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Black Widow: Who is Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova in comics and the MCU?

Yelena Belova
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Yelena Belova, Marvel Comics' other Black Widow, will soon be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first standalone Black Widow film, premiering theatrically and on Disney Plus July 9. With her debut imminent, we are taking a deep look at Black Widow Yelena Belova in comic books and the role she might play in the MCU, not just in Black Widow but also in Disney Plus' Hawkeye.

Actor Florence Pugh (Little Women) plays a young Yelena Belova, the only other official Black Widow the infamous Red Room has ever produced. Also known as the Black Widow Ops program, the Red Room is the top-secret Soviet training program that takes young women and turns them into the world's deadliest assassins.

For those unfamiliar with Yelena Belova's story, her past is spotted with allegiances to whoever can get her closer to power. Born in Soviet Ukraine's Kyiv, the 5'7" covert agent is a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her path, including Natasha Romanoff. Belova's got a chip on her shoulder the size of an aircraft like Russia's Antonov AN-225. 

Here's a look back at her complicated relationship with Romanoff and the top-secret organization which turned her into the Black Widow.

 Who is Yelena Belova?

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

In comic books, The Black Widow Ops program was developed during the Cold War to create the world's deadliest female assassins. Training occurred in the ominously named Red Room Academy, where both Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova underwent various forms of torture in the pursuit of creating the perfect killing machine. We're talking about hours and days of hand-to-hand combat training, brainwashing, and experimental drugs. Those drugs are responsible for giving Belova and Romanoff some pretty stellar physical capabilities, including a longer life and fast healing from injury.

Initially, the program took 28 orphans and placed them into the secret training program. Two of those orphans were Natasha Romanoff and Dottie Underwood (who appeared in Marvel's Agent Carter TV series). The girls were implanted with false memories to ensure their loyalty to Russia and the clandestine organization in charge of the Red Room, the KGB (Committee for State Security).

As Natasha Romanoff discovers more about her false memories (like how she was never a ballerina), allegiance to her mother country of Russia deteriorates. With her loyalty in question and romantic feelings developing for Hawkeye, Romanoff attempts to extricate herself from under the thumb of the Soviet Union. With Natasha no longer loyal, another Black Widow enters a tangled web.

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

The Black Widow program no longer needs to rely on orphans for its recruits. Yelena Belova is handpicked at the age of 15 to undergo training in the espionage program. Belova's short blond hair and striking blue eyes are a contrast to Romanoff's long red locks. That's not where the differences between these two sisters of the Red Room end.

Belova's claim to fame? She's the only other Black Widow candidate to beat Natasha Romanoff's marks. Of course, Belova didn't start off desiring the title of Black Widow. She had to train for it. She spent 15 years under the watchful guidance of Vasilievich Pyotr Starkovsky. Her skills include expert-level espionage and being an Olympic-level gymnast. As Department X and the KGB team up to activate Belova as a Black Widow, we learn more about her history.

Strakovsky develops feelings for his student and hires a woman named Petra to dress up as Belova. Petra murders Strakovsky, and Belova, seeking vengeance for her teacher, goes after Petra. Here she learns the truth about the man who trained her. Unbeknownst to Belova, the mission was an elaborate scheme to activate her as a Widow. From there, it's a real sordid ride.

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

When Belova graduates from the Red Room, she bests Romanoff's scores. Belova believes that she alone is the rightful heir to the title of Black Widow. Belova repeatedly tries to outwit and outsmart Romanoff, only to find herself thwarted by Natasha's superior planning, alliances, and skill. It doesn't make for a happy relationship between the pair.

Romanoff shows Belova the true nature of the Red Room with the help of Nick Fury and SHIELD. With Fury's assistance, the two switch identities, and Belova learns that her memories are a lie. Eventually, Belova joins SHIELD and teams up with the New Avengers. During a mission, she becomes disfigured in a fight with the half-man-half-Pterdactyl villain Sauron. Belova blames the New Avengers for her injuries which drive her to ally with the terrorist organization known as Hydra.

Hydra, with the assistance of AIM, genetically alters Belova. The mutations give her Super-Adaptoid abilities. She's now able to copy the powers of anyone around her. It's a new skill she uses to considerable advantage as she encounters the New Avengers. Each ability she replicates gives her a power boost in battle, but it is at a mental cost. During the battle against Iron Man, Belova is compromised by her Super-Adaptoid abilities. Hydra operatives fear she will reveal their secrets, so they activate a kill-switch to destroy Belova and Avengers Tower. Dead but not gone, Belova returns after being freed from stasis to once again pursue the mantle of Black Widow.

 How does Yelena Belova fit into the Marvel Universe? 

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Belova makes her first appearance in Marvel Comics Inhumans Vol. 2 #5 (1999). The main arc of her storyline truly begins in the adult-themed Marvel MAX imprint: Black Widow: Pale Little Spider by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey. One of Belova's first aliases (Pale Little Spider) comes from this limited three-issue series.

Diving into Belova's backstory, it's revealed that her long-time teacher and mentor Vasilievich Pyotr Strakovsky came to develop feelings for her. With the knowledge that those feelings could never be acted upon, Strakovsky hires another Black Widow trainee named Petra to dress up as Belova. When Belova finds out the truth about her former mentor, she's distraught. Petra murders Strakovsky and despite knowing the truth about her teacher, Belova avenges his death by killing Petra. The entire series turns out to have been orchestrated in order to activate Belova as a Black Widow and challenge Natasha.

Belova's relationship with her past is one of shaky allegiances. She trusts no one and her desire to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of those in positions of authority causes her to develop a vendetta against Romanoff (or anyone else looking to stand in her way). Out-performing Natasha's scores cements her belief that she is the true heir of the Black Widow title. She confronts Romanoff in the 'Deathless Frenzy' bio-weapon mission. Believing she could kill two spiders with one stone, Belova seeks the deadly bio-weapon for the Russian intelligence service (GRU) and attempts to take Natasha out. Of course, things didn't go as planned.

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Natasha and Yelena square off multiple times throughout their history together in Marvel Comics. Natasha believes if she could only make Yelena see the truth of her past (and not the false memories that have been implanted), she could save Yelena from some of the mistakes she has made. Like Romanoff, Belova doesn't like taking advice and she certainly doesn't like taking the help. To help her show Belova the truth, Natasha enlists the help of Nick Fury and SHIELD in 'Operation: Validate.'

During 'Operation: Validate,' the pair change identities. Romanoff uses her appearance as Belova to trick Strakovsky into divulging his plans to steal nuclear weapons. Once again, Belova is left to find out the true nature of her handlers, who plan to kill her after her mission is completed. Again, Natasha attempts to show Yelena the truth about how Russian intelligence views its Black Widows: easily dispensable. 

Belova goes into a kind of self-imposed exile in Cuba where she works as a model and lingerie mogul. Spy games and danger seem to follow Yelena wherever she goes, and she ends up crossing paths with Matt Murdock (Daredevil). The two team up to rescue Romanoff, who is being held captive along with dozens of girls at the Cutting Corporation. After rescuing Romanoff and others, she is recruited into SHIELD where she joins the New Avengers.

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Her loyalty to SHIELD is cut short as she teams up with some rogue agents to illegally mine and stockpile Vibranium in the Antarctic Savage Land. Here, Yelena meets her most deadly enemy, Sauron, who she helps escape from the maximum-security prison known as the Raft. Even though Belova badly injures Sauron, his powers mutate and result in Belova receiving burns to most of her body.

With the help of Hydra and AIM, Belova transforms into a Super-Adaptoid giving her the ability to take on others' powers. As she confronts Iron Man, Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, and others, she obtains more power only to be taken out by Hydra.

During the late '00s, taking place in the 'Dark Reign' era and Thunderbolts series, the real Yelena is revealed to be in stasis by Norman Osborn. In Secret Avengers, Belova is removed from stasis by Dr. Andrew Forson and AIM, where she serves as leader of the High Council. As AIM prepares for war with the High Council and its ministers, an undercover Taskmaster joins the team to prepare for battle. Yelena is continually confronted with questions of loyalty and choosing good over evil. As with most things in the Marvel Universe, these decisions aren't as easy as they might seem. 

Yelena cannot confront her complicated feelings about assuming the role of Black Widow until Natasha is killed in Secret Empire. After Romanoff's death, Belova avenges Natasha by taking on her enemies, no matter where they might hide.

 How does Yelena Belova fit into the MCU?

Yelena Belova

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Yelena Belova's story will intersect with the upcoming feature film Black Widow, which pairs her with her Red Room sister Natasha Romanoff. Florence Pugh appears in the prequel directed by Cate Shortland, which will detail what happens to Natasha Romanoff between the events of two previous MCU films: Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Black Widow will force Romanoff to confront her past before becoming the Avenger we know as the hero who sacrificed herself for Hawkeye at the end of Avengers: Endgame. The film will serve as the official lift-off of the much-anticipated Phase 4 of the MCU.

The upcoming film will reveal the sordid history of Romanoff's time spent in the Red Room and the relationships formed there. That's where Pugh's character comes in, along with the Red Guardian (David Harbour), Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), Dreykov, head of The Red Room (Ray Winstone), and 'Mason' (O-T Fagbenle). It's a family reunion that no one, especially Romanoff wants to attend.

Romanoff will have to deal with her past (and Belova) as she takes on a powerful foe said to be the Taskmaster. In promotional materials for the movie, it looks like much of what audiences will get a taste of is the tension-filled relationship between Belova and Romanoff. Trailers for the film depict the pair fighting, arguing, and generally not getting along. Belova and Romanoff are uniquely equipped to understand one another's pain, having been raised in the Red Room. Getting into the gritty of Natasha's origin story will also help set up Yelena as the likely candidate to assume the role of Black Widow in future MCU films and shows.

In the latest issue of Total Film, Johansson says she views Black Widow as a passing of the torch to Florence Pugh's character. It's a move that would make sense given the other rumors of Belova's appearance in the upcoming Disney Plus series Hawkeye starring Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop.

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