Marvel is kicking off Phase 4 with Black Widow, giving fans the Natasha Romanoff solo film they’ve been asking for, but Scarlett Johansson won’t be the only star in the superspy thriller. She’ll be joined by Rachel Weisz (as “a Black Widow”) and Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova (also another Black Widow). But the most interesting addition to the cast may be Stranger Things star David Harbour as Soviet hero Red Guardian.
Here’s what we know about Red Guardian, including his history in Marvel comics and any comments Harbour has said about the version of the character presented in Black Widow.
Possible spoilers ahead for Black Widow.
Who Is Red Guardian?
The name “Red Guardian” has actually taken up by multiple people in Marvel comics. The Red Guardian we’re focused on for the sake of Black Widow is Alexi Shostakov. He was first introduced in Avengers #43 in August 1967 and is still alive in the comics today.
What Is Red Guardian’s Backstory?
Alexi Shostakov was orphaned during World War II and rescued by Vasily Karpov, a Soviet officer and later, a Department X agent involved in the Winter Soldier program. Alexi was raised by Karpov and treated like his own son.
When Alexi was old enough, he became a pilot for the Soviet Union. He rose in the ranks, becoming one of the most decorated and highly-regarded pilots in the Soviet Union. Eventually, his skill and accolades got him selected for secret test flights and missions for the Soviet Union, although much of that was glossed over by state-run media which focused put on his heroics. In his private life, Alexi was married to ballerina Natalia Romanova (aka, the Black Widow fans came to know in Marvel’s movies)
It was decided by the KGB that Alexi would be trained to assume the Red Guardian identity and work as an agent for the Soviet Union. He was informed of the KGB’s intentions while on a secret mission and ordered never to return home. Meanwhile, Natalia was led to believe Alexi had died during a rocket test launch. Heartbroken, Natalia made it known she wanted to honor her husband’s memory, at which point the KGB stepped in and offered her a chance to train and become a Black Widow agent. As you know, she eventually defected to the United States.
It will be interesting to see how much of Alexi’s backstory makes it into Black Widow, especially where Natalia/Natasha is involved since her backstory doesn’t quite align with his backstory.
What Are Red Guardian’s Special Abilities?
Even though he is touted as Russia’s answer to Captain America, Alexi’s version of Red Guardian wasn’t injected with a similar Super Soldier serum like Steve Rogers. Instead, Alexi has been extensively trained with various weapons (although he primarily uses a shield to both protect and attack) as well as hand-to-hand combat. He’s very strong and capable, but at the end of the day, he’s still a mortal man who is more vulnerable to injury than the superheroes he squares off against.
What Has David Harbour Said About the Version of Red Guardian Featured in Black Widow?
Habour had some very interesting comments to share about his version of Red Guardian at SDCC 2019, hinting that his version of the superhero will be very layered and very much rooted in the comic book backstory. While speaking with Variety, Harbour shared the following about his version of Red Guardian:
“In the Cold War, the Americans [developed] nuclear weapons and the Russians developed nuclear weapons. The Americans developed Captain America and in response, in retaliation, the Soviets developed the Red Guardian. So, in that way, [Red Guardian] is a foil, you know? He has very complicated feelings about this particular thing. But the Soviet Union fell and a lot of things went down with him, in particular, and now he’s in a different place in his life. It’s a very interesting character. You get to see all of this.”
Speaking with SYFY Wire, also at Comic-Con, Harbour also teased that Red Guardian “has this ‘thing,’ this super-soldier thing. But he’ll surprise you with his flaws, and with his complexities.”
Will Red Guardian Be a Hero or Villain in Black Widow?
The lack of specific information about the Black Widow plot, as well as Red Guardian’s involvement in it, makes it tough to say whether Russia’s Captain America will be a good guy or a bad guy. Because he’s frequently operated in an anti-hero space, Red Guardian could be a surprise ally to Natasha Romanoff in the movie.
Harbour’s comment to Variety about Red Guardian being in a “very different place in his life” when the movie takes place hints at this possible redemption arc for the Soviet hero, too. Then again, Black Widow could upend all of our expectations about Red Guardian and show a darker side none of us had prepared for.
Do I Need to Read Any Marvel Comics Featuring Red Guardian Before I See Black Widow?
It might be fun, as a prospective viewer, to see what Red Guardian’s deal is in the comics and what to expect when he’s eventually introduced in Black Widow. In this case, buying a something like The Avengers Omnibus Vol. 3 is the best and most cost-effective option. Inside this tome, you’ll find the first comic featuring Red Guardian, which will prove useful since Black Widow will serve as the character’s MCU introduction.
Black Widow arrives in theaters May 1, 2020.