Why Yelena Belova could be Marvel’s next black widow
There’s nothing like car chases and exploding cloud fortresses to make you cry over the mighty force of brotherhood, eh? Black Widow, the latest screening of Marvel Studios’ ambitious Phase 4 rollout, is the first to reunite two assassin sisters to lead one of the franchise’s box office behemoths. While the prequel was conceptualized, in part, as a way to right the wrong of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) endlessly sidelined over 10 years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow ends a story mainly about the family: who makes them, why we fight with them and why we will die fighting for them. Initially convinced that she deserves to be alone, Natasha learns at the end of the film that she has, of course, never really been alone at all. It’s a soft moral, albeit kitsch, to the story.
Still, it’s not Natasha herself but Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Natasha’s long-lost sister, who ultimately makes the final product worth the price of admission (or $ 29.99 on Disney +). Pugh plays the old tragicomic brainwashing with a degree of complexity that Johansson rarely has (and had) the opportunity to fulfill. An airy and ruthless moment as she tears up her sister’s performative pose, she darkens just as quickly when the girls’ father figure Alexei Shostakov (David Harbor) admits he was bored with their secret life and peaceful in Ohio. She is upset that anyone can claim that her childhood was not “real”; she remembers it as the only genuine joy in her life. It wasn’t until Alexei began to speak and sing the words to “American Pie” that the light slowly returned to his face.
The rest of the story follows Natasha’s arc of redemption, as she seeks to wipe the “red from her ledger” by tracking down Operation Red Room which forcibly transformed her, Yelena, and hundreds of ‘others as killers. “Girls: the only resource the world has too much of,” justifies Dreykov, the undeniably sinister but confusing founder of the Red Room, who kidnaps young girls (often poor, immigrants like Natasha and Yelena) for brainwashing and tactical training. Natasha’s goal in Black Widow is to destroy this operation forever; Yelena is realizing that Natasha’s legacy is worth something.
In the original Marvel comics that featured her, Yelena was a coarser figure, a Red Room assassin who believed herself to be the rightful owner of the title “Black Widow”. She was not Natasha’s sister but her fiercest rival, only finally convinced to do “the right thing” after several story arcs. In the film, Yelena is reconsidered as an innocent little girl who fully believes Natasha is her sister as the two ride bikes and attempt backbends in Ohio. Young Natasha, already in the midst of her Red Room training, knows the truth. She attempts to protect Yelena from Dreykov’s manipulation, only for the two to be thrown into a shipping container, transported to the facility, and separated from each other during years of brutal training. Their eventual reunion, decades later, seems more comic-book-like: they argue, furious at the physical and figurative distance that separates them. Natasha moved on. Yelena feels abandoned. Natasha thinks of herself as a heroine. Yelena is not in such an illusion.
But as the film progresses – as they total cars in Budapest, bring the floating red room back to a flaming heap, and swap vests – Yelena’s childlike admiration for Natasha returns. She sees the avenger the assassin is trying to be, and his previous beard – “I’m not the killer little girls call their hero” – loses some (but not all) of his ferocity. She sees a way of life for herself, one that could recall, if not joy, then perhaps the purpose of her childhood.
So it’s no surprise to see Yelena cleaning up flowers and gifts at the foot of Natasha’s current grave in Black Widowthe post-credits scene of. Somehow, she learned about Natasha’s sacrifice to ultimately defeat Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, but she clearly doesn’t have all the information. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine appears, Yelena takes her words at face value. (Maybe they’ve worked together before, or Valentina recruited her like she did with John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier?) Valentina convinces her that the man responsible for Natasha’s death is not Thanos but Clint Barton, Natasha’s former SHIELD partner and fellow Avenger known as Hawkeye.
Certainly, the purpose of this scene is largely to set up Disney + Hawk Eye series, which premieres later this year. But it also raises a question about Yelena herself: who is she now? Does she work with Valentina? Could she take on the role of Black Widow?
In the comics, that’s exactly what happens. Following Natasha Romanoff’s death during the crossover event Secret Empire, Yelena pays homage to the late widow by wearing her title. We know the Yelena from the movie is skeptical of Natasha’s born-again hero identity, but could she have changed her mind afterwards? End of Game? We won’t know until Hawk Eye arrives and Pugh puts his martial arts skills to the test once more. Hoping she comes back with a vest that features the Black Widow logo and, of course, has lots more pockets.
Watch Black Widow on Disney +
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