It’s no secret that the MCU’s solo Black Widow film was released at an awkward time. Considering the character’s fate in Avengers: Endgame, there was little room left for character development in a standalone film, especially since every fan theory about Natasha still being alive has been proven false by Marvel.
Despite its awkward timing, there’s one character that’s managed to slip between the cracks of Black Widow and into the larger MCU, and that’s Yelena Belova, aka Black Widow.
As Natasha puts it, Yelena is the closest she’s ever had to a family, even if they couldn’t stand each other at times.
In the comics, Yelena doesn’t really play a pivotal role when compared to other centric characters in the Marvel Universe. However, she does play a huge part in Natasha’s life, something that the live-action version of her character captured pretty well.
Casting a minor comic book character is usually something that’s done fairly quickly. However, when the news broke that Yelena Belova was to play a major role in the standalone Black Widow movie, it stood to reason that a high-profile would get to play the role.
For months, the rumours pointed towards Emma Watson being cast as the possible lead alongside Scarlett Johanson – but then the news of Florence Pugh being cast as Yelena Belova surfaced, leaving every fan wondering why Marvel would cast aside such a recognisable actress as Watson.
When we look at Watson’s filmography, it becomes immediately clear that the actress favours drama over every other genre. While this is great for her overall standing as a respected artist, it could be considered troublesome for a movie that’s predominantly about bombastic action, like Black Widow.
Even though Black Widow’s director, Cate Shortland, voiced her support of having Emma Watson as Yelena Belova, it ultimately came to a choice between a drama actress, or a drama actress that could also believably portray a super spy.
That’s why Pugh’s casting makes so much sense in hindsight: not only has Pugh shown she has what it takes to balance the MCU’s brand of light-hearted drama, she’s also starred in some action-heavy roles, like the one she played in Fighting with My Family.
Casting Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova also comes with a set of advantages for the future of the MCU. Even though Watson has had a highly successful career, she’s been more or less on hiatus since 2019’s Little Women, a movie where she co-starred alongside Pugh.
On the contrary, Pugh’s popularity has been steadily rising since her MCU debut. Now, her character is set to become a bigger part of the larger cinematic universe, making an appearance in Marvel’s latest Disney+ show, Hawkeye.
Now that the MCU has proved that it has some plans that differ wildly from the stories we’ve seen in the pages of the Marvel comic books, Yelena could even prove to be a suitable replacement for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.
It’s also worth mentioning that the MCU is in dire need of a new lineup of heroes for the Avengers, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Pugh’s Yelena Belova joining the ranks of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes sometime in the future.
After 2021’s Black Widow, it’s clear that Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova will become the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s next Black Widow. While her character still hasn’t been confirmed for the next Avengers film, her lead role in the upcoming Thunderbolts movie makes us believe that Scarlett Johansson might be gone for good from most – if not every – forthcoming Marvel project.
While it was never one of the comics’ big names, Black Widow has a long and rich history in the world of Marvel Comics. While most fans will surely be familiar with the red-headed Natasha Romanoff, some more loyal comic book enthusiasts won’t be strangers to Yelena Belova’s character.
Still, when Yelena came to the MCU, some small but crucial changes had to be made to her character from the comics. Let’s analyze those that I think could have the most significant impact on the future of the MCU.
Not Technically Related
The main reason why “Yelena Belova” and “Natasha Romanoff” have such different names in the comics is not because of some top-secret conspiracy (Red Room) to hide their identities: it’s because they were never related in the comics.
In the film, the sororal relationship between Yelena and Natasha is what fuels most of the drama. In the comics, however, their relationship is much more antagonistic, with Yelena chasing after Natasha to prove that she’s the superior Widow.
Refusing the Mantle
Despite their initial rivalry, comics Yelena eventually learns the importance of calling oneself “Black Widow.” She takes up the mantle after Natasha’s passing and eventually rejoins the Avengers in Natasha’s place.
In the MCU, Yelena still hasn’t taken the Black Widow name for herself – at least, not as her superhero alias. Even though it might seem at times like Yelena despises the heroic connotations of the moniker in the MCU, her actions have proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she’s worthy of continuing Natasha’s legacy.
Scarlett Johansson doesn’t receive nearly enough recognition for how impressive her Black Widow costume really is. Similar to Robert Downey Jr. essentially becoming Tony Stark to play the role, Johansson captures the essence of Natasha from the comics to perfection.
On the other hand, the producers over at the MCU took some creative liberties with Yelena when she joined the cinematic universe. While Yelena in the comics is tall and slender like Natasha, the MCU portrays her as much shorter than her older sister – perhaps because of the previously mentioned age gap.
Yelena’s character follows a very conventional arc in the comics: after losing Natasha, she joins the good guys, redeeming herself in the process. She’s also part of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics, though the organization has fallen out of use in most of the MCU.
In the MCU, Yelena is far from being an orthodox Goody Two-Shoes. After hearing of Natasha’s passing, she immediately becomes an assassin, and might even be considered a semi-antagonist in the Hawkeye Disney+ show.
While she might not be a full-blown villain, there’s no denying that her morality is closer to a grey area than most characters in the MCU. The fact that she hasn’t joined the next generation of Avengers could also be a clue as to what the cinematic franchise has in store for her character.
As we know, after the events of Marvel’s Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova spent two years finding and freeing many of the other brainwashed Black Widows (and all those part of the Red Room academy). Their mission halted when Thanos’ Snap in Avengers: Infinity War disintegrated Belova, as it did many other Marvel characters.
Upon awakening (5 years later), the super spy attempted to find her sister but learned she had perished. When visiting Natasha’s headstone, Belova was approached by Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who misinformed her and placed the blame for Romanoff’s passing solely on Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner).
The last time we saw Yelena Belova was during Disney+’s Hawkeye TV series where she came into conflict with Barton and his new protégé, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). After a long battle, where the character held back on hurting Bishop (the new Hawkeye) but attempted to take down Barton’s Hawkeye, the young super spy came to terms with Romanoff’s passing, forgives him and abandoned her mission for revenge.
Now free for the first time, it seems like the beloved character is able to shape her own destiny within the MCU. How she ends up joining and possibly leading Marvel Studios’ Thunderbolts remains to be seen. What reason could she have to forfeit that freedom and take up arms again? We’ll have to wait and see.
Still, it’s great seeing Florence Pugh in the role. She’s perfect for it. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine what Emma Watson would have been like as Yelena Belova.