With Black Widow in theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access on July 9, it’s time to get back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in cinema, not just TV shows. It’s been a while since we saw Natasha Romanoff! And the last time we did ... she was dead.
That might present a problem if Black Widow was set in the present MCU, but instead it’s a prequel. But even while watching the movie, making sense of the timeline becomes a bit tricky.
[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for Black Widow.]
When does the Black Widow movie take place?
During the events of Avengers: Endgame, Natasha Romanoff sacrificed her own life on the planet Vormir so that Hawkeye could walk away with the Soul Stone. It seems like that’ll be the last we’ll be seeing of Scarlett Johansson’s character — in the modern time period of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is.
The Black Widow movie is set earlier in MCU continuity, but not quite as far back as, say, Captain Marvel, which took place in the 1990s. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 that the movie took place just after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which was the last MCU movie that Black Widow appeared in before Infinity War and Endgame. But as the actual film makes clear, the events actually take place during Civil War and beyond, with an after-credits scene that jumps further into the future.
What happened to Black Widow in Captain America: Civil War?
Captain America: Civil War was largely concerned with the splintering of the Avengers as a group, spurred by an international superhero-oversight resolution called the Sokovia Accords and the machinations of Baron Helmut Zemo.
In Civil War, everyone was either Team Cap or Team Iron Man, and Natasha appeared to side with Tony Stark. Until — twist! — she helped Captain America and Bucky escape from the scene of the Avengers’ airport battle. After a terse conversation with Iron Man about betrayal, she walked out of the movie, with the implication that she was now on the run from the law.
When next we saw her it was in Avengers: Infinity War where she was, indeed, on the run from the law alongside Captain America and the Falcon. Also she’d gone bleach blonde.
Black Widow takes places during Civil War and then in the lead up to Infinity War, between Natasha anticipating that she’ll be on the run from the law, and actually being on the run from the law. At the end of Black Widow, Natasha jets off in her stolen Avengers quinjet to find Steve Rogers and help him break Ant-Man, Wanda Maximoff, Hawkeye, and the Falcon out of the Raft — Marvel’s infamous ocean-based super-prison — a breakout that forms the final scene of Captain America: Civil War.
The whole movie doesn’t actually even take place between two different Marvel movies, but between two different scenes in one Marvel movie.
As for Black Widow’s flashbacks...
The new movie also connects the dots in Black Widow’s origin story, but not in the way many fans expected. Our first taste of Natasha’s origin was during Avengers: Age of Ultron, in the form of Scarlet Witch-induced visions of the past.
The scene gave us our only look — so far — at the infamous Red Room, the secretive training program that produced an elite class of female spies for the Russia of Marvel Comics.
Black Widow doesn’t follow Natasha for much of her time in the Red Room. Instead, we meet her in 1995 Ohio, where she’s living with David Harbour’s undercover Red Guardian and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff ( the MCU version of Iron Maiden). Together with her “sister” Yelena, later played by Florence Pugh Yelena Belova, she’s chased down by SHIELD — which we’re reminded was under HYDRA control at the time — and later conscripted into the Red Room. In the comics, Yelena is another graduate of the Red Room, and even takes over the role of Black Widow from Natasha for a time.
All of the action and drama comes to a head in the present, which is actually the past, because it’s 2016 when Captain America: Civil War came out. But eventually the present becomes the future, with Yelena hoping to avenge her sister.