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How Avengers: Endgame sets up the Black Widow movie

We're not expecting the Black Widow movie to be officially confirmed until Marvel announces its Phase 4 slate in full, but at this point, it's a sure thing. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has discussed the project on several occasions, and while he's given no indication as to when we might see it, the updated Disney release calendar narrows it down somewhat. The first Phase 4 movie will be dropping as soon as May 2020, and Black Widow is a strong contender for that slot. But what can we expect from Scarlett Johansson's long-awaited solo outing as Natasha Romanoff?

One of the few gripes that fans had with Avengers: Endgame was the way the filmmakers handled Black Widow's arc. Romanoff's death, while noble (and perhaps inevitable), left many feeling shortchanged and somewhat confused — we've known about plans for a Black Widow solo movie since well before Endgame, after all. How can Marvel make a movie about a character who's dead? Does this confirm that Black Widow will be a prequel? Not necessarily.

Black Widow may have bitten the dust halfway through the fourth Avengers film, but the movie appeared to drop a few hints at the character's potential future, both before and after she sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone. Let's take a look at how Endgame sets up the Black Widow movie.

A long way from Budapest

By the time we get to see it in theaters, the Black Widow solo movie will have been under discussion at Marvel for a decade. To say the studio took its time with the project would be an understatement, though despite Marvel's hesitance to press forward with Black Widow, it still peppered the movies it was releasing with breadcrumbs that it could return to at a later date. Perhaps the biggest example of this is Budapest, where Black Widow and Hawkeye bonded during a mysterious pre-Avengers mission.

We first heard about Budapest during 2012's The Avengers. During the Battle of New York, Romanoff tells Clint Barton that "It's like Budapest all over again," to which Hawkeye replies, "You and I remember Budapest very differently." In Avengers: Endgame, the Hungarian capital comes up once again. As Romanoff and Barton embark on their mission to Vormir, the latter jokes that they're "a long way from Budapest," once again referencing their time together in Eastern Europe.

Fans have been imagining what a movie based on Black Widow's past exploits in Budapest would look like for some time. If the upcoming Black Widow movie is indeed a prequel as the rumors suggest, it would make sense for Marvel to finally pay up and explain just what went down in Budapest all those years ago.

Natasha, daughter of Ivan

Another Avengers: Endgame moment that may well have been prepping us for the Black Widow solo movie happened when she and Hawkeye arrived on Vormir in search of the Soul Stone. As the pair approach the Red Skull (now a spectral figure acting as the keeper of the Stone), he refers to Black Widow as "Natasha, daughter of Ivan." We were given a glimpse into Romanoff's past in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, which briefly showed us her time in the notorious Red Room, a top secret Soviet spy factory. There was no mention of her parentage, however, and when Red Skull named her father as Ivan in Endgame, this seemed like new information to the KGB spy-turned-Avenger. Why bother with the line and Black Widow's reaction to it if they weren't going to come into play later?

This seemingly throwaway Endgame line could well be a hint at what's to come in the Black Widow solo movie, assuming it's a prequel. Chances are the Ivan mentioned in Endgame is Ivan Petrovich Bezukhov, a Russian soldier who became a father figure to Romanoff after saving her from a burning building. It was Bezukhov who introduced Romanoff to the Soviet government's Black Widow Ops program, where she and a number of other orphans trained in the Red Room. Interestingly, early drafts of the Endgame script had five-years-later Black Widow "leading the organization in D.C. that was in charge of orphans," Anthony Russo revealed (via SlashFilm).

Is she alive on Vormir?

Watching Natasha Romanoff battle Clint Barton for the honor of sacrificing herself to give the Avengers a shot at beating Thanos was a hard pill to swallow for fans of the Black Widow, many of whom have been theorizing about how she might not actually be gone for good. Bruce Banner stated that he tried unsuccessfully to bring Romanoff back to life using the Infinity Stones in Endgame, but what if he was actually successful and just doesn't know it yet?

One theory making the rounds proposes that Black Widow was brought back when Professor Hulk used the Stark gauntlet, and the Black Widow movie could focus on her rescue/escape. "Who is to say that the Stones didn't restore Black Widow to life on Vormir, where she would presumably have quite a bit of explaining to do to a stony-faced Red Skull," writes The Guardian's Ben Child, who also said that Marvel should "show this underused superhero some love — even if it means cheating."

Banner may believe that his attempt to bring Black Widow back was in vain, but all we have as proof is his word. If he can stop taking selfies and dabbing for a moment, he might decide to go and check, just to make sure. There's some comic book precedent, after all. "Importantly, it's quite possible to both escape the Soulworld, and to be freed from it," as ScreenRant points out.

Black Widow: The Soulworld

If we can take Bruce Banner at his world and assume that Romanoff didn't return to the land of the living during his reverse Snap, that means the Soul Stone has indeed taken her. But where did it take her, exactly? We saw after Thanos sacrificed Gamora for the Soul Stone in Avengers: Infinity War that she ended up in the Soulworld, that orange-tinged, thus-far unexplored pocket of the MCU. That's where the Mad Titan was able to converse with a young Gamora, and that's presumably where Romanoff (or her soul, at least) now resides.

The comics tell us that escaping the Soulworld isn't impossible, and some theory crafters are now suggesting this as the premise of the Black Widow movie. "Yes, Hulk did try hard to bring her back when he snapped [in Endgame], but he couldn't," MEAWW writer Priyanka Sundar said. "That's because the people who are sacrificed cannot be resurrected again, but what if Natasha can navigate the soul realm and find a way out instead of someone else seeking a way out for her?"

TheWrap's Phil Owen proposed a similar plot line, suggesting that the Black Widow solo movie could be a "Search for Spock scenario" that would "likely involve Hawkeye and Hulk and whoever else embarking on a quest to retrieve her from the soul realm." Based on the way they both reacted to her loss in Endgame, Banner and Clint Barton would likely be heavily involved in any rescue mission.

Did Steve Rogers bargain for her life?

Another Endgame moment that could have major implications for the Black Widow movie happened offscreen. Speaking to CinemaBlend, co-director Joe Russo confirmed that when Steve Rogers returned the Soul Stone to Vormir after Thanos' defeat, he came face to face with his old nemesis. "He would have to encounter Red Skull," Russo revealed. "Nobody knows what the rules are when you return the Soul Stone."

Anthony Russo was quick to cut across his brother and add that he believes Red Skull employs a "no money back policy" when it comes to souls, seemingly to nip theories about Black Widow in the bud. That hasn't worked, however. The fact that Joe Russo said that nobody really knows what happens when you return the Soul Stone means there's an out for Black Widow should Marvel choose to use it, and this is being discussed at length on Reddit.

Yes, Rogers could have traveled back to the moment Black Widow was about to sacrifice herself and stopped her, but that would mean the Avengers never got the Soul Stone and defeated Thanos. "The only other way that it could have been returned was if Steve Rogers bargained with Death with the exchange of the soul that was offered (Black Widow)," Redditor u/RockmanMike wrote. Rogers kept a lot of things to himself when he returned as an old man — could Black Widow's resurrection be one of them? It's "possible," Guardian film journalist Ben Child believes.

Time travel changes everything

One thing that Avengers: Endgame taught us was that pretty much anything is possible through the magic (or science, as it were) of time travel. Not only can someone retrieve an item from the past, people can make that leap, too. After past Thanos becomes aware of the Avengers' plot to undo his future plans, he and his army arrive in the present day. This includes the past version of Gamora, whose fate was left unresolved by the Russos.

"We're handing the baton off to James Gunn," Joe Russo told Sirius FM (via Express). "We don't know if Gamora is alive or dead and he can do anything he wants with those storyboards." Comments from Gunn suggest the character will play a significant role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, meaning past Gamora will become part of the present timeline. Endgame co-writer Christopher Markus confirmed as much when he spoke with Variety, and in his explanation he seemingly opened a door to Black Widow returning.

"When Gamora went off that cliff, the Gamora from that time period died, but this is the Gamora from prior to that," he said. "So she's still alive, she traveled in the time machine to the present." Tony Stark is gone, but Bruce Banner is now fully aware of time travel and its mechanisms. Will he really give up on finding a way to bring a version of Romanoff back to them?

Gamora's soul replaces Black Widow's

A crucial part of the Avengers' plan in Endgame is returning the Infinity Stones to their original timelines so that they can play out unhindered by their intervention. Bruce Banner made a deal with the Ancient One when he visited a past version of the sorcerer to retrieve the Time Stone, and Steve Rogers delivered on it, returning all the Stones to their original timelines before growing old with Peggy Carter.

Because Cap returned the Soul Stone to 2014, this means that before long the events of Avengers: Infinity War will transpire. In that timeline, Thanos will sacrifice one of his so-called daughters for the Soul Stone, but what implications will that have for Romanoff, if any? If the Soul Stone accepts Gamora as its sacrifice, does that free up Black Widow's soul? Could her solo movie begin the moment Gamora is killed?

It's possible, but far from the likeliest of scenarios given that it still wouldn't return Romanoff to the present MCU timeline and therefore really wouldn't serve that much of a narrative purpose. The source material doesn't really support this theory, either. While it's not impossible to escape the Soulworld, the Soul Stone (or Soul Gem, as it's known in the comics) wants to grow its collection of souls, not give them up. But, like Black Widow said in Endgame: "I get e-mails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy anymore."

Leader of the Avengers

If Marvel has chosen to pursue a sequel and Black Widow is brought back to the present MCU timeline somehow, what then? If Endgame tells us anything about Black Widow, it's that she's a natural leader for the Avengers going forward. After Endgame's five-year time jump we discover that she's been keeping the defeated and depleted Avengers afloat, essentially becoming the stand-in leader when others are starting to question the need for their continued existence.

These early Endgame scenes have convinced some fans that Black Widow should be the one to lead the Avengers into Phase 4, TheWrap's Phil Owen included. He argues that this would be a better use of the character, as opposed to asking audiences to invest in someone they know is staying dead with a Black Widow prequel. "She is, in [Endgame], becoming the leader that the Avengers will need moving forward," Owen said. "And honestly, she's been as big a part of this franchise as any of the other Avengers, and I'd argue has been the true heart of the group for a while now."

When it comes to the prequel/sequel question, Scarlett Johansson is playing coy. When Variety asked why it took so long for a Black Widow solo movie to come to fruition, she said: "Whatever iteration you see of this character, may or may not see of this character in the future, will be the better because of it."