Movies

The Casual Marvel Fan’s Guide to Black Widow

When does it take place? What’s up with that post-credits scene? And how do you say Budapest?

She sits at a dinner table in a white catsuit with some sort of sword in a sling on her back. She looks confused. In front of her is photoshopped a giant question mark.
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marvel Studios.

This article contains spoilers for Black Widow.

Let’s start with something basic. When does this movie take place? Didn’t Black Widow die in Avengers: Endgame?

She did! Black Widow takes place before the events of Endgame—to be specific, it takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. To be even more specific, it takes place in 2016, 21 years after the 1995 opening scene.* As for why it takes place then, well, Marvel made 20 movies before they made their first standalone centered on a female superhero, and it’s probably not a coincidence that they didn’t get around to making a Black Widow movie until after the character was already dead.

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[Read: Black Widow Is a Thrilling Remedy for the Sexism of Marvel Movies Past]

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Skipping ahead, what’s up with the lightning bugs? Is that a Marvel thing? I feel like I was missing something!

They’re just there to provide a little sentimental callback to the childhood of Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh). Earlier they were just there to establish that their “mom” (Rachel Weisz) is a scientist via the fact that she knows science-y words like bioluminescence. While there are obscure Marvel comics characters named Lightning Bug and Firefly, that seems to just be because there are Marvel characters named after most well-known insects.

Speaking of their childhood, how exactly do their fake American identities work, and how much did Natasha and Yelena know about the plan?

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Natasha, Yelena, and their “parents” were sent to Ohio to be Russian sleeper cell agents and send info back to their home country. Their identities were completely constructed and their backstories staged, presumably by Dreykov and the Black Widows organization he ran, in order to create the plausible illusion that they were a family who had recently moved to their town. Natasha was aware that it was all a ruse, as she reveals at a tense reunion dinner halfway through the film. Yelena, who is several years younger than Natasha, was seemingly unaware that the family she’d lived with for three years was anything other than just that: her family.

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What was up with that floppy disk that their “dad” delivered to Dreykov when they fled Ohio? Why was it so important—and what was on it?

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Oh, nothing much, just “the key to unlocking free will.” Alexei (David Harbour) infiltrated the SHIELD front North Industries, which had come up with a way to control the basal ganglia, the part of the brain which regulates motor control. He then made a copy of that information, set the original on fire, and handed the disk to Dreykov, who, with Melina’s help, used it to enslave widows for several decades. (Side note: As Melina points out, at the time Alexei stole the information, SHIELD was secretly under the control of Hydra, so matters might actually have been worse if he hadn’t completed his mission.)

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Apparently Alexei was the Red Guardian before he got assigned to deep cover. Who or what is that?

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In the comic books, the Red Guardian was the national hero of the Soviet Union, a kind of commie Captain America. And just like Cap, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Red Guardian appears to have a degree of super-strength and endurance. When we meet David Harbour’s version of the character here, we’re a few years post-Cold War, so it makes sense he’s not out in the field showing off his hammer and sickle.

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While we’re naming names, Dreykov’s daughter is also called the Taskmaster. Is that from the comics too?

In the Marvel comics, the Taskmaster is both quite similar and quite different to Black Widow’s version. The Taskmaster is a mercenary trained by criminal organizations like Hydra in order to take down folks like the Avengers. Just as the character does in the movie, he (in the comics, the Taskmaster is a dude named Tony Masters) can learn and copy anyone’s fighting moves, making him a formidable bad guy. One of those people whose moves he copies is Black Widow’s, which means they have mirrored fights similar to those we see in the movie.

What were Hawkeye and Natasha up to in Budapest all those years ago? And more importantly, how do you pronounce Budapest?

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So, as this movie reveals, the Budapest mission was the final step in Natasha’s defection, as Hawkeye helped her attempt to kill Dreykov by blowing up his office. As for how to pronounce Budapest, the native Hungarian pronunciation is indeed “boo-dah-pesht,” the same way that the native French pronunciation of Paris is “pah-ree,” but typical American pronunciation of it is, yes, just “boo-dah-pest.”

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Did the stuff Natasha describes happening in her apartment—the arrow holes in the wall from an encounter with Hawkeye, etc—happen in some movie, or are we just supposed to fill in the gaps ourselves?

This is the first time we see Natasha in Budapest within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but she has mentioned her trip several times before. In the first Avengers movie, Natasha and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), a.k.a. Hawkeye, reference their time spent in Budapest together, when they were on a mission for SHIELD. But that’s all that we got: references. Natasha and Hawkeye became incredibly close while on this mission together, helping forge the bond that we see them share throughout their movies together.

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We never knew what happened during that mission before now, although the details Natasha shares in Black Widow are still kind of vague. We know that they spent time together in that apartment, and that they also hid in a train station ceiling vent for several days. But Natasha isn’t one for nostalgia, and although information about the Budapest Operation eventually became public knowledge, the more intimate stuff seems like it will stay between Natasha and Hawkeye forever.

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What Bond movie was Natasha watching?

That was Moonraker! Just like that Roger Moore film, Black Widow climaxes with a battle aboard a floating fortress designed by a megalomaniac genius.

What was Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing in that post-credits scene? And what are they setting up next?

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Technically, we were supposed to see her in this movie before we saw her in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but, the pandemic being what it is, the order of things got a little mixed up. But, TL;DR, Louis-Dreyfus is playing Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a Nick Fury romantic interest who is sometimes a villain in the Marvel universe. (For some further context, she’s occasionally served as “Madame Hydra.”) It seems that she’s recruited Yelena to work for her, in addition to ol’ John Walker (Wyatt Russell), and, if her comics history is anything to go by, she’s a bit of a double agent. We’ll presumably know more when Marvel releases its new TV series Hawkeye, which is expected out later this year.

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Was Hawkeye actually responsible for Natasha’s death, or is that just something Valentina made up?

If you’re one of the two people on Earth who hasn’t seen Endgame, here’s a reminder of how Natasha died: The Avengers split up to collect the Infinity Stones that they need in order to defeat Thanos. Natasha and Hawkeye, go together to face the (former, now dead) head of Hydra, the Red Skull, who has the final Stone. He will only hand it over in exchange for a life sacrifice. Natasha and Hawkeye then squabble over who is the one who will sacrifice themselves to save the world. Natasha ultimately “wins” that fight, letting herself fall off a cliff to Hawkeye’s despair.

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Since only the two of them were there, it does seem easy for someone like Val—as in, a person with a motive—to frame the death as Hawkeye’s fault. But those of us who saw what really went down know that Natasha made the choice completely on her own.

One last thing that’s been bothering me. Were the Widows controlling the world all along or was Hydra? (Can they really both be puppeteering global events at the same time???)

Don’t forget the Skrulls, who might also be hiding among us! It appears that the MCU has had almost as many puppet-masters as it has had world-threatening events, and you’re not wrong to feel confused about this. Maybe we’ll get more clarity in Marvel’s Secret Invasion TV series, which is due in 2022 and is expected to reveal more power players who have quietly been shapeshifting extraterrestrials—or maybe it will only muddle things further.

For more of Slate’s coverage of Black Widow, listen to Karen Han and Dana Stevens discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.

Correction, July 12: This article originally stated that the opening scene takes place in 1991 before the movie flashes forward 25 years. The opening scene takes place in 1995 before the movie flashes forward 21 years.

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