When Does Black Widow Take Place in the MCU Timeline?

Photo: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The first new Marvel Studios feature film since 2019 has arrived. And if you’re expecting this movie to continue where other recent MCU offerings like Endgame or WandaVision left off, well, sorry! The story of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, the titular Black Widow, is not a sequel to the ongoing and expanding universe, spread across film and TV; it’s a sideways prequel thingamabob with a teeny bit of retcon origin-story action.

If you’ve been following every single Marvel product with a magnifying glass, then this news isn’t surprising. But even for the Marvel faithful, the chronology of Black Widow might throw a viewer for a few loops. At first brush, it plays like a good old-fashioned espionage movie about a girl(s) getting kidnapped and brainwashed by grumpy Russian spymakers. But, because this is an installment in a mammoth franchise that involves time-hopping and a multiverse, it’s obviously more complicated than that. So here are your Black Widow timeline questions, answered, now with more pop songs!

So When Does Black Widow Take Place?

The timeline of Black Widow is something of an MCU sandwich. The pre-credits prologue — set during Natasha’s childhood — happens in 1995. After that, the bulk of the movie takes place in 2016, right after the events of Captain America: Civil War. (This is why Natasha is talking about the Avengers breaking up.) After all that, the post-credits scene happens in 2023, just after the events of Avengers: Endgame.

And the movie really wants you to know the time period. Cue the music. After Natasha lives through the harrowing experience of the prologue, the credits begin with a Malia J cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which was released in 2015. The original Kurt Cobain classic came out in 1991, so this is perhaps a vague reference to the film’s earlier events happening sometime in the ’90s. (Maybe a creepy cover of Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” would have been more appropriate? Or at least a reference to Take That’s infamous ’95 go at the Nirvana song.) Then once the movie is in motion, Natasha is listening to Sia’s megahit “Cheap Thrills,” squarely setting us in the year 2016. (Here in 2021, Black Widow fans don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight, just $29 bucks on Disney+.)

Which MCU Story Lines Are Happening During This Movie?

Because of the mixed chronology, Black Widow overlaps with preexisting corners of the MCU, but not always in direct ways. Here’s how it shakes out:

1995: This year is also the setting for Captain Marvel, meaning much of that movie is also happening at the same time as the Black Widow prologue.

2016: In Black Widow, there are a few nods to Captain America and Bucky going into hiding, a move sparked by the finale of Captain America: Civil War, set earlier in the year 2016. In Black Panther’s post-credits scene, we find out Bucky went into hiding in Wakanda. Other story lines swirling around this time: Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok.

2023: The post-credits scene likely occurs shortly after Endgame. This puts it in the same time period as WandaVision, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The cameo from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Lady Val is directly connected to her appearance in Falcon and Winter Soldier. Will Yelena (Florence Pugh) meet John Walker (Wyatt Russell) in a future Marvel movie or show? Seems likely. They’ve got the same boss.

Do Dreykov and His Network of Widows Play a Part in Any Other MCU Story Line?

In a major plot point (that feels like Blofeld’s scheme from the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was given a glow-up), we learn that Red Room spymaster Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has a global network of assassins known as “widows.” Dreykov describes his kidnapping of these “girls” as procuring a “natural resource,” which obviously makes him awful, and also suggests his command of English is not great.

But does his vast widow network impact other MCU movies? Short answer, despite the shockingly huge amount of power he holds in Black Widow, the answer appears to be mostly: nope! The name Dreykov is referenced in just one other MCU film, 2012’s The Avengers. In that movie, Loki suggests that Natasha can’t wipe out all the red from her ledger because of an incident with “Dreykov’s daughter.” The events of Black Widow are seemingly based on that single line.

Did Red Guardian Actually Fight Captain America in the ’80s?

In prison, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) brags about beating up Captain America in the 1980s. A fellow prisoner calls bullshit, reminding the Red Guardian that Steve Rogers was still encased in ice during that time period, so there’s no way the Red Guardian could have fought Captain America, right?

While this naysayer is playing a perfect in-universe MCU-continuity-cop role, this scene could be more layered than it seems. In the comics, the Red Guardian derives from two different characters: Aleksey Lebedev and Alexei Shostakov. The first WWII-era Red Guardian actually fought on the same side as Captain America — against Nazis — but at that point in the comics “Captain America” was a character named William Naslund, not Steve Rogers. (Steve and Bucky went MIA in 1945, and a new Cap was recruited, a plot point that happens a lot in the comics.)

Now, the MCU hasn’t established this sort of John Walker–style replacement for Cap, operating sometime in between Steve hitting the ice in 1945 and getting unfrozen in 2012. But, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t retcon a different Captain America, from the 1980s, who could have fought this version of the Red Guardian. In between WWII and the 1990s, the MCU timeline is actually a bit fuzzy, meaning it’s possible the Red Guardian did fight a Captain America at that time. It’s also conceivable that the Red Guardian did fight Steve Rogers in the 1980s. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, it was revealed that Steve went back in time to the year 1945, and then lived his entire life up until 2023 (when he gives Sam the shield following Tony Stark’s funeral). This means, from 1945 to 2011-ish, there are at least two Steves alive on (an) Earth(s). One is frozen in ice, and the other one is, in theory, living a secret life with Peggy. (In 1970 and in 2012, there are, in theory, three Steves hanging out on Earth, thanks to the time traveling within Endgame itself.) The point is, if you throw in some timey-wimey Steve Rogers action, it’s plausible that Red Guardian is actually telling the truth.

Wait, Natasha Is Dead?

Although Black Widow is primarily set after the events of Civil War, the post-credits scene jumps ahead to 2023, with Yelena standing over Natasha’s grave. This means the movie’s final conclusion is post-Endgame, a movie in which Natasha sacrifices herself on the planet Vormir so that the Avengers can secure the Soul Stone. What did Natasha do in between all of this? Well, in 2018, at the start of Infinity War, she’s reteamed with Steve Rogers, so, presumably, she takes a couple of years to find him again. Then five years pass in between Infinity War and Endgame, when Natasha finally gets involved in the time heist, along with Hawkeye.

Now, how the hell does Lady Val (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) know that Hawkeye was the only other person hanging out with Natasha when she died? Did the Red Skull call her up and tell her? This detail is unclear. We know Natasha dies on Vormir, but what the Black Widow post-credits presupposes is that the Avengers made the particulars of her death known to enough people that Lady Val could figure it out. Either way, yes: Natasha is very much dead. Scarlett Johansson has stated clearly that she has no plans to return as Natasha. This makes Black Widow not only Natasha Romanoff’s triumphant big-screen return but her bittersweet coda as well.

Black Widow is out in wide release and on Disney+ Premier Access. 

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When Does Black Widow Take Place in the MCU Timeline?