Red Room - The School of Assassins That Creates Black Widows
Marvel Comics has several heroes and villains with shady pasts kept mysterious for decades. Remember, for example, a little Canadian guy with adamantium claws? Another character whose secret past is still been explored is Natasha Romanova or Natalia Romanova aka Natasha Romanoff. Yes, the beautiful red-haired Russian spy known as Black Widow.
In both comics and movies, Natasha was originally presented as an almost supporting character. Then she became popular and conquered more pages and more screen time. Eventually, she got her own magazine and movie. Black Widow also got her unknown past finally expanded. It’s a tragic and complex story related to the infamous Red Room Academy.
This article will explain some of the gaps in Black Widow's past and the role of the Red Room in her trajectory.
What is the Black Widow Program?
In the beginning, Black Widow was simply a villain-turned-heroine, and that's it. In comic books and films, she was introduced as a mysterious femme fatale who flirted with Tony Stark/Iron Man. But in both cases, Natasha also had a hidden agenda.
In Marvel Comics chronology, her debut happened in Tales of Suspense #52 (April 1964). The Black Widow was an evil Soviet spy sent to keep an eye on Stark Industries' technologies, during the Cold War times (1947-1991).
In cinemas, the character played by Scarlett Johansson debuted in Iron Man 2 (2010). At first, Natasha was a defected Russian spy who had just joined the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. She infiltrated Stark Industries following Nick Fury's orders.
Sometime later, Natasha joined the Avengers in comics and cinema. It would still take some time for both media to explain that Natasha Romanoff's past was much more complex. Black Widow wasn't simply a nom de guerre...
In the late 1990s, comic book readers finally began to discover that there was something nebulous about the beautiful spy's past..The name of this something was The Black Widow Ops Program.
It was a secret espionage training program developed by the USSR during the Cold War. But the beginning of the project date back to World War II. After all, in Marvel chronology, every country was trying to develop some kind of super-soldier at the time thanks to Captain America.
The Black Widow Program subjected young women to brutal training to turn them into elite spies/murderers known as Black Widows. Yes, “Black Widow” was a codename for secret agents, like “007” for James Bond. And Natasha wasn't the only one.
In comic books, the Black Widow Program was developed by Department X, a fictional covert Soviet agency. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the program was deactivated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even so, it was illegally maintained by General Dreykov to continue producing super-killers. This was shown in the Black Widow (2021) movie.
The young girls selected to join the program were orphans with impeccable genetics. But there were cases of “candidates” who were kidnapped or had their families executed by the Soviet government.
And this is just the beginning of the tragic part of Natasha’s past. Steve Rogers and his super-soldiers pals only needed to take a formula to become Captain America, and so on. But the girls selected for the Black Widow Program had no choice and were subjected to an inhuman training process for the rest of their childhood/adolescence.
This happened in the so-called Red Room Academy.
The Red Room Academy
The Red Room was the espionage training facility used to turn girls into Black Widows. It appeared both in comic books and in the MCU. Despite Natasha Romanoff's origins dating back to 1964 (in the comics) and 2010 (in the movies), the Red Room was presented years later.
In the comics, the first reference to the academy appeared more than three decades later, only in 1999! In the movies, fortunately, it didn't take 35 years. The first flashbacks showing Natasha’s past appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
The Red Room was finally shown in her solo adventure, Black Widow (2021). Between both films, an episode of the TV show Agent Carter (2015) explained the first Soviet experiments with the program in the late 1930s.
To get an idea of how terrible this "school of murderers" was, try to imagine what the daily routine of these orphan girls was like. First of all, they were prisioners of the Soviet government. In addition to not having anything like a family or parental love, they were also deprived of the ability to play and act like children. Instead, they were exposed to a routine of hand-to-hand combat training, acrobatics, weapons usage, and tactical skills.
After “graduating,” they received the codename Black Widow and were sent to their respective missions. That way, without ever having any freedom to live their own lives.
In Marvel Comics chronology, the program was developed by Prof. Grigor Pchelintsov. It includes brainwashing to subjugate the will of the girls. Also in the comic books, the Black Widow Program involved implanting false memories. All the girls received fabricated past showing a career dancing ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre.
In the MCU, the little spies received psychological conditioning in the beginning, as in the comics. But later, in the 2000s, the program received an upgrade and the candidates became chemically mind-controlled by the evil Dreykov.
Differences Between the Red Rooms of the Comics and the MCU
The way Red Room Academy was presented in both media is quite different.
In the comics, a group of 28 young girls underwent training at the school during the Cold War. After graduation, each was sent to a different country as sleeper agents. What happened to Natasha's 27 classmates has yet to be fully explained.
But the Red Room never became a full-scale factory for spies/assassins. Although the program continued through the 1970-1980s, it was dismantled with the end of the Cold War. Or at least so it seemed. When she first meets Natasha in a late 1990s story, the “second Black Widow” Yelena Belova says the Red Room is still active.
That's when things started to get complicated. In the 2000s, a corporation called Gynacon bought the Russian technology used in the Red Room. They started to hunt down and exterminate the remaining Black Widows because the corporation wanted to be the sole owner of that technology. And Natasha finally understood how most of her past was just false, implanted memories. All this happened in an amazing story arc published between 2004-2005.
In the MCU, the spy-creation program was even more brutal. The girls were forced to fight each other and even kill the defeated opponent. Several generations underwent training in the Red Room, and only a few survived to become Black Widows.
Both in comics and MCU, graduates of the program were given a “pheromonal block” to stop them from harming their superiors. And in both media, the young girls underwent a forced hysterectomy, loosing their ability to bear children. As someone says in the comics, "We want warriors, not mothers."
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the MCU's Red Room was turned into a mobile sky fortress. Dreykov will constantly change locations to avoid his enemies (including Natasha). This was shown in the movie Black Widow. Former students Natasha and Yelena then break into the place and kill Dreykov, destroying his evil academy.
The movie shows that Dreykov kept forming dozens, perhaps hundreds of new Black Widows, all of them mind-controlled slaves. At the end of the film, the survivors are freed from the villain's control and can finally live their own lives. Will they continue to work as freelance spies and assassins? Time will tell.
Why are the Red Room Alumni All Female?
In both comic books and MCU, the Black Widow Ops Program has always been exclusively for girls.
In the comics, Department X was also developing the Winter Soldier Program at the same time. One of the subjects was Bucky Barnes, Captain America's childhood friend. Imprisoned during WWII, he spent years acting as a Winter Soldier for the USSR.
During the Cold War, Barnes also served as a combat instructor for the Black Widow Program. He was one of Natasha's instructors at the Red Room and the two also had a brief romantic relationship. This only happened in the comics, in Captain America #624 (2011).
In the same year, there's a story written by Ed Brubaker – and published in Captain America #617 – revealing that the Soviets tried to create a male counterpart to the Black Widows in the 1960s. It was the Wolf Spider Ops Program, this time exclusively for boys.
A single male trainee, named Niko Constantin, emerged from the program. But it was an unsuccessful experiment. Niko turned out to be the perfect assassin, but impossible to control (unlike the Black Widows). The program was declared a failure and shutted down. The one and only Wolf Spider spent decades imprisoned in a Russian gulag.
Are the Black Widows super-soldiers?
Not exactly, but the answer to this question requires going back a little bit.
As the Black Widow has been around since the late 1920s in comic book chronology, how is it possible that she doesn't look like a granny right now?
Recent adventures have shown that the Black Widow Program candidates also received biochemical enhancements. A special formula allowed them to remain young for decades. This treatment was created by biochemist Dr. Kudrin. It was very similar to Captain America's super-soldier serum. The formula enhances the girls' immune system, bodily condition, and longevity, thus explaining the eternal youth of Natasha.
In the MCU, no super-soldier serum or similar formulas were administered – or at least nothing has been mentioned so far. Natasha and Yelena are "just" normal human beings trained to the peak of their physical abilities.
Natasha's death in Avengers: Endgame proves that she had no supernatural powers.
Black Widow Powers and Abilities
When she first appeared in Marvel Comics, Black Widow didn't have exotic gear or powers as fantastic as those it has demonstrated throughout her career. In the beginning, her only gadget was a pair of bracelets and a very, very tacky outfit.
Oh, and the first version of the bracelets just shoot a retractable grappling hook and cable that she used for rooftop gliding or climbing – reminiscent of a spider's web, which justifies her nom de guerre.
Natasha underwent a radical change in attitude, wardrobe, and powers in Amazing Spider-Man #86 (1970). At that point, she took inspiration from the friendly neighborhood to develop a new identity as a heroine after leaving the Avengers.
That's when she started to wear the traditional black uniform and her bracelets with the iconic Widow's Bites – energy blasts with different voltages that can stun or kill the opponent.
Later in the comics, and early on in the movies, it’s explained that these bracelets have been part of the Black Widows' outfit since they graduated. And in the MCU they also carry a new piece of equipment: taser batons used as weapons during hand-to-hand combat.
In both media, all the Black Widows are also masters in the use of firearms and explosives (all kinds), experts in disguise, and skilled fighters of several martial arts.
Such abilities ensured that Natasha survived hand-to-hand or armed combats with the Winter Soldier and the invading Chitauri aliens (in the MCU) and even dangerous assassins like Elektra and Punisher in the comics.
The fact that the Black Widow of the films doesn't have any kind of chemically enhanced abilities, like her counterpart in the comic books, makes her cinematic trajectory even more incredible. After all, Natasha will always be the woman without superpowers of the Avengers – side by side with super-soldiers and even Norse gods!
Famous Red Room Alumni
Let's take a look at some of Red Room Academy's most famous graduates, both in the MCU and in the comic books.
According to her revised retconned origin in the comic books, Natasha Romanoff was raised from very early childhood to become a spy and assassin. She was brainwashed and trained in combat and espionage, in addition to receiving a formula that explains her eternal youth. Natasha left the KGB to join the Avengers and then went on to work first for S.H.I.E.L.D., then as a freelancer. She is the most famous of the Black Widows, both in the comics and in the movies (where she died in Avengers: Endgame).
Yelena has a different background in comic books and the MCU. In the comics, she was admitted to the Red Room at age 15. There she trained for a decade as a replacement for Natasha, who by this point had left Russia for the US. Initially, Yelena tried to kill Natasha in 1999 to inherit her official Black Widow title. They eventually made up and went on to fight on the same side. In the film, Yelena and Natasha were colleagues sent to the United States in the 1990s. They pretend to be sisters and respect each other, even when they end up fighting each other. In the comics, the younger Black Widow claimed to outperform Natasha’s grades in the Red Room.
This is a character created for the MCU. She appeared on the TV show Agent Carter. Dorothy "Dottie" Underwood was a girl trained by the USSR even before the Black Widow Program. Her training took place in the 1930s, making Dottie, at least chronologically, the first Black Widow ever. In the 1940s, during World War II, she was sent to the United States as a spy. Dottie is introduced as a cold-blooded young woman who was forced to kill her best friend during training.
Antonia Dreykov (Taskmaster)
Another original MCU character, although the Taskmaster exists in the comics with another origin/identity. In the movie Black Widow, Antonia is the daughter of General Dreykov, the creator of the Red Room. She was the innocent victim of a bomb attack set up by Natasha to try to kill her father. The impact of the explosion left the girl badly burned. Dreykov used her as a guinea pig for the creation of Taskmaster – a sort of Black Widow 2.0. Through extensive experimental enhancements, Antonia received the power to copy the fighting skills of any rival. She was released from her condition at the end of the film, but her future in the MCU is uncertain.
In the comics, Melina was introduced in 1983 as a Russian agent who intended to replace Natasha (come on, guys, again?). She uses the nickname Iron Maiden because of her outfit of choice: yes, a metallic armor. In the movie Black Widow, Melina is a veteran of the program sent to the US as a sleeper agent in the 1990s. She completes the cover of Red Guardian / Alexei Shostakov played by David Harbour, posing as his wife and mother of the young Widows Natasha and Yelena. Also in the film, it’s revealed that Melina was responsible for creating the controlling mechanism used by Dreykov in the new Black Widows.
Best Comics to Read More About the Red Room
If you were left with more doubts after the movie Black Widow, you can find some answers in the comic books. As the Red Room was only recently introduced, the topic is still fairly new and there's no need to look for magazines from half a century ago. Here's a good place to start:
Marvel Knights: Black Widow (1999)
This 3-part miniseries features the first mention of the Red Room and the first official adventure with the second Black Widow, Yelena Belova (who in the same year was briefly introduced in Inhumans #5). The plot shows Natasha being sent by the Russian and American governments to retrieve a dangerous chemical weapon. At the same time, Yelena wants to take Natasha’s place as the greatest Russian spy ever. So you can bet the two Widows will fight before settling their differences. Yelena is the first person to mention that they both attended the Red Room Academy.
Black Widow: Pale Little Spider (2002)
In 2001, Marvel began publishing graphic novels on a new label called MAX, aimed at adult readers and with lots of sex and violence. One of the titles was a 3-part miniseries starring Yelena Belova. The story is a prequel to the one mentioned above, showing Belova’s training days at the Red Room. When her favorite instructor is murdered (at a bondage club!), the new Widow decides to go undercover to investigate. The end of the story shows how far Red Room instructors can go to psychologically manipulate their students.
Black Widow #1-6 (2004-2005)
This story arc published in Black Widow's solo magazine brought many of the answers fans have been waiting for. This is also the adventure that served as the main inspiration for the film: there’s a new, improved Red Room (renamed “2R”) and even the pheromone that inhibits Black Widows from attacking their superiors. The story is particularly tragic because that's when Natasha finally discovers that her entire past is a lie – including her career as a ballerina. The art is signed by legendary artist Bill Sienkiewicz.
Black Widow: Deadly Origin (2010)
In the same year that Iron Man 2 hit theaters, this 4-part miniseries attempted to introduce Black Widow's complicated past to a new generation of fans. It’s another retcon that explains Natasha's childhood and youth – or maybe is just another false version of her past. One of the bizarre pieces of information revealed is the fact that Natasha lost her parents at age 10 and in… 1928! So, if she hadn't received that Red Room's rejuvenating formula, Black Widow would be 100 years old right now and fighting with a cane!