The mystery of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine in the MCU has taken another turn.
Introduced in Disney Plus's The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and then on the big screen in Black Widow, Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Contessa (Val for short, just not to her face) seems to know exactly what she's doing.
We all just don't know what she's doing yet.
Perhaps like Nick Fury or Thanos, her role is to serve as something of a throughline character for the current phase of the MCU, but whether she's more hero like Fury or villain like Thanos is anyone's guess.
Whatever her agenda (or whatever the agenda of whomever she's acting as an agent for), it looks like it'll have significant ramifications for the MCU in the future, including what potentially could be the adaptation of a fan-favorite Marvel Comics concept readers have been clamoring for for years.
That particular speculation warmed up with the arrival of Florence Pugh's Black Widow/Yelena Belova in December 8's Hawkeye episode 4, last seen in Black Widow's mid-credits stinger in the company of the Contessa who was feeding Yelena fake news about the Avenging Archer.
But that was to be expected. Subterfuge is on-brand for the comic book version of the Contessa, one of Marvel Comics' most notorious espionage agents.
The character's most notable ties are also to one of the MCU's original throughline adversaries Hydra. After all, her other, better-known title in the comic book Marvel Universe is 'Madame Hydra' – one of a few characters to take the moniker over the years.
As card-holding MCU fans recall, Hydra was an major villainous, secret organization force in the early phases of Marvel's adaption to the big screen, culminating in the exposure of Hydra's infiltration of SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the apparent end of their last significant remaining factions in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
What remains of Hydra has since popped up in Ant-Man and was a large presence in ABC's Agents of SHIELD, although it's now unclear how much - if any - of the latter should be considered MCU canon anymore.
Does Val's presence signal the comeback of the once-ubiquitous villainous spy organization or something new to the MCU entirely? It's looking more and more like the latter with a couple of very intriguing possibilities.
And Newsarama will explore those new possibilities as we explain the comic book history of Contessa Vanessa Allegra de Fontaine.
Who is Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine?
Created by legendary writer/artist Jim Steranko, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine first appeared in the Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD feature in 1967's Strange Tales #159. She was introduced as a jet setter and part of high European society. After both her parents were killed for aiding a resistance movement, the Contessa found her life directionless and hollow.
Having made a vow to not let her parents' deaths be in vain, Valentina was eventually contacted by the international espionage agency SHIELD and entered a training program to become a field agent. She would later learn that her late father was secretly a SHIELD agent as well.
Valentina quickly landed herself a field partnership with none other than Nick Fury, with the pair eventually striking up a heated and fraught romantic relationship. Fury's less-than-honest ways led to tension with de Fontaine, who began a flirtatious relationship with Captain America, who was regularly operating as a SHIELD agent at this time.
Fury even confronted Steve Rogers over Valentina, though she quickly put a stop to their fight and wound up reconciling with Fury.
Still, Valentina's flirtations with Cap also led to an adversarial relationship with Cap's own paramour Sharon Carter (another character who played a key role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
Over the years, the Contessa remained Fury's on-again-off-again lover and one of his most trusted agents – though when Fury went underground (partially due to the comic book Secret Invasion event) she lost some of her SHIELD standing, leading to some deeper revelations about exactly who Vanessa Allegra de Fontaine is and what her place is in the Marvel Universe.
Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine in the Marvel Universe
After Marvel Comics' now-iconic Civil War event (yes, the one that inspired the third Captain America movie), the Contessa secretly joined Hydra, taking on the identity of Madame Hydra, a name used by many women over the years as leaders of the villainous espionage organization.
The original Madame Hydra, Ophelia Sarkissian, is also known by her other villainous codename, Viper, and appeared as a villain in Fox's The Wolverine as part of the non-MCU X-Men franchise.
Following a series of missions including stealing a powerful artifact from Hydra ally the Silver Samurai, Valentina then betrayed Hydra to another shadowy group, the Russian espionage agency known as Leviathan (who appeared in ABC's Agent Carter TV show).
Leviathan is a secretive organization with a long, storied history of its own in the Marvel Universe. But the TL:DR is, they are a Russia-based espionage group that secretly operated behind the scenes to create superhumans using technology taken from the alien Brood race, longtime enemies of the X-Men.
In the ensuing conflict between SHIELD, Hydra, and Leviathan, Valentina was revealed to have been a Russian sleeper agent working alongside Leviathan since before even being recruited to SHIELD. She was subsequently taken into custody by Interpol.
Most recently, the Contessa resurfaced in 2020's Ravencroft #1 one-shot forming a new espionage group called JANUS, comprised of former SHIELD agents.
As for the Madame Hydra identity, it was later taken by the Red Skull's ally Elisa Sinclair in the story Secret Empire, though her death in that story's finale seemingly also laid to rest the name Madame Hydra – for now.
Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine in the MCU
In typical MCU fashion, the stories yet to be told remain largely mysterious, with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and now Black Widow doing more than their fair share to sow the seeds of the franchise's next phase. But from the way things are shaping up, even though it's all but impossible to say exactly what's on the horizon, it seems Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine may be integral to what comes next.
As stated earlier, Dreyfus was originally slated to make her MCU debut when Black Widow was going to launch Phase Four in 2020. But with the global pandemic closing most movie theaters for most of 2020 and the early part of 2021, Black Widow opened in theaters and on Disney Plus in the summer of 2021.
And her appearance in Black Widow does nothing to curtail the idea Marvel Studios has "even bigger ambitions" for the character than just a few showy cameos. But what?
Valentina's appearance in the final two episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and then Black Widow seems to indicate she's setting up a potential Avengers-like team of her own, starting with the newly christened John Walker/US Agent and Yelena Belova, the potential new Black Widow.
It should not go unnoticed by Walker and Belova play superhero roles very similar to two of the original Avengers.
With that in mind - and the comic book symmetry of having Valentina playing something of Fury's role for the original Avengers - it's hard not to speculate that this could lead to an MCU of the fan-favorite villain-turned-hero team the Thunderbolts or its similar sister concept the Dark Avengers.
The Thunderbolts were originally conceived as a team that took the place of the Avengers and other heroes who were killed fighting the villain Onslaught in the mid-'90s. The big reveal came at the end of the iconic first issue that they were in actuality the supervillain group the Masters of Evil taking on superhero aliases led by Baron Zemo (yes, that Baron Zemo), going by the patriotic superhero identity of Citizen V.
With Zemo back on the mega-super prison the Raft (as first seen in Captain America: Civil War as the place where the Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Wanda were locked up) as per the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it's possible the Raft could become a recruiting ground for Valentina's team.
Marvel Studios will never be able to pull off the original Thunderbolts plot twist, but a team of rogue heroes and villains could be the next best thing.
Keep in mind, General-now-Secretary of State 'Thunderbolt' Ross, played by William Hurt, has been seen as sort of a warden of the Raft and will be appearing again in Black Widow.
Ross, and his superhuman alter-ego the Red Hulk, and John Walker (as US Agent) both have a history with past incarnations of the Thunderbolts franchise.
de Fontaine's brief appearance in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has already spawned several fan theories, including the Thunderbolts and a possible connection to the 2022 Secret Invasion Disney Plus series since she was also one of the original hostages replaced by a Skrull imposter in that comic book event.
And now with the revelation Yelena is in paid employment to some organization with Val as her boss and may have been for some time, we can't help but open the door to the Dark Avengers as well.
As we say, something of a sister concept to the Thunderbolts, the Dark Avengers in a couple of incarnations are a team mostly made up of villains or heroes of dubious morals who take on the superhero identities of recognizable Avengers. Both teams were under the employ and manipulation of classic Spider-Man villain Norman Osborn (sometimes the Green Goblin) while he was nefariously working for the U.S. government, who didn't know he was the Goblin, of course.
John Walker has served as a Thunderbolt, and his true nature as a hero or villain is complicated to what may be mental illness. Yelena, however, showed no villainous leanings in Black Widow, and Val manipulating her to apparently try to hunt down Hawkeye in the current Disney Plus series can maybe be explained by her grief and Val's misdirection.
And this brings us to Pugh's/Yelena's appearance in Hawkeye, in a distinct costume with green infrared eyes that look a lot like Yelena's comic book costume when she served as a Thunderbolt.
Well, Natasha in disguise as Yelena, that is... It's complicated.
Given Marvel Studios knows its hardcore fans have and will pick up on the costume similarity immediately, it seems the Thunderbolts (or Dark Avengers) signals are 100% intentional.
But December 15's Hawkeye episode 5 brought another twist. Yelena tells Kate Bishop at the end of the episode that Kate's mother Eleanor (played by Vera Farmiga and herself with a very complicated Marvel Comics history) hired her to kill Clint Barton, which means she hired Yelena through the Contessa or the operation she works for, which means whatever the operation is, it sells its services and/or contracts out its operatives to private bidders.
The Hawkeye revelation also suggests the Contessa might have just been passing on the misinformation she gave to Yelena about Clint being responsible for Natasha's death she herself just got from Eleanor.
Or the Contessa merely embellished that just to motivate Yelena to complete the contracted job.
Oh yeah, the events of Hawkeye episode 5 also reveal Yelena was Snapped by Thanos, meaning her relationship with the Contessa and employment by whatever the Contessa represents is relatively new and does not go back before or during the five-year Blip.
So whatever which way all this goes, in 2021 MCU fans might have been introduced to a significant new thorn in the side and/or rivals to the superheroes, who given the actor who plays her will almost certainly make MCU fans laugh while she's causing the heroes grief.
Marvel Comics has such a deep bench of iconic supervillains, so it's no slight that Madame Hydra did not make Newsarama's list of the best Marvel supervillains of all time.