Yesterday, out of nowhere, Marvel Studios gave us our first surprise look at Black Widow, the solo spy movie fans have been dying to see since Scarlett Johansson pummelled the hell out of some dudes in a corridor in Iron Man 2 nine years ago. Now, even if Natasha Romanoff has exited the MCU, there’s still a chance to delve into her history.
The trailer opens with a shot of a location that is immediately infamous to any MCU fan: Budapest, Hungary’s capital. In the Marvel movieverse, Budapest is an unseen locale that has come up repeatedly as a crucial part of several Avengers’ histories: It’s the site of an unknown major mission that both Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, who appears in this trailer briefly but only in archival footage) undertook as SHIELD agents, a dangerous event that helped forge the two spies’ relationship well before they were wrangled into business with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, likewise appearing in this trailer through archival footage).
“I used to have nothing,” Natasha tells us, as we cut to her looking in a mirror. And then, speaking of that Avengers history...
We flash back to, well, Natasha’s own flashbacks? We cut back through snippets of previous Marvel movies – Natasha re-experiencing her training in the Red Room in Age of Ultron, welcoming her future fellow Avengers aboard the Helicarrier and reminiscing with Clint in Avengers...
... and working with Nick Fury and going into action aboard the Lemurian Star in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. “And then I got this job, this family...” Nat’s narration continues over it all.
Back to the present, as Natasha continues to glare at herself. “But nothing lasts forever.” We say present, but this isn’t really present in terms of where the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline is right now, obviously, because Nat’s presently crumpled in a dead heap at the bottom of a cliff on Vormir after the events of Avengers: Endgame saw her make the ultimate sacrifice for that found family.
Her line here about nothing lasting forever isn’t a reference to any of that – Black Widow is set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, a two-year period in which the Avengers have been shattered over the induction of the Sokovia Accords, legislation that ultimately led to the team taking sides for and against their enactment. While Natasha initially supported the Accords, taking the side of Tony Stark, she eventually flipped over to Team Cap, going on the run with Steve Rogers and being put on several wanted lists in the process.
Back in Budapest, “present” Nat gets off a train, on her guard and keeping a low profile, given that she’s now no longer an Avenger but a wanted woman. “Heard you had to leave in a hurry,” an unknown man tells her. “It’s never easy these days,” Nat responds. It’s hard to say who Nat’s speaking to here. The cut the trailer is about to make makes it seem like it could be Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt)...
Who we get to glimpse here, leading an armoured convoy of troopers. But given that this Ross is using Marvel’s creepy-ass de-ageing CG on Hurt, this is clearly not a scene from Black Widow’s present as that dialogue implies. And if it was, considering Nat’s on the run from Ross, them having an amicable chitchat about her being a criminal is not on the cards. There’s a chance then, that this is O.T. Fagbenle’s character. We don’t know who exactly the Handmaid’s Tale star is playing in Black Widow – other than his name is “Mason” – but the voice sounds similar and would make a lot more sense than Ross.
“So what are you going to do?” the mystery man asks, as we cut back to Nat, now rifling through old identity cards covered with her face, reflections of her past as a spy. “I’ve lived a lot of lives,” she says...
“But I’m done running from my past.” Now, Nat’s sweeping through a seemingly empty block of Budapest flats, packing heat.
Nat continues her sweep, only for a mystery woman to call out to her. “I know you’re out there,” the voice says, as Nat jokily responds “I know you know I’m out here.” This whole sequence was actually shown early to fans at San Diego Comic-Con this year!
“So are we gonna talk like grownups?” Nat continues to jab, as we meet our mystery woman, also armed: Say hello to Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), also known as...the Black Widow.
Yes, Yelena is not only a product of the same training programme Natasha went through with the KGB, but actually her successor to the Black Widow mantle. Introduced in the comics in 1999 – by Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones – Yelena was the true inheritor of Nat’s former role after she turned hero, with scores in the Red Room’s harsh and brutal regimes to rival Nat’s. Over the years since in the comics she and Natasha have been everything from mirrored foes to uneasy rivals, as Nat has attempted to redeem Yelena and get the young woman to see that, just as she herself did, there’s more to being an agent of the Red Room.
Of course, being bitter rivals meeting again for the first time in years, Nat and Yelena immediately have to attempt to beat the crap out of each other. Turns out, given they’re both very similar in skill, it’s a close match – but Yelena seemingly gets the better of Nat for a brief moment, sending her bouncing off a doorway in the flat they’re duking it out in.
“Good to see you too, Sis,” Nat says, to remind those of us in the audience not up on our Black Widow history about their tortured past. Ah, family reunions.
The two commiserate over a drink, as Yelena ask Nat what brings her home...
And we cut to a shot of Nat wearing a very nice new costume. It looks like a more tech’d up, layered take on Nat’s traditional Widow costume in the comics – it’s hard to make out, but you can see her Widow’s Bite gauntlets and her belt (even if it’s not quite the same design, swapping connected circles for a more militaristic, squared-off style) borrow the gold coloration from her classic spysuit. But is it new? We may not have seen it before, but the context here makes it seem like this could be another flashback – the convoy in the background could be the one we saw the younger Thunderbolt Ross with earlier in the trailer, and Nat’s ponytail here is different to the braid we’ve seen her wearing in the present. Could this be the uniform she’s wearing whenever she first meets Ross in her life, still a KGB agent and not yet the hero we know she’ll become?
The narration over here, however, remains in the present. “We have unfinished business,” Nat tells Yelena, as...
We cut to them running across the rooftops of the same apartment complex they were fighting in earlier. The wardrobes match up here, so we know that it’s after they reunite, but they’re joined by a third woman, who is hard to make out in the melee but definitely looks suited and booted like she is also a Black Widow. Are Nat and Yelena chasing her, though, or is she chasing them?
“We have to go back to where it all started,” Natasha continues, as we cut to, well, where it all started: what appears to be the Red Room. This could once again be a flashback, given the mysterious shadowy woman on the left here looks a lot like Nat in her new costume, going back to her days as a Soviet agent.
The Red Room was one of several KGB training programmes in the secret comic origins, in what was then a Cold War-era operation that used deadly combat training and genetic enhancement to turn female operatives into the titular widows. There was even a male-only equivalent, the Wolf Spider operation, but it was scrapped after its first “successful” candidate, Niko Constantin, proved impossible to control.
If this is a flashback and not the modern iteration of the Red Room, there’s a chance that the man Natasha is talking to here is potentially another figure from the comics and her origins as Widow: Grigor Ivanovich Pchelintsov. Professor Pchelinstov was a master of “psychotechnics,” the brain-altering methodology used by the Red Room to implant false memories into orphaned girls inducted into the Black Widow programme. The memories? That they were training as ballet dancers at the Bolshoi theatre, imagery we know Nat has in her head, as we saw it in Age of Ultron.
Meanwhile, Nat flips into action in style! This is presumably the present, but it’s hard to say. Either way, Nat’s now wearing a snow-appropriate white version of her widow suit. This is, once again, inspired by the comics – and it’s actually a relatively recent part of Nat’s on-page history. The white variant of her suit first appeared in the 2010 miniseries Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell, Tom Raney, John Paul Leon, Scott Hanna, and Matt Milla, a retelling of Natasha’s early days. The suit, meant to be worn by Widows going into operations in wintry climates, was donned by Natasha as she chased after a mysterious group known only as the Icepick Protocols.
“Lucky us,” Yelena retorts, as we cut to what seems to be a new generation of Widows being trained. They’re all very good at synchronised gun posing, at least.
Back on what looks like the streets of Budapest, a car (possibly driven by Yelena and Natasha) is chased by an armoured vehicle, and we finally get our first proper glimpse of Black Widow’s primary villain. Although we don’t know who’s under the mask yet, this is the Taskmaster, a.k.a. Tony Masters.
In the comics, Taskmaster is a legendary mercenary for hire, who makes a name for himself thanks to his genius intellect, mastery of combat arts, and above all, his “photographic reflexes.” These reflexes allow Taskmaster to instantly duplicate the physical skillset of anyone he sees – something he combines with his combat mastery to basically copy the skills of superheroes and make a name for himself as the ultimate mercenary. He can shoot a bow like Hawkeye as we see him do so here, go into hand-to-hand combat like Iron Fist, and yes, he even has a shield (not seen here, however) he flings like Captain America.
“One thing’s for sure,” Nat says. “It’s gonna be a hell of a reunion.” And we get our first very brief glimpse of just one of those intriguing reunions: another Widow agent – Melina (Rachel Weisz) – cloaked by blinding white light.
This seems like it is actually another familiar face from the comics, although there, Melina (full name Melina Vostokoff) wasn’t actually a fellow Black Widow. She was a bitter rival of Natasha’s as an agent of the Russian government, furious at living in the shadow of Natasha’s successes, but she took on a different spy identity: Vostokoff was the Iron Maiden, wearing a special skintight suit of flexible metal that insulated her from impacts, granted a level of enhanced strength, and deflected energy attacks.
Vostokoff, furious at playing second fiddle to the Widows and Nat specifically, eventually went rogue and became a mercenary, dedicating herself to ending Nat’s life as vengeance for the privileges she was given during her time with the KGB. In the movie, however, it seems like she’s going to not just be a fellow Widow instead of her own persona, but an important ally in Natasha and Yelena’s new mission.
As is the next face we meet, who, once again, is another figure from the comics, glimpsed here smashing out of a wintry outpost (perhaps the same one we saw Nat rappelling into earlier?) and getting his flex on...
...and putting on a costume that he’s very happy still fits, although the gathered Nat, Yelena, and Melina might seem to disagree a little. This is the costume of Alexei Shostakov (Stranger Things’ David Harbour), a.k.a. the Red Guardian!
Created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema in 1967, Shostakov is actually the second Red Guardian. The original, Aleksey Lebedev, made a brief appearance in the golden age Invaders comics fighting alongside Captain American and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Like Lebedev before him, Shostakov’s Red Guardian was created as a Soviet parallel to the Captain America supersoldier programme in the US. Although the Russians didn’t have a strength-enhancing serum, Alexei was trained in hand-to-hand combat and initially wielded a magnetic disc that he could throw akin to Steve Rogers’ shield.
Oh, also, he was Nat’s husband? Yeah.
An ace pilot for the Soviets, both he and his wife signed up for the Russian Government. While Natasha became the Black Widow, Alexei became a lauded test and combat pilot, heralded by state media as a Soviet icon. When it was decided in the early days of the Cold War to give Russia its own Captain America, Alexei was chosen (over Yuri Gagarin, who instead got to become the first cosmonaut, of course!)... and had his death faked by the KGB, going into hiding to be rigorously trained. After becoming Red Guardian he eventually crossed paths with both Black Widow and Captain America, but was promptly murdered after revealing his true identity to his former wife.
The Red Guardian of Black Widow has seemingly been through some changes – that door being slammed off its hinges implies that Alexei may at least have some form of enhanced strength akin to Steve Rogers, and while Natasha clearly has familiarity with him given that he’s been roped into her unlikely “family” for Widows, they’re maybe not husband and wife as they once were in the comics. Who knows though?
Much to the chagrin of Yelena at least, Alexei is happy to be at the table. “Family... back together again,” he says to the gathered Widows with a smile.
“You got fat,” Melina jokes to Alexei. What’s a bit of playful ribbing among friends/former Russian agents?
Meanwhile suited up and in a shiny white facility, Alexei goes toe-to-toe with with Taskmaster. You can very briefly glimpse in the background of their scrap that Taskmaster’s Cap-esque shield is embedded in the floor!
An avalanche consumes the wintry base we saw earlier, with the helicopter that dropped Natasha off barely fleeing it. Meanwhile, in a moment that happens presumably before said avalanche. Yelena, now clad in a white version of the Widow suit too, fires a rocket launcher at one of the outpost’s towers. Is this perhaps a flashback to a mission she and Nat went on in their past, or is this a climactic attack on Taskmaster’s facility once the group have reunited?
Finally, the trailer ends with one hell of a hero shot: Natasha, freefalling through the sky, as she dodges not just wreckage of a crashed plane but also bullets from some mysterious, almost Star Wars Stormtrooper-masked assailants. The way this is cut and even the lighting almost makes it seem like this is from the same snowy battle we’ve just seem glimpses of, but Nat’s in her black version of the Widow costume here, and her hair’s done up in the same ponytail we saw earlier.
So presumably then, this is what happened before the aftermath we got to see earlier in the trailer, and whatever mission Nat was on where she seemingly meets Thunderbolt Ross and his convoy. Are the soldiers Taskmaster agents, and that’s why there’s “unfinished business” in the present? Whatever it is, this is still a cool little action sequence to end the trailer on.
This first trailer is, understandably, light on many particular revelations about Natasha’s time before she became an Agent of SHIELD, and one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Its setting gives us a chance to learn more about her past, yes. But at least in this trailer, it’s reframed through a significantly lighter lens, one that recontextualises her time in the Black Widow programme as not just traumatically formative, but a bond she now shares with a whole team of spy-fi sisters that must reunite to save the day. We’ll have to see just what the film will explore in the mysteries and tragedies of the Red Room in future snippets, but for now, the Black Widow is back in heroic action, and she’s far from alone.
Black Widow hits cinemas 1 May 2020.
Featured image: Marvel Studios