It’s been a long time since a Marvel Studios film debuted in theaters. Spider-Man: Far From Home opened on June 26, 2019 to a very different world, with Marvel planning to unveil the first of its Phase Four films the following May. Then the pandemic happened and Black Widow became one of the key markers determining whether or not release dates for big summer movies were viable across the next year and change.
And after a number of false starts — remember when it was supposed to open in November? — Black Widow is in theaters this Friday.
Yes, the film’s moment is finally here. But for busy consumers of media now taken with Fear Street, Cruel Summer, or even Marvel’s own Loki television series, key details once fresh in their minds about Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) adventures may have been forgotten. Honestly, it is easy to lose track of an ongoing story two years later even in the best of times. Luckily, we’ve compiled the five things you should remember before heading to the theater – or drive-in, or your couch – to watch Marvel’s return to the movies.
(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
This one might seem obvious to those following the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe closely and waiting with bated breath for the arrival of Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. At the same time, though, there are those who might assume the film takes place in the relative present alongside WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, despite the fact that Natasha Romanoff is currently, well, unavailable, as it were. In fact, it is possible for members of either camp to so completely believe their assumptions about Black Widow that they are unaware anyone else thinks differently.
Nonetheless, the film takes place a short time after Nat goes on the run following her choice to allow Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) to escape the Berlin airport in Captain America: Civil War. How much time has passed between the films is unclear, even as Marvel becomes more precise about when certain MCU events occurred. Using the film’s release date as a marker, Black Widow is set after May 6, 2016.
Yes, Civil War was that long ago.
On the other end, it can take place no later than April 27, 2018 – the date Avengers: Infinity War was released. Although, considering where Nat is when she first appears in that film, we’re inclined to believe Black Widow takes place in 2017. Splitting the difference between the films on either side of Black Widow seems to make the most sense.
All this grousing about the film’s setting along the Marvel timeline may seem like needless nitpicking, but it does matter, as it sets up Nat’s emotional arc. This is someone without her friends for the first time in a long time. And although Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) can be annoying, they are like family. Think about how quickly she bonded with Steve Rogers and you’ll see how the Nat we’re about to see in Black Widow could be, well, sad — an unusual place for the character to start a journey.
(Photo by ©Marvel Studios)
Of course, her training in the Red Room may allow her to keep those emotions in check. What we’ve seen of the Red Room – the ex-Soviet program dedicated to training children into spies – indicates it would force a rather extreme suppression of emotions to survive. Well, presuming her very brief admission of what occurred there in Avengers: Age of Ultron is anything to go by.
But beyond the way the Red Room training might regulate her emotions, it is important to keep Nat’s status as a former Russian spy in mind because she is headed back into that world. It is a place of guns instead of lasers, bike chases instead of time heists, and darker ideas than even Thanos can imagine, though we doubt the film will delve far into the full terror of what it means to be a Black Widow. This is still a Disney picture, after all.
Also, thanks to the trailers, we know part of her spy training was being part of a “family” consisting of Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour), and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). The nature of that family remains to be seen – could they all turn around and betray her? We expect resolving the nature of their bond (if one even exists), as opposed to the tale of how she defected to S.H.I.E.L.D., is a big reason for the film’s setting.
(Photo by Zade Rosenthal/©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
From the Black Widow trailers, we can see Natasha is headed back to Budapest as part of her reunion with Yelena. That city holds some special significance for Nat that, we assume, will become clearer as the film unfolds.
Both she and Clint reference Budapest in The Avengers and Avengers: Endgame, although, as Nat pointed out in Avengers, Clint’s memory of the operation is very different. In fact, exposing the nature of what happened there is something Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) tried to use against Nat in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when she prepares to expose all of Hydra’s secrets to the world.
Clearly, something bad happened in the Hungarian capital while Nat and Clint both worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. Will it point to the agency’s return in subsequent Marvel movies or shows? We doubt it. If we get any additional clarity on the operation, it will be squarely focused on Natasha Romanoff. For one thing, this is her movie, not a S.H.I.E.L.D. flick. And for another, if this really is Johansson’s final turn as Black Widow, this is the absolute last chance to explain Budapest to all the Marvel fans who’ve tracked the reference across the last decade.
(Photo by ©Marvel Studios)
Although the three Marvel Studios TV shows on Disney+ have been impressive in their own ways, they tend to avoid the spectacle of a Captain America: Civil War or an Iron Man 3. Instead, the shows go for more contained fights without as many explosions or car chases. Some of them can be quite thrilling, but still pale in comparison to, say, Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) attempts to evade Hydra in The Winter Soldier. From the reviews we’ve seen of Black Widow, it seems that sort of explosive action is back in a big way. And, to be fair to the TV shows, which still pulled off some great things, explosions and car chases belong to movies more than television. They have the time and budget to pull those things off more effectively. Well, at least for now, anyway.
Meanwhile, we imagine if you’ve spent the last 18 months at home, the spectacle of Black Widow may be jarring. Of course, it is also possible you’ve already seen F9 and you’re ready for more explosions, cars getting crushed, and the like. Nevertheless, there are some who may be startled by the level of action in this film and, if they brave the theaters, the volume of the elaborate speaker systems. It is something even avid moviegoers need to adjust to after so long a time without theatrical releases, and this is to say nothing of just being inside a theater again if Black Widow is your first return to the movies since March of 2020. That could be a shock all its own before the film even starts.
(Photo by Patrick Wymore/©ABC)
This might be a long shot, but as we were avid Agent Carter fans, we’re never going to let this one go. The short lived Hayley Atwell series introduced a character known as Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan). Although never outright called a “Black Widow,” she was trained at the Red Room Academy in Belarus in manner quite similar to the instruction Natasha would receive decades later. Initially ordered to aid in obtaining secret Stark technology, she came into contact with Peggy Carter (Atwell) and the Strategic Scientific Reserve — the forerunner agency to S.H.I.E.L.D.
In a curious twist, Dottie’s orders came not from Hydra, but from Leviathan, a Soviet program devoted to both scientific research and espionage. Behaving in a similar manner to Hydra – with a side order of secret society shenanigans – Leviathan seemed poised to become Peggy’s main adversary in Season 3 before ABC sadly cancelled the series. But considering Endgame’s acknowledgment of the program via star James D’Arcy’s cameo as Edwin Jarvis, there is room for Black Widow to offer us some clarity on the matter, if even just to say the Red Room continued Leviathan’s objectives following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Again, we admit Leviathan is the least likely thing you need to remember before seeing Black Widow, but it is always possible Marvel Studios will put it into play as it fleshes out more of Nat’s past. Also, like the Red Room itself, it could still be operational in 2017, to say nothing of Phase Four’s present day.
Black Widow opens in theaters and streams on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9, 2021.