The reveal of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine was a satisfying, intriguing twist in this week’s episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, not just because of the decision to cast the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a long-standing Hydra-related character, but also because of which version of that character the show decided to use.
The mantle of Madame Hydra has belonged to a few women over the course of Marvel Comics’ publication; the first and longest reigning is a character named Ophelia Sarkissian, also known as Viper, who held the title from her appearance in 1969’s Captain America No. 110 to 2009’s Secret Warriors No. 3. We’ve seen an incarnation of that character on film before, in the 2013 film The Wolverine. Rights issues at the time meant they couldn’t call her “Madame Hydra,” but the story as a whole is loosely adapted from the 1982 Wolverine miniseries, which was later followed up by Uncanny X-Men Nos. 172 and 173.
Despite being the second holder of the title, however, Contessa de Fontaine has actually been around longer than Viper, having first appeared in Strange Tales No. 159 in August 1967. She spent much of her history romantically entangled with Nick Fury as an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and was generally written as a heroine and love interest until Secret Warriors revealed that she’d been a Russian double agent the entire time! It was the kind of dramatic trick that comics are known for; here was a character that had been around for 42 years at that point suddenly revealed to have been a villain the entire time! In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, though, the years of deception have been sidestepped; the character is immediately introduced as a villain, stepping in to support John Walker, the new Captain America, after his very public execution of a Flag-Smasher.
Reports are that Julia Louis-Dreyfus was originally set to debut the role in the Black Widow movie, but since that was delayed, the Contessa’s first onscreen appearance is here in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. While the switch-up may have spoiled what is likely meant to be a surprise reveal in the film, it’s a good bet that we’ll see some of her more classic double-agent iteration there as well.
Of course, superhero comics being what they are, a run-of-the-mill secret spy is only the tip of the iceberg. The other big fact of Contessa de Fontaine’s history is that during the 2000s, prior to her villainous reveal, the Contessa was impersonated by Skrulls as part of a long-term plan to invade Earth. In fact, the Contessa impostor was one of the early reveals during the Secret Invasion event, the first Skrull Nick Fury found out about, and the one that tipped him off to the invasion itself. Secret Invasion will itself be adapted into a Disney+ series in December of this year.
I mentioned when I wrote about Vision that part of the fun and fascination of these adaptations is the ways in which comic elements are remixed and reused, and that’s especially true here — unlike their comic-book counterparts, the Skrulls of the MCU aren’t a species of conquerors but refugees fleeing the Kree Empire, as depicted in 2019’s Captain Marvel and alluded to in one of the final scenes of WandaVision. That alone changes a large portion of the context of Secret Invasion, and it makes the upcoming adaptation a big mystery.
Debuting the character of the Contessa at this stage, so close to that show, seems significant, but is the expectation that she’ll play the same role? It’s hard to say. There’s nothing to prevent Marvel from choosing to present those earlier Skrulls as a mere subset of the overall Skrull population; while we know that the Kree were hunting them to extermination in Captain Marvel, we don’t know the broader context of the MCU’s version of the Kree-Skrull war. Are the Kree purely the aggressors, or is it a case of two species with a penchant for colonization duking it out for dominance?
Either of these scenarios is certainly possible, and if the latter’s the case, then it would make quite a lot of sense to plant some seeds ahead of time in the guise of the Contessa, and having direct access to the new Captain America would definitely be a valuable resource for an infiltrating army of aliens. It remains to be seen what sort of place John Walker is in as a character by the end of Falcon, but if he’s still around, things in the MCU could get very complicated by December.