Meet Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz' Marvel alter egos.
"Marvel is always about new beginnings," Kevin Feige told ET on the red carpet ahead of Black Widow's premiere. So, while the first film in the studio's fourth Phase is outwardly a swan song for its titular superheroine -- an ending for Scarlett Johansson's superspy and Avenger -- the movie is equally about setting up what comes next.
Or as producer Brian Chapek put it, "This movie needed to do two things: The most important thing was celebrate Natasha's legacy. It's something that fans have been asking for for so long. At the same time, we needed to tell a story that is going to introduce new characters into the future of the universe and get fans excited for the next Phase."
The first part of that brief proved particularly "terrifying" for screenwriter Eric Pearson, who felt Natasha Romanoff had received one of the "more elegant farewells" in Avengers: Endgame. But he also perceived a change of sorts in her character between the events of Captain America: Civil War and when she reappeared next in Infinity War. "I just felt that something happened in that time," he says.
"Something unlocked her heart a little bit, and I wanted to show audiences the sequence of events that made her the person to make the ultimate sacrifice to save half of the universe," Pearson explains. Ultimately, what that called for was a ruthless leading scientist out of Russia, a well past his prime super soldier and the wisecracking new Widow on the scene.
The new characters introduced into the future of the MCU arrive from Natasha's past: Russian spies once tasked with posing as a white-picket nuclear family while undercover in America: A mother, a father and their two young daughters, the sisters conflating the operation with their own sense of family. Think The Americans. "But with the little bit of superpower to go with it," as David Harbour puts it.
Harbour is Alexei Shostakov, Russia's answer to Captain America, who was once "married" to Rachel Weisz' Melina Vostokoff, a Widow cycled through the notorious Red Room numerous times before becoming a Soviet scientist. The latter's is an update from her comic origins as a KGB agent turned supervillain by the name of Iron Maiden.
Alexei, meanwhile, is better known as Red Guardian, a super soldier made in response to the U.S. introducing Steve Rogers onto the world stage. Of the Chris Evans comparisons, Harbour jokes, "My waistline is a lot larger. When I say things are bigger in this movie, I primarily mean my waistline." In Marvel comics, Red Guardian has a colorful backstory with the Winter Guard, an Avengers-esque team of Russian supers like the Iron Man-adjacent Crimson Dynamo and a humanoid bear named Ursa Major.
"David is one of the hardest working actors I've ever worked with. He creates a big backstory for himself, and he does a lot of research," says director Cate Shortland. "I also did research [into the comics], but I also looked at what he would have been like at that age in Russia during the Soviet Union, and I worked with a Russian historian in London and we created stories for all of the characters."
That includes Yelena Belova, who like her surrogate big sister is a Red Room graduate and elite Widow. "That character is so much Eric, the screenwriter," Shortland says. "Eric is like part Alexei, part Yelena. It's like he's split down the middle. So, he was a huge part of creating Yelena -- he did such a great job with her -- and then Florence, she and Scarlett would improv, and that was really great. It was a great collaboration to really get that girl answering back, and she does not take anything lying down."
As played by Florence Pugh, Yelena is the clear breakout star of the movie and the character seemingly most poised to continue playing a major role in the MCU. (In the comic, Yelena even adopts the mantle of Black Widow at one point.) As they are wont to do, everybody at Marvel is keeping mum on that, though EVP Victoria Alonso says Black Widow "opens the door for other Widows to come."
"There's nothing I can say about Florence and her future in the MCU at this point," Chapek adds, "other than she's an amazing, fan-favorite character so far and just an amazing person to work with. So, hopefully we'll be able to find something for her, but we'll see."
— Additional reporting by Ash Crossan and Nischelle Turner
Black Widow is in theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9.