Black Widow is now officially in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus, and while its mysteries are being revealed to fans who have long-awaited the film, David Harbour's lovable, irascible Red Guardian is winning fans just as he has since he debuted in early trailers for the film.
Red Guardian's role in the film is similar to how it's been portrayed in trailers - a sort of patriarch for a family of Russian spies, and a mentor to Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova. But there's more to his story in comic books, and his traditional place in the Marvel Universe could provide some insight into what -if anything - is next for the character.
In comic books, Red Guardian was originally something of the Soviet Union's Cold War equivalent to Captain America, a super-soldier dedicated to upholding the ideals of their nation. But in the decades since, he's evolved somewhat into a hero in his own right with fewer ties to his USSR and Cold War origins - though they still play a role in his identity.
With Black Widow now released, we're looking back at the comic book history of the Red Guardian and examining how he could play in the MCU.
Who is Red Guardian?
Much like Captain America, the title of Red Guardian doesn't belong to just one person. The very first Red Guardian, who only served briefly during World War II, was Alexy Lebedev - though oddly enough, he debuted in comics after his successor, appearing in a single flashback story.
The most well-known Red Guardian was Lebedev's apparent successor, Alexei Shostakov, who is also the version played by David Harbour in Black Widow. Shostakov debuted as Red Guardian all the way back in 1967's Avengers #43.
As one of the USSR's top pilots, Shostakov was chosen to pilot numerous experimental aircraft, becoming a famed national hero even before he was transformed into the Red Guardian. In his days as a pilot, he was married to none other than Natasha Romanova, the future Black Widow, in an arranged marriage that was part of her cover as a Russian spy.
When the Cold War ramped up, Shostakov was chosen to become the Red Guardian. His death was faked, removing him from the public eye - and even Natasha was kept in the dark, despite the fact that she was already secretly a spy herself, in her early career as the Black Widow.
While Black Widow defected from the USSR, eventually joining the Avengers, Shostakov remained loyal, actually fighting the Avengers to protect a secret Soviet weapon - though he was killed in battle moments after revealing his identity to Black Widow.
Shostakov was later revived - though as a Life Model Decoy mimicking his memories and personality in a plot against the Black Widow.
Again, these are stories that were published almost 60 years ago, at the height of the Cold War. Marvel hasn't retconned the tale of Shostakov too much to fit into a modern-day perception, as they have with other aspects of their Cold War-era stories.
In the years since, Marvel has had a few other Red Guardians - kinda the same way Captain America has been passed down as a mantle from person to person.
First off there was Dr. Tania Belinksy, who joined the Defenders as the Red Guardian before transitioning to a new heroic identity as Starlight. Then there was Josef Petkus, perhaps the second most prominent Red Guardian, who was a Russian operative in the '80s during writer Mark Gruenwald's beloved Captain America run which formed the basis of much of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Two other Red Guardians made brief appearances in the years after Petkus, including the short-lived Krassno Granitsky, who was murdered by the Red Skull, and one known simply as Anton, who was actually a Life Model Decoy.
The current comic book Red Guardian is Nikolai Krylenko, a mutant with energy manipulation powers who leads Russia's super team the Winter Guard, and who has also gone by the name Vanguard.
Red Guardian in the MCU
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Red Guardian is, as in comics, a former ally of Black Widow and an operative of the Russian government. However, his relationship with Natasha Romanova - as well as to Yelena Belova and Melina Vostokoff - is somewhat different from the source material.
Spoilers ahead for Black Widow.
The original Red Guardian was Natasha's husband in comic books before his death was faked and he was made into a Soviet Super Soldier. But in the MCU, Shostakov is more of a father figure to Natasha and Yelena in their time as Russian sleeper agents living in the United States.
Likewise, his relationship with Melina Vostokoff is more in line with his comic book history with Natasha, with Melina (known as the villainous Iron Maiden in comic books) taking on a motherly role with Natasha and Yelena during their years undercover.
This kind of ersatz family dynamic that's forged by the four Russian agents is visible all over Black Widow - and it plays right into her mindset in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, in which she's shown as considering the Avengers to be like her family, with all the baggage that comes with it.
The core relationships of Black Widow, Red Guardian included, are also part of the driving factor in the plot that sends Natasha back to the Red Room and into the path of the Taskmaster to put a stop to the program that turned her into a super-spy assassin.
Red Guardian is instrumental in Black Widow's mission, joining her side for the final conflict - and even escaping with Yelena, Melina, Taskmaster, and a group of Black Widows at the end. Though he hasn't shown up in the films that canonically take place after Black Widow, this means Red Guardian is still out there somewhere.
We know Yelena is in the United States in the present-day MCU and she even has a job, which we suspect will be with a version of the Dark Avengers.
Could the still super-strong Red Guardian play a role on such a team? Marvel Studios likes its heroic sacrifices, and his survival is maybe the best indicator it has plans for the character.
With his popularity, even as a supporting character, it's likely we'll see David Harbour's Red Guardian resurface in the MCU at some point soon.
Excited about the Black Widow movie? Now is a perfect time to catch up on the best Black Widow comics ever.