David Harbour's Red Guardian could play an important role in Black Widow - as Natasha Romanoff's husband. Marvel Studios has cast Stranger Things star David Harbour as the Red Guardian, essentially the Russian Captain America, a classic comic book character created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema back in 1967.
Marvel Comics had always imagined that its stories are told in "the world outside your window," albeit a version of that world populated by superheroes and with occasional alien invasions. In 1967, writer Roy Thomas cast his eye to the Cold War arms race between the United States and the USSR, and he decided to incorporate that into the comics as well. He figured that, since Marvel's US Government had super-soldier programs and patriotic heroes, so would the USSR. That idea led to his creating the Red Guardian, cosmonaut Alexi Shostakov, who became an Avengers villain.
Harbour's role in Black Widow is currently something of a mystery, but the Red Guardian is becoming an increasingly important part of the film's marketing. The character appeared in Black Widow footage shown at D23, in a scene shared with Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova. Marvel then released an exclusive Black Widow poster to give attendees a first look at his mask. Naturally, comic book readers are poring over old comics to try to figure out the connection between Red Guardian and the Black Widow program - and the solution may lie in a comic from 2010.
The MCU's Natasha Romanoff Is Inspired By Black Widow: Deadly Origin
In 2010, the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe meant that Marvel Comics was watching the movies closely to look for opportunities to synergize comic book events with the latest blockbuster releases. Black Widow's impending MCU debut in Iron Man 2 led the publisher to sign off on a miniseries, Black Widow: Deadly Origin, in order to streamline the character's complicated backstory. Written by Paul Cornell, the comic attempted to pull the various threads together into a single, coherent narrative. It did a pretty good job - and had a surprisingly pronounced effect on the MCU as well.
Cornell retconned Natasha Romanoff's origin, revealing that the Red Room had trained Natasha in classical ballet as well as martial arts, creating a cover as an international ballet dancer in order to explain why she would be traveling the globe. They'd gone to great lengths to dehumanize Natasha, going so far as to extract her womb so as to make it impossible for her to ever have a family. And then, in Natasha's honor, the Red Room had renamed its agents the "Black Widows". Natasha was the first of 28 Black Widows, Yelena Belova being another of them.
Joss Whedon turned to this version of Natasha Romanoff's backstory when he fleshed her origin out in flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch tormented Natasha with haunting illusions of her ballet training in the Red Room, and in one scene, she told Bruce Banner about the Red Room's "graduation ceremony." Fearful of the budding romance between the two, she confessed that she had been sterilized. "The one thing that might matter more than a mission," she recalled. "It makes everything easier. Even killing." Ironically, the scene became a subject of controversy because it seemed to reduce a female character to her reproductive choices. It seems Whedon may not have been entirely to blame for this; he was drawing on Paul Cornell's comic for inspiration, presumably wanting to stick as close to the comics as possible.
There's growing evidence that Black Widow will continue to draw upon this miniseries for inspiration. Rachel Weisz has confirmed that there are multiple Black Widows in the film. Just as in Paul Cornell's Black Widow: Deadly Origin, it seems that every graduate of the Red Room is considered a Black Widow. Meanwhile, Marvel unveiled Natasha Romanoff's new white costume at D23; that, too, is lifted from the Deadly Origin comic, where it was the costume Natasha wore when she first met the Winter Soldier. Given that's the case, it's interesting to note that Paul Cornell also established a very personal connection between Black Widow and the Red Guardian.
Red Guardian's Role In Black Widow: Deadly Origin
Black Widow: Deadly Origin revealed that Red Guardian was actually Natasha Romanoff's ex-husband. Cosmonaut Alexi Shostakov had met Natasha when she was under deep cover, and he'd quickly become besotted with her. For Natasha, this was her chance to escape the Red Room; she could marry a real Soviet hero, and not even the Red Room would dare to touch her. Unfortunately, she underestimated the Red Room's tenacity. They persuaded Alexi to fake his own death in order to participate in their own version of the super-soldier program, transforming him into Red Guardian. They also told him the truth about his wife, including her barrenness, and he chose to let Natasha believe he was dead.
Paul Cornell's comic portrays this as a turning point in Natasha's life. Until Alexi's supposed death, she had been divided about her role as a Black Widow, and in fact, her mind had been in danger of fragmenting under the strain of maintaining both a deep cover and a spy identity. Alexi had been her escape from that, and when she believed he died in a rocket explosion, she gave up on the chance of a normal life.
What Is The Relationship Between Red Guardian And Black Widow In The MCU?
For all the MCU has drawn on Black Widow: Deadly Origin for inspiration, there are still differences between the movies and the comics. The comic book version of Black Widow was hand-picked by Stalin himself, and trained when the Cold War was at its height; she was injected with an experimental formula to prevent aging, which explains why she isn't now an elderly woman. In contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier confirmed that the MCU's Black Widow was born in 1984. A recently-published MCU timeline revealed that Natasha betrayed the Red Room and joined SHIELD in 1998, when she was just 14 years old, suggesting that the Red Room had been using her as a child assassin. That change in backstory means the relationship between Black Widow and Red Guardian will have to be very different; in order to marry, they must have met when Natasha was working for SHIELD.
And yet, there is one piece of evidence suggesting Black Widow could still introduce Red Guardian as Natasha's ex-husband. The footage shown at D23 included a brief scene in which an unkempt Alexi - who looked as though he'd just been broken out of prison - donned the Red Guardian costume in front of Natasha and Yelena Belova. "Family," he observed, "together again." Most attendees assumed Alexi was referring sarcastically to an old working relationship with the Black Widow program. The truth could be very different; the comics clearly establish a precedent for Alexi and Natasha to be a literal family, former husband and wife. If that's the case, Black Widow's stakes will be far more personal for Natasha Romanoff than anyone had expected.
- Black Widow (2020) release date: May 01, 2020
- Eternals (2020) release date: Nov 06, 2020
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) release date: Feb 12, 2021
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021) release date: May 07, 2021
- Thor: Love and Thunder (2021) release date: Nov 05, 2021
- Black Panther 2 (2022) release date: May 06, 2022