BY DAISY PHILLIPSON, Digital Spy

Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow hasn’t always had the easiest time as the MCU‘s first official female Avenger. When she first hit the scene in Iron Man 2, it was a time when representation hadn’t even taken the baby steps it’s starting to today. In the superhero realm, it was okay for women just to be sexy sidekicks, and it was okay for Pepper Potts to refer to Tony Stark‘s conquests as “taking out the trash”.

Natasha Romanoff‘s journey through the MCU suffered as a result – despite being one of the most kick-ass MMA-trained assassins in the comics, her on-screen arc was often used as a way to further those of her male counterparts. Which is why when a standalone film was announced, fans were understandably optimistic about the opportunities it posed – maybe this time we’d get the Black Widow we deserved.

Marvel Studios

But nope, Endgame went ahead and snapped all of those hopes to pieces by having the cape-wearer sacrifice herself in exchange for the Soul Stone, a decision the Russo brothers stick by despite considerable backlash.

Now she’s been written out of the current timeline altogether, it’s left many wondering what’s in store for the upcoming film and, more importantly, if it’s going to have any impact when the audience knows what the path’s eventual dead end looks like. Call it the Solo: A Star Wars Story conundrum.

Apprehension aside, the show must go on, and if recent set pictures are anything to go by, filming is already under way over in Norway. But where can the story go when the main protagonist is dusted? Well, one thing’s for sure, it almost definitely ain’t gonna be a sequel. And as for everything else, fortunately we’ve got a Red Room full of comic book backstories to dip into for clues.

Marvel Studios

Speaking of which, the most expected route for director Cate Shortland to take is with a prequel based on the Red Room, the Soviet training facility created to transform orphaned girls into super spies. This was briefly explored in Age of Ultron when Scarlet Witch urged Natasha to remember her past before Hawkeye convinced her to defect from the programme and become an agent of SHIELD. (It’s also thematically a bit like Jennifer Lawrence’s disturbing flop Red Sparrow.)

Safe to say her life pre-Avengers wasn’t particularly happy, so it would be interesting to see how Shortland might spin this to please the fandom and give them the standalone they’ve been waiting for. Following her untimely death, a two-hour torture-fest surely isn’t going to do the trick.

Disney

What it could do, however, is open the door for a new Black Widow to enter. After all, in Endgame we saw the mantle of Captain America passed on to Falcon, just like it was in the books, marking the beginning of a new set of stories with Sam Wilson front and centre. Perhaps the MCU is about to do the same with Natasha.

In the same way Steve Rogers passed the torch, so did Black Widow to none other than Yelena Belova, a character who was also groomed and trained at the Red Room Academy. She’s the blonde, morally darker version of the assassin, one who many thought inspired Natasha’s look in Infinity War – there was even a creepy comic-book moment when their faces are surgically swapped in a bid to teach Yelena the hardened reality of what it is to be a spy.

The odds are looking good for this route (not the face-swapping bit), even more so after the announcement that Florence Pugh has officially joined the cast and is described as Natasha’s “moral opposite”.

This course of action would tick all of the proverbial boxes, allowing Shortland to delve into Black Widow’s rich history with an espionage thriller while opening up the doors for her legacy to continue within the MCU (without leaning on timey-wimey nonsense to bring the red-headed assassin back from the dead).

Another theory doing the rounds also factors in Yelena and Nat’s past, but instead suggests the film takes place in between the events of Infinity War and Endgame. This was mentioned by the Twitter user who uploaded the alleged set photos this week, stating: “Theory: The film takes place between Infinity War and Endgame, and features Nat training a new Black Widow (Yelena Belova, perhaps?) who will factor into future movies. Flashbacks to Nat’s past will be sprinkled throughout the film as well.”

Marvel Studio

With this option, you’ve got the best of both worlds – pre-Snap and post-Snap – giving Yelena her cinematic debut while exploring the trauma caused by Thanos‘ actions.

Last and almost definitely least, some reckon Natasha will be resurrected for a full-on follow-up to Endgame. Funnily enough, this would fit into the events of the books (kinda), as she’s brought back (kinda) when Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier discover the Red Room have been holding her clone just in case any of their agents ever die. Handy.

But the chances of this happening are slim to none, not only because it would diminish all of the Russo brothers’ hard work, but also because her death in the comics is caused by Captain America and his shield (and the Soul Stone is nowhere to be seen). That said, we did once predict that an Infinity War-style universe dusting would never happen because it would be too depressing to depict on screen, and here we are.

When it comes to characters, alongside Scarlett and Florence, Oscar-winner Rachel WeiszO-T Fagbenle of The Handmaid’s Tale fame and Hellboy star David Harbourhave joined the ranks, but just who they’re playing is still up for debate.

Another rumour to leak into the Twittersphere suggests the film’s main villain will be Taskmaster, an expert martial artist who is able to mimic any fighting style he sees. Although if this were the case, the creators would have to go off-comic, considering when Taskmaster and Widow did eventually come face-to-face, it was during a Marvel/DC crossover – even Batman got involved. Can you imagine Bruce Wayne showing up for Natasha’s gig? No, us neither.

Ultimately, what we’ve learned from the MCU by now is that everything we hear should be taken with a pinch of salt. The likeliest outcome might be completely ignored and, conversely, the most far-fetched comic strip could make it to the big screen.

And when it comes to Black Widow, there’s an entire universe of paths the creators could take. She’s been a baddie in a relationship with Doctor Doom, married to a cowboy version of Bucky Barnes, heck she even worked directly against the Avengers for the KGB in Mark Millar’s Ultimates.

So for now, the best we can do is hope that Shortland gives the character the justice she deserves with a film that doesn’t undermine her death, nor puts an end to her legacy within the MCU. And while we wait, we’ll be clinging onto every detail that makes its way to the fore until the film’s predicted 2020 release.

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