For ten years and seven movies we’ve watched Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, find her place as a spy, assassin, and Avenger. Over that period of time, audiences and comic fans have clamored for a solo film starring the first female Avenger of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a movie that finally arrives next May in the form of Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, kicking off the beginning of Phase 4.
It’s a movie that also arrives after the character has seemingly completed her arc in what has now been dubbed “The Infinity Saga.” A solo outing for Natasha would have fit perfectly after The Avengers, where tantalizing hints of her assassin past were first revealed, or after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, arguably one of her strongest performances. Instead, the film is coming after years of seeing Black Widow as more of a side character and after her sacrificial death in Avengers: Endgame. Despite the excitement, there are many who feel that this movie should have come earlier than it did, and that it’s now coming ten years too late.
But here’s why that’s a good thing.
Over the course of these ten years, audiences have had the opportunity to learn about Natasha and identify with her. We saw hints of her Red Room past and of her early exploits before coming to S.H.I.E.L.D. We saw the beginning and evolution of her relationship with the Avengers, particularly Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. We saw her empathy when she hugged Hawkeye’s young daughter in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when chose her own side and tried to keep a family together in Captain America: Civil War, and when she put her own agenda behind her to keep the world safe for five long years in Avengers: Endgame.
Initially rumored to be a prequel that takes place before the events of the MCU, recent announcements indicate that Black Widow will be set more recently, particularly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. With a character who has such a wealth of history to explore in and out of the comics, though, it’s more than likely that modern day story will include flashbacks—and from the footage we’ve already seen at SDCC and D23, it’s clear that the film is going to grapple with people, places, and possibly situations of Natasha’s past.
To dive into the character’s past, we should understand her past. While there are numerous comic runs that will probably provide inspiration for the movie, we can also look at plot points in past films. Along with Natasha’s evolving personality, they serve up interesting hints that could provide strong building blocks and emotional tethers for the upcoming 2020 movie.
After the character’s debut in Iron Man 2, where we saw more of “Natalie Rushman” than we did of Natasha Romanoff, we get what feels like our first real introduction to Black Widow—starting from the very first scene, where she demonstrates her fighting abilities and spy prowess on a mission. Later, we get our first hints of her cryptic past during her interrogation with Loki when he references “Drakov’s daughter,” “Sao Paolo,” and “the hospital fire.” While these particular references are not rooted in any Marvel Comics canon, Natasha’s history as a brainwashed assassin and killer is an important part of her personality and history, and these hints provide tantalizing reference material that the Black Widow movie could potentially tap into.
Black Widow’s relationship with Hawkeye, a.k.a. Clint Barton, is touched on during this film as the two have a personal history, which is confirmed during Natasha’s same conversation with Loki when she admits to her wrongdoings. As she tells the trickster God, “I got on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar in a bad way. Agent Barton was sent to kill me… he made a different call.” Once again, nudges into her past are explored after she rescues Clint from Loki’s mind control, when he asks her if she knows what it’s like to be unmade—her response implying how her brainwashing has affected her. And during the Battle of New York, the two have a quick exchange about a shared memory of Budapest that has become somewhat infamous.
We know the Black Widow movie has been filming in Budapest, though it’s unclear what action will take place there and if that action will be in the past or the present day (or both). Still, the Budapest line—something fans of both characters have obsessed over—provides an opportunity for the idea to finally be explored. Whether or not we get an actual scene with a Hawkeye cameo or if it’s just confirmed that there was an important mission that took place there and led to Natasha’s deflection to S.H.I.E.L.D., the possibility of opening that mystery adds to the emotional development of characters we already know and care about.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While Captain America: Winter Soldier is meant to be a film about Steve Rogers, it remains one of Black Widow’s best character showcases—and the film that can probably be looked at as, until now, the closest thing we have to a solo film. With most major players sitting out, Natasha is allowed to share a large part of the movie’s focus, forming a relationship and partnership with Steve that is both tested and solidified during the events of the movie. Fans who saw the tactical side of Black Widow during Avengers were able to see her more vulnerable side during Winter Soldier, as she broke down her walls and allowed herself to trust—something her past had previously hindered.
In an extended scene where she reveals Hydra to the world via dumping all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets (including her own) onto the internet, Alexander Pierce warns her that if she proceeds, none of her past will be a secret: “not Budapest, not Osaka, not the children’s ward.” It’s yet another mention of Budapest, implying that there’s possibly more importance to the location. And given Natasha’s unsettled look after Pierce’s words, the children’s ward could easily be a reference to the hospital fire Loki mentioned in Avengers. Either way, there’s potential to unravel some interesting threads.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron gives us an actual look into Black Widow’s past for the first time when, during a confrontation with Scarlet Witch, Natasha is forced to relive visions of her time in the Red Room. The flashbacks are brief, but we do get a solid look at a young Natasha learning how to use firearms, training as a ballerina with other Black Widows, and undergoing “the ceremony,” a surgery that leaves her infertile.
The ballerina storyline is not only a well-known storyline thanks to a 2004/2005 comic run by Richard K. Morgan, it’s also the one that resonates most closely with what we know of Natasha’s brainwashing. In Morgan’s run, Natasha was given artificial memories allowing her to believe she was a ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet, in order to help with her espionage and combat training. But the Age of Ultron flashbacks also allude to what audiences unfamiliar with the character might not be aware of: the Black Widow was not just one girl, it was a program designed to mold women into the deadliest female super assassins.
It’s been confirmed that in the upcoming film, we’re going to see more than one Black Widow, namely Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff/Iron Maiden—in fact, newly released concept art from D23 shows Yelena and a group of other unidentified characters that appear to be additional super spies/Black Widows. In any case, there’s a lot that we can learn about Natasha’s Red Room past, given how little we’ve learned so far. (The Marvel television series Agent Carter did somewhat explore the idea of the Black Widow program during its second season, confirming via the character of Dottie Underwood that the program has been around as far back as 1947 and showing flashbacks of young girls being trained like Natasha.)
Captain America: Civil War
Natasha comes into her own in this movie, walking the line of logic and heart as the Avengers clash over whether or not they should sign and accept the Sokovia Accords. But there is one plot point that could potentially be important to the character’s history: the Winter Soldier program. First mentioned in the 2014 Captain America film, the Winter Soldier program was a secret Hydra project started by Armin Zola that created trigger-based brainwashed assassins, not unlike how Black Widow was raised. In fact, Bucky and Natasha have a long history in the comics both as friends and lovers, including a storyline of Bucky being her teacher during her assassin training. (A line in Civil War from Natasha when she’s fighting Bucky and saying, “you could at least recognize me” is heavily contested by fans on whether or not she’s referring to a previous movie or their shared history.)
In Captain America: Civil War, we learn that there are more Winter Soldiers than just Bucky and that they are being kept in cryogenic chambers. Helmut Zemo kills them and unfortunately, that plot point never really goes anywhere significant. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be a plot point that’s brought up in connection to Natasha’s past, especially since just like Bucky, there are multiple Black Widows. And just because we’ve never seen them in the MCU, it doesn’t mean they haven’t always been around.
Endgame and Beyond
Following the tragedy of War Machine’s paralysis after the airport battle, a rattled Black Widow goes on the run, spurred by Iron Man’s comments that she’s in trouble. It’s here that we potentially leave the character an opening for her solo film, though we shouldn’t discount Avengers: Endgame as being important. Despite the fact it doesn’t provide us with plot points that could be directly related to Natasha’s past, it does raise the emotional stakes by giving us a look at Natasha while she navigates a post-snap world largely alone, commanding surviving Avengers as the new Nick Fury and openly feeling the failure of being unable to reverse Thanos’ actions. Should the Black Widow movie build on any of the storylines or conversations from previous films, knowing where Natasha ends up emotionally given how much she’s transformed over the years adds greater weight to the character.
Giving us a Black Widow movie after Avengers or Captain America: Winter Soldier would’ve been wonderful for timing, not to mention relevance (between Marvel, Lucy, and Chef, Scarlett Johansson had a pretty stellar 2014). But it also would have been a disservice to a character who still had so much growing to do. While it may seem like we’ve waited far too long for a Black Widow solo film, the truth is that we gain more from getting a story this late in the game—a story that will hopefully continue to build on what we know of Natasha and her history. In the same way that Scarlett Johansson has expressed that she hopes the Black Widow film “elevates the character,” we hope that it can leave audiences with a new appreciation of a beloved hero.
Featured Image: Marvel