The Black Widow codename may be all but synonymous with Natasha Romanoff thanks to Scarlett Johansson and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but with the upcoming Black Widow solo movie, and Natasha’s rather unfortunate (and emphatically final) demise in Avengers: Endgame, the status quo is about to be shaken up in a major way. Thankfully, the history of Black Widow over in Marvel’s comics is full of weird loopholes, clones, and top-secret spy training programs, giving us all kinds of wiggle room when it comes to figuring out when and how the Black Widows who aren’t Natasha Romanoff might come into play. Most notable among them is Yelena Belova, the Black Widow who was recently confirmed to be played by Florence Pugh at this year’s completely insane Marvel Studios panel during San Diego Comic-Con.
But knowing that Yelena is on her way to the big screen is only one part of the equation. To really understand the ins and outs of who she is, why she matters, and where the other Black Widows fit into this mess, we need to do some serious digging–starting with the organization behind it all: the Red Room.
The Room (no, not that one)
One of the most important things to understand about Marvel history is that the publisher as we know it owes a lot to the fact that it came into being during the height of the Cold War. This context is the catch-all explanation for virtually every classic Marvel hero’s first origin story. There’s anxiety about communism (Iron Man), nuclear power (Hulk), counter culture (the X-Men), and of course, the overwhelming fear of the omnipresent Russian threat (just about every major villain for those early years)–you know, stuff that was really in the zeitgeist at the time. That’s where the Black Widow comes into play, and by extension, the concept of the Red Room.
Introduced in 1964, Natasha’s early years as the Black Widow were largely playing on the era-typical Russian femme fatale tropes you’d see in something like Rocky & Bullwinkle. She was a regular antagonist against various Avengers who eventually broke out into a series of her own, sliding back and forth between antagonist and anti-hero roles as she became more popular. Development of her history and origins was slow-going and typically banked on Cold War-era stereotypes that Russians were scary and dangerous and, of course, mysteriously sexy, without much real substance to speak of. Things slowly started to change as the Cold War came to an end in the real world, opening the door for a more thorough exploration of just who Natasha was and where she came from.
In 1999, Natasha’s origin was given a complete overhaul, introducing the concept of the “Black Widow Ops Program” that was later explored through the Red Room, an idea that would not only retroactively reshape Black Widow as a character in the Marvel universe, but open all sorts of interesting narrative avenues for writers and artists to travel down that were only tangential to Natasha herself. After all, if there was a whole program to train Black Widow agents, it obviously follows that Natasha wasn’t the only one.
The organization responsible for the Black Widow Ops Program was called The Red Room, which was both a literal place and sort of covert secret society. It was one part “boarding school” spy academy for children, where they’d be taught things like ballet (remember those flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron?) martial arts, and murder; and one part Illuminati-flavored web of secret basis and soviet-era secrecy that spanned the globe for whatever nefarious super villain purposes Marvel Comics needed. It continued to grow and evolve over the years, with each change affecting any number of retroactive updates to Marvel history for those aforementioned nefarious purposes.
For example, when Bucky Barnes was resurrected as the Winter Soldier, the Red Room was responsible for his revival and subsequent brainwashing. A male version of the Black Widow Ops program was added to the mix called the Wolfspider Program, which Bucky participated in as a trainer. Later it was revealed that the Red Room had also engineered a cloning program of its operatives, secretly creating duplicate bodies for people like Natasha, which could have the memories and consciousness of operatives uploaded as a sort of “extra life” should things go south.
Because, sure, we may be talking about gritty, neo-noir spy stuff here, but let’s not forget these are still superhero comics.
Naturally, the genesis of the Red Room afforded writers and artists the opportunity to create new Black Widows, other products of the training program who were retroactively placed in Marvel continuity. The most famous of these new Widows is Yelena Belova, a highly conditioned Russian spy in a black catsuit with blonde hair, instead of Natasha’s trademark red.
No, really, that was their one key difference at first. Their abilities and skillsets were, by design, completely identical.
Yelena’s story wasn’t all that complicated. She debuted in 1999 right alongside the Red Room reveal, so her initial story was pretty barebones. She was activated, told that she was the rightful heir to the Black Window title, and sent after Natasha when she volunteered for a mission that would allow her to prove it. The Black Widow vs. Black Widow fight got a little dicey, but ultimately Natasha was able to grab the upper hand and brutally shatter Yelena’s delusions about her abilities and her claim to the mantle. For her part, Yelena took the defeat pretty well and retired for a while to become a model. You know, like all super spies do at one point or another.
Things didn’t stay simple for Yelena for long. After her retirement and subsequent return to action, she spent some time as the Super Adaptoid, a deeper-cut Marvel villain. This was the result of being captured and experimented on by Hydra (who, important to note, are independent from the Red Room in the comics, though their MCU incarnations tend to blur those lines).
Yelena’s stint as the Adaptoid came to an end after she was rescued by the Avengers, but she never quite rose to prominence or joined any major teams. With her inferiority complex with Natasha mostly overcome, Yelena’s role in modern comics is to pop up by surprise whenever things start getting complicated for Nat–not as an opportunistic thorn in anyone’s side, but as a sort of chaotic-neutral force who wants to make sure the Black Widow legacy is maintained. To do so, both Natasha and Yelena have a tendency to impersonate one another when the situation calls for it–because why not, right? There aren’t many people in the Marvel universe who share the exact same skillset and almost the exact same history, so the two of them have an advantage when pulling that sort of stunt, no matter what their goals may be.
Where does this fit into the MCU?
The Red Room situation in the MCU is more than a little mysterious. Outside of some vaguely defined flashbacks and Natasha’s oft-repeated refrain of her “red ledger,” we don’t really know much of where her live-action incarnation came from or what the MCU Red Room’s goals were. In the comics, Marvel uses the fact that the Red Room experimented on its recruits with various serums to slow (or sometimes completely stop) the process of aging, which explains why a woman who looks like she’s in her mid- to late-20s can be so heavily connected to Cold War history–but the MCU has yet to make such implications. As far as we know, Natasha is just a totally normal, albeit absurdly well-trained, human–meaning whatever developments come about the Red Room, Nat’s relationship with Yelena, and their shared 1960s-flavored origin story, are going to require a little fancy footwork.
During Marvel’s SDCC 2019 panel, fans got to watch a full trailer for the Black Widow movie, which featured a pretty extensive (and extremely brutal) fight scene between Nat and Yelena. They called one another “sister” before reaching a stalemate, sitting down, and sharing a shot of vodka. So, we can obviously surmise that, no matter what revelations and changes might be on the way for their published history, the fact that they’re the products of the exact same system is going to remain the same.
Knowing what we know about Natasha’s Endgame finale, it might even be a safe bet to assume that the Black Widow movie will position Yelena as her de facto successor and a hero in her own right. Yelena’s comic book history might be shady and strange, but there’s nothing that says the MCU can’t play a little fast and loose with the details–and, knowing what we know about Natasha’s Endgame demise, the MCU may have a job opening that Yelena is uniquely suited to fill.