Black Widow Trailer Breakdown: A Family of Spies, A Masked Villain, and Lots of Action

Who are the new characters, when does it take place, who's fighting who, and how does it all fit into the backstory of Scarlett Johansson's super-spy?

by | December 3, 2019 | Comments

The first trailer for Black Widow is out in the wild and it is tantalizing with its mix of Bourne Identity-style action and well-honed Marvel Cinematic Universe tropes. And as it sets out to fill in the gaps in Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) past and the time between Captain American: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, the film will present new ideas and at least one important concept going into the MCU’s fourth phase.

But for the moment, let’s consider the setting, the new characters, and the apparent mystery at the heart of Black Widow. Here are five things we’ll be pondering until the next trailer hits.

It’s Set After Civil War

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(Photo by Marvel Studios)

The trailer may obscure this point, but from the footage we saw at the D23 Expo back in August, it is clear the film takes place after Nat goes on the run at the end of Captain America: Civil War. This is key, as it means the film is, in some ways, a prequel to Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Then again, it is always possible the film does not take place after Civil War, but occurs inside that soul space on Vormir, and all of this is Nat working out her demons on a far off planet, suspended between life and death.

For the moment, though, let’s assume these events are truly happening, and the hunt for Nat takes her back to Russia, where she decides to deal with old business. Namely, the intense training that made her the perfect spy and, as it happens, an Avenger.

Created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck, the character was originally an adversary of Iron Man. She was a Russian spy from the very beginning, even if her iconography took years to evolve. Nat continued to tussle with Iron Man and the Avengers until she defected to the U.S. in the late 1960s and eventually joined the team many years later. Her costume, red hair, and hourglass logo all evolved alongside her transition from antagonist to hero.

Nat’s loyalties and how they changed in the MCU is still a source of conjecture; we only have the scant details from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron to go by. This lack of concrete backstory left many expecting the film to be set prior to her debut in Iron Man 2 and reveal how S.H.I.E.L.D. turned her against her former spymasters. Some of those ideas will clearly still be part of the film, as the trailer leans hard into her former spy “family.” Their communal origin story will no doubt be key to solving the film’s central conflict.

The Red Room and Yelena Belova

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

As mentioned back in Age of Ultron, Nat is the product of a Soviet-era program known as The Red Room, implemented to create deep-cover spies. Its roots go back to World War II, as discovered on the Agent Carter television series, but the Red Room never seemed to make the impact of, say, Hydra. In fact, it is unclear if the program had any affiliation with Hydra or any of the other established covert agencies in the Marvel world. But one thing is clear from Nat’s flashbacks in Ultron – there were other Black Widows like her.

One such Widow is Yelena Belova (played by Florence Pugh in the film). Created by Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones and fully introduced in 1999’s Black Widow miniseries, the character first served as a new foil for Nat before becoming a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. herself. As a Black Widow trained by the Russian Federation’s successor intelligence agency, Belova sets out to eliminate Nat so she can be the only Black Widow. Eventually, the character received her own Black Widow miniseries and became aligned with Hydra, who turned her into another Super-Adaptoid. She eventually became Black Widow once more and vowed to eliminate the remaining Hydra forces behind Nat’s apparent death.

With her association to the Red Room – where both she and Nat were trained in the comics and in the films – and Hydra, it certainly feels like the film will take some cues from the fact that elements of the organization still operated after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. Will she turn out to be some sort of double agent? As Avengers: Endgame proved, there is still power in the phrase “Hail Hydra,” and it would not be a great shock to hear Belova say it — either as a true allegiance or to cover herself in a sticky situation.

Also, it is still unclear if the film will address the seeming incongruity of Johansson playing a woman trained in the U.S.S.R., where the Red Room treated its agents with a longevity serum – an idea which may finally come into play during the film. Additionally, the Red Room survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in the comics, so both Nat and Belova could have been trained to protect the interests of the successor Russian Federation.

Behold A Red Guardian

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Nat’s “family” also includes Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour), who Marvel comics fans will recognize as the second Red Guardian. Back in the comics, he was Nat’s husband – something we suspect may be played for laughs in the film – and a pilot of high regard before he was convinced to become the Soviet equivalent of Captain America. Nat believed him dead while he trained for his new role, but he was actually killed after revealing his identity to Nat, who had defected to the US by then. Curiously, a Life Model Decoy of Shostakov later emerged and took the name “Ronin” – the same name Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) used during the five year gap in Endgame.

From the trailer, we see the Red Guardian days are long behind him. In fact, it seems Nat and Belova need to break him out of prison before they can complete their new mission. Harbour gives him a playful, gregarious demeanor, which suits him even if his costume is a little snug.

But also, we love anytime the MCU hints at a forgotten superhero history between WWII and the debut of Iron Man. See also: Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) operating as Ant-Man and the Wasp in the 1980s. Red Guardian, with his more over Soviet iconography, totally plays into that lost era.

Enter Taskmaster

Marvel Studios

Though only glimpsed in a handful of moments during the trailer, Marvel Comics’ Taskmaster will make his debut in the MCU with Black Widow. Created by David Michelinie and George Perez, Taskmaster first appeared in 1980’s Avengers #195 and #196 as a mercenary capable of matching the Avengers’ powers and tactics, thanks to “photographic reflexes” that allowed him to replicate his opponents’ actions. Over the years, he’s trained other villains and even forcibly educated the heroes. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of his personal memories, but as he and his wife both served in S.H.I.E.L.D., she acted as his external memory and handler in the criminal underworld.

Considering the film’s time frame, it is easy to imagine both Taskmaster and his wife as Hydra agents who survived the Avengers attempts to root them out of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other governments. It’s a good motivation to go after Nat, who revealed Hydra’s plot to the world back in The Winter Soldier. But considering the Marvel movies trade in big misdirects, the person potentially pulling Taskmasters strings must be a shocking reveal — Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) perhaps?

Alternatively, it could be Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), who appears in the trailer as, seemingly, the mother in a family unit composed of Shostakov, Nat, and Belova. But the character, as designed by Ralph Macchio (not the actor) and George Perez, despised Nat during their time in the service of Mother Russia. She took on the name of Iron Maiden and became a freelance mercenary. Eventually, she joined a group of assassins paid to kill Nat, but was unsuccessful. As it happens, her costume in the comics is not dissimilar from the Taskmaster glimpsed in the trailer — although, Taksmaster certainly has a more distinctive, theatrical flair — so it could be possible she is the one under the mask. Or, at the very least, she is putting events in motion to serve her own ends.

The Gap Between Civil War and Infinity War

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

So we need to talk about Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt). His voice is heard in the trailer and he can be seen in one shot, but portrayed as a curiously younger man than he would be by the time of Civil War. This might be a flashback to Nat’s first encounter with him — maybe he aided in her original defection? — but his questions to Nat in the trailer suggest Ross may actually prompt Nat to make her pilgrimage to Russia.

That suggests Ross actually finds her while she’s on the run, and considering he was one of the Sokovia Accords’ biggest proponents, he must have a very good reason not to bring her in, make a public show, and put her in the Raft. Then again, Ross has always been a squirrely guy despite his dedication to protecting the United States, so maybe the Red Room is a larger direct threat to national interests than the trailer lets on. It is presented entirely from Nat’s point of view, so Ross’s real ambitions will be quite ambiguous for the moment.

But the outcome of Black Widow may fill in some gaps left in the story between Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Nat’s actions may help Clint and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) cut their deals. It may also reveal why Nat ultimately met up with Captain America’s (Chris Evans) team in Europe. Also, with the legacy of the Red Room finally public, it will complete Nat’s journey as set up in Age of Ultron.

That leaves just one question this trailer cannot answer: how is it a Phase Four film? Considering Belova also operates under the name Black Widow in the comics, it is possible the film’s whole purpose is to set her up as Nat’s backup in the present day. Or, if this is all just some sort of phantasm occurring in that soul space, it may be setting up Nat’s eventual return to Earth. But considering how sneakily Captain Marvel set up ideas for both Avengers: Endgame and the seeming Phase Four conflict, we expect Black Widow‘s connection to future events in the MCU will be its biggest surprise.

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