he fought his super-soldier counterpart to a standstill. But as is pointed out in the film, good ol’ Cap was still frozen in ice when Alexei was in prime fighting shape during the ’70s and ’80s. Does that make the Red Guardian a liar? Maybe not: various fan theories are already being advanced for how a Red Guardian vs. Captain America match-up might have gone down.
One possible explanation making the internet rounds is that the Red Guardian encountered Steve after he made the decision to live in the past with Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) following the events of Endgame. That change to the sacred MCU timeline means that those decades are now fertile ground for covert Captain America adventures, one of which could have involved a face-to-face brawl with Alexei. While Chris Evans has strenuously maintained that he has held Cap’s shield for the last time in a movie, Feige has teased that Black Widow may be the beginning in a long line of MCU prequels. “The notion of exploring the past, present and future of the MCU is certainly in the cards for all of our characters,” he remarked at a recent press junket.
Alternately, the Red Guardian could have encountered the other super soldier who operated during those decades, but didn't get the hero’s treatment that Steve received. In addition to Valentina, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also introduced Isaiah Bradley (played by Carl Lumbley) into MCU continuity. The only survivor of a top-secret government program that sought to replicate Erskine’s research by using Black soldiers as test subjects, Isaiah operated in secret during the Korean War trying to take out the brainwashed Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in his Winter Soldier identity.
Rather than being honored for his service, Bradley spent 30 years in prison as soon as he returned stateside, re-emerging into obscurity in the 1980s — which, as some have noted, is when the Red Guardian would have been operating. “You’re telling me that there was a Black super solider decades ago and nobody knew about him?” current Captain America, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), remarked incredulously in FAWS. Maybe Sam should have a one-on-one with Alexei sooner rather than later...
Black Widow is currently playing in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.
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