Despite having already died in a heroic sacrifice on a distant, barren planet in an alternate timeline, Natasha Romanoff returned with one final story to tell.
It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Black Widow arrived years late. But the movie still provides closure for a character who had long been underserved: the MCU’s first female superhero. “I feel like I’m going out on a high note with a movie I’m incredibly proud of,’’ Scarlett Johansson recently told Variety. “I feel like my work with Natasha is complete, if that is such a thing. I’ve explored many facets of her person, and feel that her choice to sacrifice her life for her best friends was one that she made actively and with resolve.”
But as with every Marvel movie, Black Widow also has one eye on the future. The movie bids farewell to Johansson while setting up another actress to take the mantle, and uses this yet-to-be-explored facet of the universe as a breeding ground for new story lines and characters. And so, here are some of the biggest takeaways from the film—how it concluded Natasha’s story, and where the franchise is headed following Johansson’s departure.
The Return of Valentina Allegra de Fontaine
In Black Widow’s post-credits scene, Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes a surprise cameo to reprise her role as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. The 11-time Emmy award winner made her unexpected MCU debut in the fifth episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, when Valentina recruited John Walker to her team after he lost his day job as Captain America. Her grand entrance in the Disney+ series worked as a perfect introduction to the mysterious Contessa, but Black Widow was originally meant to be her debut.
The pandemic forced Marvel to swap that order, and now Valentina’s post-credits scene builds on her intro in Falcon. If not for the delays, though, Val’s meeting with Yelena in front of Natasha’s grave would’ve been a fitting parallel to Samuel L. Jackson’s MCU debut in 2008’s Iron Man. When Jackson made his first appearance as Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. was attempting to recruit Tony Stark to his growing team of Avengers. Now, over a decade later, Valentina is forming a superteam of her own, only one that’s markedly more villainous.
It’s clear from Valentina and Yelena’s encounter that Yelena already has been working for her for some time. Yelena tells her boss that she’s cutting into her holiday time and that she wants a raise before Valentina delivers Yelena’s next target. “Maybe you’d like a shot at the man responsible for your sister’s death,” Valentina says as she hands Yelena a picture of Clint Barton. “Kind of a cutie, don’t you think?”
Valentina’s past in the MCU remains unclear, including whether she has any ties to the terrorist organization Hydra or S.H.I.E.L.D., like her character does in the comics. But after recruiting guys like U.S. Agent who go around publicly executing their enemies and assigning Yelena to kill an Avenger, Valentina is shaping up to be a major villain. (How she could possibly know what happened between Natasha and Clint on an alien planet in Endgame beats me, but having been a politician in a former life, she seems to know a thing or two about spinning the truth.) With Valentina putting together a superteam, the MCU could be setting up the introduction of villainous squads from the comics, such as the Thunderbolts or the Dark Avengers.
Yelena Belova’s Future in the MCU
In addition to being Natasha’s swan song, Black Widow serves as a bit of an origin story for her successor, Yelena Belova. The film leaves plenty of space to introduce Natasha’s adoptive sister and—between her blunt explanation of her involuntary hysterectomy to Alexei and making fun of Natasha’s fighting pose—allows her to steal some of its best moments. The post-credits scene confirms that Florence Pugh will reprise her role as the new Black Widow, and she is, in fact, set to appear in Hawkeye when it hits Disney+ later this year.
Aside from becoming a new dog owner, it seems like Yelena has been putting her Black Widow training to use in the years since the events of Black Widow concluded in 2016. With Hawkeye assigned as her next target, Yelena will soon face off with the arrow-slinging Avenger and his new mentee, Kate Bishop, who will make her debut in Hawkeye. Clint has been closely linked with Natasha ever since 2012’s The Avengers; the guy even named his son Nathaniel “Nate” Barton in her honor. Black Widow explained their long-teased mission together in Budapest, which deepened their bond further: Clint helped Natasha take down General Dreykov and the Red Room (or so they thought) in Budapest when she chose to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D. Years later, he tried comically hard to sacrifice himself instead of Natasha on Vormir in their mini fight to the death in Endgame. And now, he is being blamed for it.
Given Yelena’s heroics in Black Widow and Clint’s history with Natasha, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Yelena eventually realizes that Val has tricked her into trying to take down an Avenger under false pretenses. Such a discovery could lead to her splitting off from Valentina’s team and joining whatever new iteration of the Avengers will likely arrive in the future, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens in Hawkeye to find out where Yelena is heading next. For now, all we need to know is that the mantle of the Black Widow is in incredibly good hands with Pugh as the MCU turns to new heroes and villains in Phase 4. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another decade for a Black Widow sequel.
The Rest of Natasha’s “Family”
Black Widow introduces a number of characters from the comics into the MCU: Yelena, Melina, and Alexei all have a shared history with Natasha, while Taskmaster is one of the Avengers’ longtime antagonists. All four characters, however, have been repurposed for Black Widow, with Taskmaster’s debut making the biggest departure from its origins.
For Natasha’s adopted family, Pugh’s Yelena is the closest analogue to her original character. Like she is in Black Widow, Yelena is a graduate of the Red Room’s Black Widow program. She’s younger than Natasha, and is the only one to ever exceed her physical test scores in the Red Room. But she’s also less experienced and more naive, and Natasha takes her to school on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, Melina is another Russian assassin with a jealousy and hatred for the original Black Widow. Unlike her MCU counterpart, though, Melina didn’t pass through the Black Widow program five times—also, she wears an iron mask and masquerades as the villainous Iron Maiden. Lastly, Alexei is the oldest comic book character between the three, with his first appearance coming in the late 1960s. His character is meant to be the Soviet Union’s response to Captain America, and unlike David Harbour’s hapless Red Guardian, the Russian super soldier actually fought against Steve Rogers. Strangely enough, though, in the comics, Alexei is not Natasha’s adopted father, but rather her husband. (That said, that backstory is very convoluted, they’re married for only a short time, and it’s also been retconned, along with much of Natasha’s origins in the comics.)
As for Taskmaster, Black Widow’s largely silent villain bears little resemblance to the character in the comics. Instead of being the brainwashed Antonia Dreykov, Taskmaster was originally a mercenary named Anthony “Tony” Masters. The two versions essentially share the same powers in being able to mimic the abilities of their enemies, but Tony’s capabilities are borne from his “photographic reflexes,” as opposed to Antonia’s reliance on technology. Since Black Widow didn’t afford much time to Antonia’s own origins—I think she has, like, one line in the entire film—it isn’t even clear whether she can do anything without the aid of her fancy suit.
As is always the case of the working relationship between the MCU and the comic books that its films and TV shows draw from, Black Widow plucks characters and plot points that align with its story and adjusts them accordingly. The film even borrows and improves on a memorable moment in 2004’s Black Widow: Homecoming series, when Natasha breaks her nose:
Knowing that, it’ll be interesting to see (and hard to predict) how the MCU will update its versions of Alexei, Melina, and Taskmaster. But they will most likely be back—as this article was being written, a report dropped that David Harbour and Rachel Weisz have signed deals to appear in multiple MCU films. Nothing’s official yet, and there’s no indication of where Alexei and Melina’s stories will lead, but something tells me the former will have at least hit the gym before he returns again.
The End of the Red Room
By the end of Black Widow, Yelena isn’t the only Red Room graduate to break free of Dreykov’s control. After Yelena and Natasha save the other brainwashed Widows and put an end to the Red Room once and for all, the Widows return to the crash site to pick up Yelena, Alexei, Melina, and even Taskmaster. There’s over a dozen of the trained assassins on scene, with even more of them implanted around the world. With Dreykov gone, they’re all free to go out and purchase some sweet vests and make their own choices for the first time since they were abducted as children.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Natasha’s adopted family and Taskmaster. At the very least, it seems like Melina and the other Widows will help free the rest of their kind across the world by using the mind-control counteragent. But beyond that, there’s now an army of spies with no clear purpose or allegiance. We might have to wait for the film’s likely sequel to find out their futures in the MCU, though it’s always possible that they’ll start popping up in other movies or Disney+ series as heroes or villains for hire. As for Taskmaster, I’m sure Valentina would be open to auditions.
A Farewell to Natasha Romanoff
While Black Widow spends a lot of its time establishing Yelena Belova as a crucial part to the MCU’s future, above all else the film marks the ending of a character who had previously appeared in a supporting role in seven movies dating back to 2010. Given her sexist origins, and her consistent use “as a kind of chess piece for her male counterparts,” as Johansson put it to Time magazine, the Black Widow’s legacy will always be complicated. Despite being one of the original Avengers, it took 11 years for Natasha to get her own solo movie. Even Ant-Man, a character who serves as a running joke in the MCU for being a pretty random, regular dude, nearly got a third stand-alone film before Black Widow got her first.
Black Widow is a bittersweet goodbye to the MCU’s first female superhero. On the one hand, the film provides closure for a character with a troubled yet unexplored past. We’d heard that Natasha had “red in her ledger” as early as The Avengers, and yet we never knew what that was referring to. Black Widow finally gives some clarity on Natasha’s elusive past, and provides her with a story line that finds her making up for some of her previous transgressions; she makes amends with her adopted family, learns that she never killed Dreykov’s daughter and helps save her thereafter, and puts an end to the child-trafficking operation and abusive training program that is the Red Room.
But Black Widow also fails to provide Natasha with the type of send-off that her contemporaries received in Endgame—though that likely isn’t the fault of anyone directly involved in the making of Black Widow as much as it is due to it being tethered to the MCU’s greater agenda. Natasha’s death takes place seven years after the events of Black Widow, and ultimately has nothing to do with the story this film is telling. But while Tony Stark received a prolonged death scene and a funeral, and Steve Rogers traveled back in time to spend his life with his long-lost love in the final moments of Endgame, our last look at Natasha in Black Widow features her heading off to spring the other Avengers from a super prison following their capture in Captain America: Civil War. The only real acknowledgment of her death comes in the post-credits scene.
In the end, Black Widow still has more than its fair share of highlights and memorable moments as it ushers in a new star to fill in for Johansson in the years to come. It took embarrassingly long to reach the milestone to truly give Marvel any credit, but the film also became the first to feature a solo female director at the helm (Cate Shortland), hopefully setting a new standard for Marvel Studios. Natasha’s grand finale isn’t a proper origin story, nor is it a true hero’s farewell. It’s more of a one-shot comic, existing in tandem with the rest of the MCU’s stories to preserve the sanctity of its main timeline. Though it may not have ultimately given Nat the ending she deserved, Black Widow was an ending nonetheless—and one that proved that a movie like this should’ve been made long ago. After years of waiting for a chance to get the spotlight all to herself, at least it finally happened.