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Who is Yelena Belova, and why is she the next Black Widow?
Black Widow is dead, long live Black Widow. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has passed on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for the moment it doesn’t look like she’s coming back. The recently released Black Widow doesn’t retcon her Avengers: Endgame fate in any way, but it makes it pretty clear who her successor will be.
Aside from giving Natasha a long-awaited solo film and finally putting the character front and center, Black Widow has another function. It’s also a backdoor introduction to Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh. Who is she exactly, and why should she be sending head measurements out for the Black Widow crown? Zip up all of those pockets and let’s get down to it.
***WARNING: There are spoilers ahead for the movie Black Widow. If you have not seen it yet, then spin-kick yourself around and turn back.***
Yelena Fyodorovna Belova was created by Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones for Marvel Comics. She first appeared in Inhumans Vol. 2, #5 in 1999. She trained in the Red Room, was messed with by the Black Widow Ops Program, and she was often in direct competition with Natasha. They did not grow up as part of a sleeper spy family (like they do in the movie) but their paths were definitely intertwined and rivalry ran deep.
Yelena went on to appear in several Black Widow stories, though over the years she proved to be an antagonist on more than one occasion. She often came under the sway of A.I.M. and also attacked the Avengers themselves. She is one of a very select few characters in the comics (in non-alternate histories) who has taken the actual title/code name of “Black Widow.” After Natasha, Yelena is the most well-known of them by far.
In terms of the comics, Yelena is currently dead, or as “dead” as anyone ever is in comics. Secret Avengers Vol. 2 #15 killed her off in 2014, but if that death lasts we’ll rip all of the pockets out of our vests. There is surely going to be a yearning from all corners of the world for more Yelena stories, because Florence Pugh shows up as the character in Black Widow and says, “Hey nice movie you have here, I’m gonna steal it.” Yelena is bound for a resurgence in the comics due to her big-screen success, and we're talking about the real Yelena, not one of the clones of her that has been boppin' around in the last few years.
When it comes to the MCU, Yelena’s backstory changes. The new film has her growing up with Natasha as a sister, and not being in on the ruse. For all little Yelena knew, her life and family in Ohio was real. When the lie is uncovered she gets handed off to General "Pheromone" Dreykov (Ray Winstone) to get the Red Room treatment in a more extreme way than Natasha. When they reunite many years later, their "sisterly" bond is still strong, as is their banter. Their relationship is a highlight of the film, and if anyone is going to fill Natasha’s boots, it is the only sister (fake, but it still counts) that Nat ever had.
Technically, Yelena already is a Black Widow. The film introduces many women who were put through that programming by the Red Room, including Melina (Rachel Weisz). Dreykov has tons of Widows at his command, they are spread all over the world, and they are all being mind-controlled by him. Undoing that control is a major plot point of the movie, and Yelena is pivotal to it happening. Though we see Widows aplenty, that's not the same thing as being a hero who uses the title/callsign/cool name of “Black Widow." Yelena is a freed Black Widow, but she's not "Black Widow" yet. It's only a matter of time, because the title and the torch will surely be passed on to her.
Why? Because the MCU is in the middle of passing on all of its titles and torches to new generations. Tony Stark is gone, but Ironheart will introduce Riri Williams. Steve Rogers is gone, but Sam Wilson is the new Captain America. She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel will be storming in soon, and thanks to WandaVision we’ve already met versions of Speed and Wiccan.
Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) is also coming, presumably to take arrow duty for Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and this will happen in the upcoming Hawkeye series. This is big for Yelena because of the Black Widow post-credits scene. In it, Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has a chat with present day Yelena at Nat's grave. Yelena is already in business with Val (not good) and her next target is Barton. Val says that he is the reason that Natasha is dead.
It is confirmed that Pugh will appear in Hawkeye, so first and foremost let’s all take note that a post-credits scene in an MCU movie is setting up something that will happen in an MCU streaming series. If we’d seen this movie when it was originally intended then this would be the first time we were meeting Val, but COVID changed things and we’ve already met her thanks to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Another brief side note if you don't mind: if the MCU masterminds think that we’re going to be rooting for Clint when Yelena tries to kill him, they’re high. Yelena can rip Clint to shreds and we'd cheer.
Sure Clint is cool but the real fireworks of that series will be between Steinfeld and Pugh. Yelena is set to be an antagonist, but as the comics show us, she dabbles in anti-heroism from time to time. We could argue that freeing the MCU from Clint Barton so Kate Bishop can take his place is an act of heroism, but we’ll save that scorcher of a take for the next convention.
Whenever the next group of Avengers assemble (led either by Captain America, Captain Marvel, both, or whatever), the group is going to have two slots to fill. Two members with no powers, just hard-earned gifts. They’re gonna need a Legolas, so Kate Bishop will fit very nicely. If they are looking for another gifted Red Room-trained assassin, are they really going to go with someone other than Yelena? If you need a new "Black Widow" then go with a Black Widow. Even better, go with the one who was pivotal in freeing all of the Widows.
She’s under the sway of Val for now, but she’ll come around. We can see a scenario where Professor Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) with no permission from anyone gets all ceremonial and says, “I hereby dub thee Black Widow.” Clint, one of Nat’s best friends, could do it towards the end of the Hawkeye series. Nick Fury surely already knows who Yelena is and he could/should definitely be the one to do it, but he’s in space. He could tell Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) to do it pretending to be him, maybe.
Character arcs have completed, actor contracts have run out, but you can't stop the beat so in with the new. Yelena Belova will eventually join the incoming class of MCU heroes. She may do it reluctantly, but it’ll happen. She’ll make everyone still getting over Natasha’s death quite ready to fall in Black Widow love again.
Marvel struck gold with Florence Pugh/Yelena Belova, and they are going to want to have her banter with every MCU character there is. Even though Yelena hates it, they’re gonna need her to do the iconic "Black Widow" pose, too. Somebody’s gotta do it, and it’s on her resume whether she likes it or not.
Natasha is dead. Long live Yelena. "Black Widow" will return.
Black Widow is in theaters (and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access) right now.