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Everything to Know Before You Watch Marvel Studios’ Black Widow

By Zach Johnson

Natasha Romanoff’s past is one tangled web.

Despite her checkered past, she became one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most formidable agents before joining the Avengers. Known as the Black Widow, Natasha strives to make up for prior misdeeds by helping the world—even if that means getting her hands dirty in the process.

Created in 1964, the master spy was brought to life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) by Scarlett Johansson in 2010’s Iron Man 2—although she used an alias, Natalie Rushman, to keep an eye on Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Disney Legend Robert Downey Jr.) while pretending to work in the legal department at Stark Industries under Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Flirty and mysterious, she intrigued Tony from the moment he laid eyes on her. Tony did some quick research and discovered that Natalie was a “very, very impressive individual” who was fluent in several languages and also modeled in Tokyo. In other words, he said, “She’s got everything that I need.” Pepper urged Tony to behave professionally around Natalie, who continued to charm and disarm him while undercover.

While secretly suffering from palladium poisoning, Tony threw himself a wild birthday bash that ended in catastrophe. Defeated and hungover, he met with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)—and it was there, inside Randy’s Donuts, that Natasha revealed her true identity. “I’m a S.H.I.E.L.D. shadow,” she told a stunned Tony. “Once we knew you were ill, I was tasked to you by Director Fury.” She then injected him with lithium dioxide to help take the edge off. “It’s not a cure,” Natasha explained. “It just abates the symptoms.”

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When Tony next saw Natasha, she was back to work as Natalie—with Pepper and Happy Hogan (Disney Legend Jon Favreau) none the wiser. “Are you blending in here well, Natalie? Here at Stark Enterprises?” Tony asked. “Your name is Natalie, isn’t it?” After Pepper and Happy left them alone, Tony continued to test her. “Boy, you’re good. You are mind-blowingly duplicitous. How do you do it? You just tear things… You’re a triple imposter,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like you. Is there anything real about you?”

Later, after things went haywire at the Stark Expo, Natasha forced Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to reveal where Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) was controlling the Hammer Drones that had attacked Tony and forced everyone to flee. She then instructed Happy to drive her to Hammer Industries. “When we arrive, I need you to watch the perimeter,” she instructed him while doing a quick change in the backseat. “I’m gonna enter the facility and take down the target.” Upon their arrival, Happy still hadn’t pieced things together and insisted on going in with her. He went to-to-toe with one security guard while Natasha took down nearly a dozen without breaking a sweat. After rebooting the War Machine suit for James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), her work was done. “Reboot complete,” she told Tony over their secure comms. line. “You got your best friend back.”

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The next time we saw Natasha was in Marvel’s The Avengers in 2012. While being interrogated and tortured by Georgi Luchkov (Jerzy Skolimowski), a Russian arms dealer, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) called with a new priority mission. “I’m in the middle of an interrogation,” said an in-control Natasha, who had played a damsel in distress to perfection. “This moron is giving me everything.” After learning that Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) had been compromised, Natasha took down her captors with ease and left to find Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in Kolkata.

After luring him to the outskirts of the city, she explained that while S.H.I.E.L.D. had kept its distance over the years, it now needed his help in locating the stolen Tesseract—a mysterious power source with the potential energy to wipe out the entire planet. “It emits a gamma signature that’s too weak for us to trace,” Natasha explained to Bruce. “There’s no one that knows gamma radiation like you do. If there was, that’s where I’d be.” Later, after Tony, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) joined their efforts, Natasha interrogated Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’d stolen the Tesseract and used it to subjugate Clint. Loki assumed she had feelings for Clint, but Natasha replied, “Love is for children. I owe him a debt.” The truth, she said, “is really not that complicated.”

“Before I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., I… well, I made a name for myself. I have a very specific skillset. I didn’t care who I used it for—or on. I got on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar in a bad way,” Natasha told a caged Loki. “Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call.”

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By helping Clint, Natasha reasoned, she could wipe out the red in her ledger. Loki saw it  differently. “Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter? São Paolo? The hospital fire? Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping. It’s gushing red. And you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer. Pathetic! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors,” Loki told her. “But they are part of you—and they will never go away!”

Pretending to cry, Natasha called Loki a “monster.” Thinking he had bested her, Loki commented that they already had a monster within their ranks. “So… Banner,” said Natasha, who had deftly managed to outwit Loki, the God of Mischief. “That’s your play.” As the Avengers debated their next move, Clint arrived to set Loki free, unleashing the Hulk in the process. Natasha managed to escape, thanks to Thor, before taking down Clint. As his memories came flooding back, a shaken Clint asked, “Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” Natasha shot Clint a look that could kill and answered, “You know that I do.”

Loki resurfaced in New York City, where he used the Tesseract to open a portal for the Chitauri to invade Earth. The Avengers worked together to minimize casualties and stop the destruction. (At one point, as Natasha fired shot after shot, she joked, “This is like Budapest all over again.” Clint replied, “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”) Natasha eventually made her way to the top of Stark Tower. Thanks to a fail-safe that Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) had installed earlier, Natasha was able to close the portal.

Though the Avengers went their separate ways, Director Fury had a feeling they’d be back…

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Cut to 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Natasha and Steve continued to operate on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. While on a mission to reclaim the hijacked Lemurian Star, Steve realized their directives were different when he caught Natasha saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intel. “It’s a good habit to get into,” she said with a smirk, knowing that she’d just broken Steve’s trust. Steve later shared his concerns with Director Fury, who was attacked shortly thereafter. While in the hospital, Director Fury seemingly died on the operating table. Natasha was in disbelief, and after Steve was ambushed at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, she decided to confide in him. “I know who killed Fury,” she said. “Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones that do call him The Winter Soldier. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last 50 years… Five years ago I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran. Somebody shot out my tires near Odessa. We lost control, went straight over a cliff, I pulled us out. But The Winter Soldier was there. I was covering my engineer, so he shot him straight through me. Soviet slug, no rifling. Bye-bye, bikinis… Going after him is a dead end, I know. I’ve tried. Like you said, he’s a ghost story.”

Natasha and Steve then headed to Camp Lehigh in Wheaton, New Jersey—the same United States Army facility where Steve had once trained for World War II. Along the way, the two Avengers got to know each other on a deeper level. “The truth is a matter of circumstance. It’s not all things to all people, all the time,” Natasha said. “Neither am I.”

At Camp Lehigh, they discovered HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.EL.D. 70 years prior. Evading a bomb and HYDRA agents, they escaped and showed up on the doorstep of Sam Wilson aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie). “Everyone we know is trying to kill us,” Natasha told him. After getting cleaned up, Natasha further opened up to Steve: “When I first joined S.H.I.EL.D., I thought I was going straight, but I guess I just traded the KGB for HYDRA. I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore.”

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Later, while questioning S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández), Natasha, Steve, and Sam were attacked by The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). They were soon apprehended, but it wasn’t long before S.H.I.EL.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) freed them and brought them to a hidden base where they learned Director Fury was very much alive—and determined to take down HYDRA once and for all. They hatched a plan in which Natasha used a Photostatic Veil to disguise herself as a member of the World Security Council and take down Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), one of HYDRA’s top operatives who had infiltrated S.H.I.EL.D. After disarming him, Natasha removed her disguise and quipped, “I’m sorry. Did I step on your moment?” She then dumped all of S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA’s secrets onto the internet. “If you do this, none of your past is going to remain hidden,” Pierce warned. “Are you sure you’re ready for the world to see you as you really are?” Natasha looked him straight in the eye and fired back, “Are you?”

In the aftermath, Natasha testified before the Department of Defense on Capitol Hill. “HYDRA was selling you lies, not intelligence,” she said. Threatened with sanctions, Natasha didn’t back down. “You’re not going to put me in a prison. You’re not going to put any of us in a prison. You know why? Because you need us. Yes, the world is a vulnerable place, and yes, we help make it that way. But we’re also the ones best qualified to defend it. So, if you want to arrest me—arrest me,” Natasha said. “You’ll know where to find me.”

Natasha later met up with Steve and Sam and told them she’d be on her own for a bit. “I blew all my covers,” she explained. “I gotta go figure out a new one.” She then revealed she had called in a few favors from Kiev to get a dossier on The Winter Soldier and his whereabouts. “Be careful, Steve,” she warned. “You might not want to pull on that thread.”

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In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha and Bruce were closer than ever. But as she flirted over drinks, Bruce remained clueless about the “fella” who’d done her wrong. “He’s not so bad,” Natasha said. “Well, he has a temper. Deep down, he’s all fluff. Fact is, he’s not like anybody I’ve ever known. All my friends are fighters, and here comes this guy who spends his life avoiding the fight because he knows he’ll win.” It didn’t hurt that he was a “huge dork,” she added. “Chicks dig that.” Before Bruce could wise up and make a move, Tony’s Iron Legion attacked them under the orders of a new threat: Ultron (James Spader).

After Ultron escaped, the Avengers tracked him down on the African coast. There, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) inflicted a nightmarish vision on each of them—one that forced Natasha to relive the horrors of the Red Room where she was trained to be a spy. As the team recovered, Clint took them to his home, knowing they would be safe there. Clint’s secret family life surprised everyone except Natasha, with whom he shared everything. While there, Natasha broached the idea of running away with Bruce, who argued there is “no future with him” because he’s incapable of having children. What he didn’t know until that moment is that Natasha couldn’t conceive a child, either. “In the Red Room, where I was trained, where I was raised, um… they have a graduation ceremony. They sterilize you,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. Makes everything easier—even killing.”

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Realizing Ultron wanted to “evolve,” the Avengers split into two groups, with Natasha, Clint, and Steve sent to stop him from obtaining the Regeneration Cradle in South Korea. Natasha succeeded, but while entering the Quinjet, she was knocked out and taken captive.

Bruce later comes to her rescue, telling her, “Our fight is over.”

But Natasha never backs down from a fight, and they reunited with the rest of the Avengers in Sokovia, where Ultron had built his doomsday project. Steve wanted to evacuate citizens from the levitating country, and Natasha said that may require staying behind. “There’s worse ways to go,” she said. “Where else am I gonna get a view like this?”

With most of the civilians out of harm’s way, Natasha tried to calm the Hulk down. Just then, Ultron fired shots in the direction, so the Hulk carried Natasha to safety. He then boarded a Quinjet to stop Ultron. Hoping to appeal to Bruce, Natasha reached out to him via their internal comms. “Hey, big guy. You did it. The job’s finished,” she said. “Now I need you to turn this bird around, OK? We can’t track you in stealth mode. So, help me out. I need you…” Before she could finish her sentence, the Hulk turned the monitor off and left.

But the Hulk left Natasha with a new purpose: training new Avengers alongside Steve.

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In 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Natasha was forced to choose sides after an unfortunate incident in Lagos resulted in multiple casualties. Established by the United Nations and ratified by 117 nations, the Sokovia Accords limited the Avengers’ ability to interfere in international incidents. Tony was in favor of signing the accords, while Steve was not—and Natasha found herself somewhere in the middle. “Maybe Tony’s right. If we have one hand on the wheel, we can still steer,” she told Steve. “If we take it off…” If her position confused anyone (namely Sam), Natasha made her point clear: “I’m just reading the terrain. We have made some very public mistakes. We need to win their trust back.”

Steve was then called away after learning Peggy Carter (Hayey Atwell) had died, and Natasha surprised him by supporting him at her funeral in London. They talked shop for a bit, with Natasha saying, “Just because it’s the path of least resistance doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path. Staying together is more important than how we stay together.” Steve remained unconvinced, and Natasha dropped it. After all, the Sokovia Accords weren’t why she had flown across the pond. In truth, Natasha told Steve, “I didn’t want you to be alone.”

Natasha then traveled to Vienna, where the accords were being ratified. A bomb exploded at the United Nations, killing Wakanda’s King T’Chaka (John Kani). The Winter Soldier was framed for the attack, and Natasha tried to reason with Steve. “I know how much Barnes means to you. I really do. Stay home,” she said. “You’ll only make this worse. For all of us. Please.” Steve was eventually apprehended, along with Sam and Bucky aka The Winter Soldier, and Natasha quipped, “For the record, this is what making things worse looks like.”

The Winter Soldier escaped soon after, as did Steve and Sam. Tony was given 36 hours to bring them in, prompting Natasha to recruit T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Lines were drawn and the team was split into two by the time everyone reunited at Leipzig-Halle Airport. “Steve, you know what’s about to happen,” Natasha said. “Do you really want to punch your way out of this one?” When it became clear that no one would win the fight, Natasha changed sides and decided to help Steve and Bucky escape. With a sigh, she stung T’Challa: “I said I’d help you find him, not catch him. There’s a difference.” Natasha later pleaded with Tony to help Steve and Bucky, arguing, “We played this wrong.”

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Black Widow—the first film in Phase Four of the MCU—is set after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Now a fugitive, Natasha is looking to start over. That’s easier said than done, of course, especially when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Reuniting with people from her past (David Harbour, Florence Pugh, and Rachel Weisz), Natasha may finally have the chance to wipe the red out of her ledger—if only she can stop General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and put a stop to his Red Room operations for good.

The action-packed thriller Black Widow will debut simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access (for a one-time fee of $29.99) in most Disney+ markets on July 9, 2021. To find out what happens to Natasha after the events of Black Widow, stream Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, both available now on Disney+.