Rotting away in a Russian prison is how the arrogant, oversized Alexei Shostakov, played by Stranger Things star David Harbour, has spent the last few years of life. Introduced in the new Marvel movie Black Widow, this loyal patriot served as Russia’s own version of Captain America, known as the Red Guardian.
But unlike Steve Rogers, who is memorialized and celebrated in national museums, the Red Guardian is a faded relic of the Soviet Union. And these days, he is prone to sharing tall tales of fighting the one and only sentinel of liberty — but did he?
If one were to do the math — as one other prisoner in Black Widow does — it’s clear Alexei could never have traded fists with Steve Rogers. After all, Captain America spent decades frozen in ice, going under in 1945 only to wake up in 2011, according to the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Captain America: The First Avenger, where Steve wakes up in the 21st century, was released in 2011.)
“I will say they are absolutely true, 100 percent.”
So who was it that Red Guardian tussled with in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Was it really Captain America, or is the Red Guardian a big red liar? David Harbour and director Cate Shortland each have their own answers, and they revealed them in interviews with Inverse.
Who is the Red Guardian?
Red Guardian isn’t an invention of Black Widow. He was created in 1967 by comic book heavyweights Roy Thomas and John Buscema to be a Russian rival to Captain America with similar powers.
In a confusing bit of canon, the character Aleksey Lebedev held the mantle first during World War II where he fought alongside Captain America (not Steve Rogers, but Steve’s replacement William Naslund). However, his stories were published much later in 1991 (Namor, The Submariner Annual #1) as a retcon by Marvel’s writers to add more backstory to its history.
The “second” Red Guardian was Alexei Shostakov. Unlike in the movie, Alexei was a test pilot and KGB agent who was trained to become Red Guardian and was married to Natasha (aka, Black Widow). He was not Natasha’s fake father on an undercover assignment, which is the story told in the MCU.
And yes, he did fight Captain America in the comics, notably in his second comic book appearance in Avengers issue #44.
Did Red Guardian fight Captain America in the MCU?
Harbour and Shortland each offer slightly different answers.
“I will say they are absolutely true, 100 percent,” Harbour tells Inverse.
Over Zoom, Harbour’s response has a whiff of playful sarcasm. But the actor also sincerely believes that Alexei believes it, which is all that matters.
“Part of the fun thing about Alexei is that I wasn’t interested in reality,” the actor says. “He doesn’t even know that he’s lying.”
Harbour, who was a working character actor before landing the role of Jim Hopper on the Netflix hit Stranger Things, says he’s played a handful of characters who lie. “Sometimes as an actor, I’ll have to know the reality because I’ll know [if] the character is lying. But Alexei simply believes this stuff is true.”
Director Cate Shortland believes “both” are true: Both that Alexei is lying, and that he’s telling the truth. Shortland hides whether there is a real canonical answer.
“I wanna see Alexei and Captain America together,” Shortland says. “If we saw them together now, I think we know what would happen. I don’t want to see Alexei poo his pants. I think that’s what would happen. You’d find this little boy in the corner crying his eyes out.”
Harbour adds that Alexei is prone to confabulation, for reasons that remain unknown.
“There’s a thing, confabulation, where people actually just believe their lies to such a degree that even when confronted with reality, they can’t process it,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense [to them]. I think Alexei is very much the same way. He lives this reality completely independent of what other people have seen or heard.”
What this means for the MCU
While Harbour and Shortland are resistant to give a canonical answer — for now — the question is arguably more interesting. Does Alexei believe he fought Captain America? Yes. But is it true that Captain America was out of action when Alexei was Red Guardian? Also yes.
Here is where I put my fan theory hat on and offer up two possible explanations:
1. Alexei fought a time-displaced Steve Rogers
Remember when Steve Rogers went back in time at the end of Avengers: Endgame to place all the Infinity Stones in their proper time? Remember how he stayed there in the past?
While it’s unlikely Steve met Alexei returning the Infinity Stones — though the Avengers did take the Tesseract in 1970, which could pit Steve against a younger, greener Red Guardian — it’s also possible Steve would have met Alexei years later after Steve had settled down with Peggy. Did Steve put on his costume a few more times for secret missions throughout history?
2. There is a new time-traveling Captain America
A second explanation could be set up for a future story that’s yet to be revealed. What if Alexei really did fight Captain America, who for whatever reason is lost or traveling in time?
While it could be Sam Wilson or, heaven forbid, John Walker, what matters is that Alexei is honest when he says he fought Captain America. He just didn’t fight Steve Rogers (and didn’t know it wasn’t him). This way, both things are true at the same time. Alexei isn’t lying when he says he fought Captain America, but people aren’t wrong when they tell him Cap wasn’t around.
If this is the case, this only brings up more questions: Who is this Captain America? And why are they fighting Red Guardian? With the Infinity Stones gone and Phase 4 yet to set up a crossover-level threat, it’s truly unknown what Marvel has planned for the future.
Sadly, we’re not time travelers.
Black Widow is now playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.