Finally, Black Widow is here. It was a very long wait, both due to the year-plus delay due to the pandemic and whatever forces prevented the bigwigs behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe from giving their premiere heroine her solo movie until now, close to a decade after her debut. The movie, a James Bond-like tale of spycraft, betrayal, and family, is a worthy showcase for Scarlett Johansson and her co-stars, and it’s well worth the wait. But, that wait complicates things even further, because we all saw Natasha Romanoff die in Avengers: Endgame, a movie that came out in 2019 but was largely set in the year 2023 — two years after the release of Black Widow, and three years after the film’s initial, pre-pandemic premiere date.
So, when does Black Widow take place? There’s a short answer and a slightly longer answer. Warning: The short answer is totally spoiler-free, but the longer answer touches on some fairly minor spoilers. We’ll start with the short answer.
The longer answer?
Black Widow takes place during Captain America: Civil War. This extra-specific placement within the larger MCU timeline isn’t ultimately that important, though knowing exactly when Black Widow takes place does help explain where Natasha is as a character when her past comes a-knockin’.
Civil War ends with the Avengers fractured, as Iron Man’s pro-Sokovia Accords faction ultimately wins the fight against Captain America’s resistors. Clint (Hawkeye), Scott (Ant-Man), Sam (The Falcon), and Wanda (Scarlet Witch) have all been arrested and taken into custody, imprisoned on the underwater jail known as The Raft. Steve (Captain America) and Natasha, the latter of whom defected to Cap’s side at the last minute, are on the lam. Right before the credits roll, Captain America breaks his allies out of the Raft. Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp later reveal that Clint and Scott cut deals with the government after their escape and were subject to house arrest, while the other fugitive heroes were on the run.
Black Widow takes place after the main plot of Civil War, when Clint and Co. have been arrested, but before the scene when Cap breaks them out of jail. (Given the events of the movie, this means that they were perhaps locked up for a bit longer than we initially believed.
We know this because, early in the movie, Secretary of State Thaddeus E. "Thunderbolt" Ross mentions that “Barton, Wilson, and The Incredible Shrinking Convict” are in custody, while Cap and Nat are nowhere to be found. One of the last scenes in the movie features Nat, now sporting the dyed blonde hair she had in Infinity War, heading back to the States to break her pals out of jail.
This specific placement within the MCU timeline doesn’t ultimately matter much. Knowing it takes place between Civil War and Infinity War (or technically between Civil War and all of Ant-Man and the Wasp except for the post-credits scene if you want to get really anal about the chronological timeline) is more than enough to enjoy the movie and have it all make sense. However, knowing that Natasha is on the run while all of her allies except for an absent Steve are imprisoned, helps make her feel alone. Black Widow, without spoiling too much, is about Natasha reconnecting with her first found family, and it’s unlikely she would have been as lonely or as desperate to do that if the majority of her second found family, The Avengers, weren’t at odds with her or still in the slammer. At the very least, knowing that Clint is still in jail explains why Nat didn’t call on him to help her finish what they started in Budapest.
To summarize, Black Widow takes place after the main events of Civil War, but before she jailbreaks most of her friends. This means we’re dealing with Natasha at her most isolated and most desperate — the perfect (or perhaps worst) time for ghosts of the past to return.
There is one part of Black Widow that takes place during a different time period, however. The post-credits scene (there’s only one) takes place in “the present day,” more or less. (Technically, due to the 5-year time-skip in Endgame, the MCU’s “present-day” is in 2023, two years in our future.) It’s unclear when, exactly, the events of the post-credits sequence take place relative to other post-Endgame MCU entries like Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and, uh, Loki, whenever that time-twisting series takes place. Without spoiling anything, just know that it takes place after Endgame.