Marvel has been secretly setting up their Black Widow movie ever since 2012’s The Avengers. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was introduced in 2010’s Iron Man, and she was a hit, with fans immediately beginning to ask for a solo film. Although Marvel initially seemed receptive, for years there was no real news, until January 2018 when the studio hired Blacklist screenwriter Jac Schaeffer to work on a script. Filming is due to start in June, and it’s believed Black Widow will be part of Marvel’s 2020 slate.
This delay means that Black Widow will be quite an unusual movie. Most Marvel franchises launch with an origin story, introducing a brand new superhero into the MCU. In a select few cases, such as Black Panther or Spider-Man: Homecoming, the hero has first appeared in an “event” movie as a secondary character in advance of their solo blockbuster debut. But Black Widow is different, because the starring character is already an established part of the MCU. Her backstory has already been explored, most prominently in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and as such Black Widow is something of a known commodity.
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This has led to a lot of curiosity over just how Marvel intend to handle Black Widow. There have been frequent rumors that the film will be an origin story for Marvel’s premiere super-spy, exploring how she came to join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. That’s a major reason many fans got hyped about the idea of Black Widow being R-rated; they felt the story of a teenage assassin needed to be handled in a far more mature way than the standard Marvel fare. Alternatively, the film could well be set in the mysterious post-Avengers: Endgame MCU, given Black Widow seems to be playing a prominent role in that film. Whatever the truth may be, though, the seeds for Black Widow will most certainly already have been sown in the MCU. That makes now the perfect time to revisit everything the MCU has revealed about “Natasha” Romanoff, which could serve as setup.
- This Page: Black Widow’s MCU Origin Story
- Page 2: Black Widow’s Time With S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers
According to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Natalia Alianovna Romanoff (later known simply as Natasha Romanoff) was born in Stalingrad in 1984. At a young age, she was enrolled in the Red Room, a Soviet brainwashing and spy-training program that sought to turn young girls into skilled agents and assassins. Fragments of Black Widow’s training are shown in Avengers: Age of Ultron, in flashback sequences triggered by Scarlet Witch’s telepathic manipulations. Natasha saw herself in a lavish school, being trained in ballet alongside other students, watched over by KGB agents. The visions became increasingly disturbing, moving from the innocent idea of ballet lessons to marksmanship practice and, finally, killing a defenseless prisoner. Black Widow’s training was overseen by a character credited as Madame B., a harsh taskmaster who would break the students who were unworthy, and turn those who survived her training into lethal killers.
According to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Red Room has a final graduation ceremony in which their students are sterilized. “It’s efficient,” Black Widow recalled when revealing this to Bruce Banner. “One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier. Even killing.” As shown in the visions, Natasha didn’t entirely submit to the program, deliberately choosing to start failing her assignments in order to postpone her graduation. Madame B. saw through the deception, and had Natasha sterilized against her will.
Once she’d graduated, Black Widow became one of the KGB’s most lethal agents and assassins. She made a name for herself, and one line of dialogue in The Avengers implies that she willingly traded her skills to anyone who would pay for them. In the end, Natasha wound up on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar, and they sent in Hawkeye to kill her. Fortunately, he made a different call, and offered Black Widow a chance to join S.H.I.E.L.D. instead. A recent official MCU timeline has confirmed that this happened in 1998, when Black Widow was just 14 years old, which may well add important context to Clint’s decision (he presumably objected to killing a child).
Page 2: Black Widow’s Time With S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers
Relatively little is known of Black Widow’s time with S.H.I.E.L.D.. It’s reasonable to assume S.H.I.E.L.D. was forced to induct her into their training program even though she was a minor; after all, Natasha would hardly have possessed the right kind of skill-set for going into a normal education. So Black Widow traded the Red Room for S.H.I.E.L.D., and became a combat and espionage specialist. S.H.I.E.L.D. seem to have treated Black Widow as one of their “Gifted” assets, assigning Hawkeye to work with her as a partner. In one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in The Avengers, it’s revealed that Hawkeye and Black Widow were known as “Strike Team: Delta.”
This S.H.I.E.L.D. tactical unit was sent on missions across the globe, and fans have always been interested in one particular assignment. During The Avengers, Black Widow quipped that the Chitauri invasion of New York was “just like Budapest all over again.” Hawkeye disagreed; “You and I remember Budapest very differently,” he retorted. Although it’s just a single line of dialogue, viewers have always wondered just what happened in Budapest, and why Black Widow found herself remembering it while she was trading fire with an alien army.
Related: Marvel Movie Timeline: A Complete History Of The MCU
Taken together, The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron are a fascinating character study into Black Widow’s motives. At heart, she is driven by a desperate desire to redeem herself. As Black Widow told Loki in The Avengers, “I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.” When Loki taunted her, he was saying the words her own conscience whispers to her; is it even possible for Black Widow to balance the books? Can any amount of good deeds ever atone for her past sins?
Avengers: Age of Ultron offered a glimpse into the depths of Natasha’s self-hatred. Everyone creates their own narrative when they look back on their past. For Natasha, there are two conflicting versions she appears to tell herself. On the one hand, there are times when she remembers her past and blames herself for lacking the strength of will to resist the Red Room’s programming; she seems to particularly regret allowing them to sterilize her during the graduation ceremony. Occasionally, though, there are hints that at some level Black Widow understands that she was a victim in all of this. After all, she was just a child when she was taken into the Red Room, and they’d been practicing their techniques for decades. What chance did she really have? And did she even fully understand the significance of being sterilized at that age, brought up in an environment where relationships would have been seen as nothing more than tools to manipulate others?
As noted, right now it’s unclear whether or not Black Widow will be an origin story or an adventure set in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame. It could even conceivably be both, with Natasha’s past coming back to haunt her in the present. And yet, it’s easy to understand why Marvel decided it was right to go ahead with a Black Widow film. Her backstory is rich and complex, albeit darker than any other MCU hero’s. Meanwhile, it would be fascinating to see how the events of Avengers: Endgame would change Natasha’s character. The Avengers are sure to succeed in either averting or undoing the snap, and thus saving half the life in the universe; surely that kind of heroism is atonement enough, even for Black Widow. Success in that mission would potentially sent Black Widow on a whole new character journey, and it would be fascinating to see how it played out.
More: Everything We Know About Black Widow’s Role In Avengers: Endgame