Marvel's Black Widow takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War - and that may be the only place it could fit in the MCU timeline. There's long been demand for a Black Widow movie, with many viewers hoping to see her origin story on the big screen. But, while Marvel is indeed finally releasing a Black Widow film as part of MCU Phase 4, that isn't where it fits into the MCU's continuity at all.
Speaking at Marvel's Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2019, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed Black Widow is a prequel set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. The film is probably closer to the first movie than the second, given that set photos and concept art have shown Natasha Romanoff with her trademark red hair rather than dyed white as it was against Thanos. There may well be more flashbacks to Natasha's time in the Red Room, or perhaps to that much-referenced mission to Budapest with Hawkeye, but that won't be the main focus.
This is quite a surprising decision for Marvel Studios, not least because it's hardly the kind of Natasha story fans have been clamoring for. Why have they chosen to set Black Widow in a time period that's already been explored in great detail? It's possible the answer lies not in Natasha Romanoff's story, but in how it affected the Black Widow program.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Damaged The Black Widow Program
In the MCU, the Black Widow program is a clandestine operation to create female super-spies for the Soviet Union. It was founded by Stalin himself, and for decades has been churning out some of the most dangerous spies and assassins in the world; Peggy Carter encountered one early Black Widow in 1947, in Agent Carter season 2. It's unclear what happened to the Black Widow program after the USSR fell in 1991 and the Cold War ended; there's some evidence it may have become a freelance organization, selling its services to the highest bidder.
Whatever the truth may be, by the late 1990s one of the most notable Black Widows, Natasha Romanoff, had come to SHIELD's attention in the worst possible way. Hawkeye was assigned to kill Romanoff, but he made a different call, and gave her the opportunity to defect to SHIELD. It's safe to assume this high-profile defection was a massive blow to the Black Widow program; Natasha would have been able to give SHIELD a lot of information, meaning their bases, contacts, safe-houses, and standard operating procedures were all compromised. Presumably, given that multiple Black Widows will appear in her solo film, they adapted at speed and remained active in the shadows.
What they'd never have expected, though, was for Natasha Romanoff to ultimately dump all SHIELD's files on the Internet in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That included Natasha's own personnel file, and everything SHIELD knew about the Black Widows. It was the worst thing that could happen to a spy agency; their existence and history had become public knowledge. Worse still, Natasha's involvement with the Avengers would have naturally meant files associated to her were of particular interest to the public, and they'd have gotten significant attention from the press.
The Avengers Kept Natasha Romanoff Safe - Until Civil War
By now it would have been clear that Natasha Romanoff was a security risk on an unprecedented scale. Unfortunately, she was still protected - even after the fall of SHIELD. As shown in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Avengers reformed in order to take down the last Hydra cells, and assassinating Natasha would have meant taking on the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Vision. Worse still, the Avengers were well-resourced and willing to ignore diplomatic conventions; under Steve Rogers' leadership, they flouted international law and operated without sanction in any country they wished. They had no reporting line or chain of accountability that the Black Widows could monitor, either. There was simply no way the Black Widow program could risk a conflict with the Avengers, and Natasha Romanoff remained safe.
And then came the events of Captain America: Civil War. Natasha initially chose to sign the Sokovia Accords and register with the United Nations, but she switched sides during the Airport Battle and was forced to go on the run. She was no longer protected by the Avengers, and in the immediate aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, she was isolated and alone. This would have been the perfect moment for the Black Widow program to take Natasha out.
Black Widow is set at this exact point in the MCU timeline, and everything that is known about Natasha's past makes this, unexpectedly, her most important moment; Natasha is being hunted, not only by all the world's police forces, but also by her old mentors. In fact, the Black Widows would be a far greater threat to Natasha than the world's governments. They're the ones who trained her, which means they know all her tricks. And, like the Avengers, they have no chain of accountability or reporting line for Natasha to monitor. It's not hard to imagine Natasha soon finding herself in a position where she has to deal with the Black Widow program at last, before they deal with her for good.
Black Widow’s Movie Explains Her Endgame Role
This unique timeline placement of Black Widow could also explain Natasha Romanoff's role in Avengers: Endgame, which as it is still looks rather strange. In the aftermath of the snap, Natasha appears to have become the most committed of the Avengers, refusing to walk away. "I used to have nothing," she told Steve Rogers, explaining her motives. "Then I got this. This job, this family. And I was... I was better because of it. And even though they're gone, I'm still trying to be better." Natasha has always been strongly motivated by a deep desire for redemption, famously wanting to settle the "red in her ledger" in The Avengers, but that seems to have become absolutely central to her character.
There's clearly an important part of Natasha's arc that is yet to be explored, and Black Widow seeing her directly face her past explicitly because she's not with the Avengers would certainly provide it. That experience would undoubtedly have a strong emotional impact on her, helping Natasha to understand how important and valuable the Avengers had become in her own personal quest for redemption. Nobody believes in the Avengers as a concept more than Natasha Romanoff; that's why she steps up and becomes the public leader, at a time when even Captain America thinks the job might not need doing anymore.
Of course, Natasha's story ultimately took her to Vormir, where she insisted on sacrificing herself so the Avengers could acquire the Soul Stone. In an interview at SDCC, David Harbour - who's set to play the Red Guardian, Russia's version of Captain America - revealed that Black Widow would explain Natasha's sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame. "You get to explore how she got there. How she got there to make that choice," he noted. This is the advantage of setting a story in this time-period; Marvel get to subtly reframe Natasha's death in Avengers: Endgame, providing an emotional context that makes it even more meaningful.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this idea is that it suggests the film's title has a double meaning. Black Widow becomes the story of how Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff interacts with the Black Widow program that shaped her. Given Natasha is the hero of it all, of course, it's also quite likely this is also the story of how the Black Widow program finally comes to an end.
- 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