Red Guardian, The Communist Version of Captain America
The super-soldier serum was created during WWII in both the Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The U.S. Government planned to have an army of men with superpowers to face the great threat of the time, the Nazis.
The result of the experiments of Dr. Abraham Erskine was Steve Rogers aka Captain America. Who would be considered the prototype of the perfect, flawless, patriotic hero for decades to come.
In the MCU, the Cold War-era Soviet Union managed to replicate the super-soldier serum most efficiently. And so, the Red Guardian was born.
Let's look at the history of this Russian super soldier and his trajectory in comics and movies.
Who is Red Guardian?
The MCU presented Red Guardian in 2021's Black Widow. He was played by David Harbour (Sheriff Hopper from Stranger Things) as an aged, out-of-shape version of a great hero. More comic relief than a heroic or patriotic figure.
It is implied the Red Guardian was created to face the USA on equal terms during the Cold War (1947-1991). The chosen one was Alexei Shostakov, a soldier in the Soviet Armed Forces.
Little of his early life is shown or explained. We don't know if Shostakov was also frail and skinny like young Steve Rogers before the super-soldier serum. But he was selected from the ranks of the Soviet army, so the chances seem slim.
He received a recreated version of the super-soldier serum and became the Soviet answer to Captain America. While Rogers wore a uniform in the colors of the U.S. flag, Shostakov wore a red uniform like the flag of the USSR. Both also had their shield.
Again, the film doesn't explain much about how the Red Guardian acted during the Cold War. But it is mentioned that he participated in several dangerous missions. The Soviet people loved their hero. At some point, there were even action figures based on him.
Shostakov then met General Dreykov, a high-ranking Soviet Armed Forces officer. The Red Guardian became his right-hand man. Dreykov was responsible for creating the Black Widow Program. Yes, that evil school that turned Russian little girls into super-killers.
In the early 1990s, with the dissolution of the USSR, the Red Guardian was retired by the Soviet government.
The beginning of the Black Widow movie shows that Shostakov was recruited by Dreykov to go to the United States on an espionage mission. He stays there for years accompanied by a Black Widow, Melina Vostokoff and two young girls (and future Black Widows) pretending to be his family. It was Shostakov's last assignment for the Russian government.
Is Red Guardian in the Marvel Comics?
Yes, he is. The Red Guardian first appeared in a three-part adventure published in Avengers #43-45, between June and September of 1967.
Created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, Alexi Andreovitch Shostakov was the Soviet Army's best test pilot. The KGB then selected him to receive special training and become a masked agent called Red Guardian. Unlike his MCU version, he does not have superpowers, nor has he taken any super-soldier serum.
Red Guardian's debut adventure was written at the height of the Cold War. Because of this, he was more than just a communist villain against the Avengers. For example, Shostakov demonstrates ideals of honor and integrity when fighting Captain America at the climax.
The Red Guardian died at the end of that story. Or at least he disappeared for decades after the explosion of a military base in China. Other Russian heroes have taken on the Red Guardian costume for a while. In the 1990s, Marvel Comics published a story explaining that there was a Red Guardian even before Shostakov. The pioneer was recruited in the 1940s and during WWII. He was a Russian soldier called Aleksey Lebedev that helped the Allies against the Nazis. His origin was told in 1991's special issue Namor, the Sub-Mariner Annual #1.
Lebedev's Red Guardian had no superpowers. He was just an exemplary athlete whose above-average ability came from rigorous training. With the onset of the Cold War, he became an "enemy" and was killed by his government in the 1950s.
While Lebedev never returned to the pages of Marvel's comics, however, Shostakov received a second chance. In the 2000s, he was "resurrected" in Daredevil #64 (November 2004), nearly 40 years after his "death" in 1967. The story written by Brian Michael Bendis pits Red Guardian against Black Widow and ends with him being arrested.
In 2010, Shostakov reappeared as Ronin, that feared assassin with several incarnations in Marvel Comics. As you may remember, Clint Barton/Hawkeye was also Ronin for a while (both in comics and in MCU).
How did Red Guardian get his powers?
Does Red Guardian have super soldier serum?
In the comics, the Red Guardian was not a super-soldier. His powers were acquired thanks to intense training. But the MCU's Red Guardian is a legitimate super-soldier with powers like Captain America's. Maybe equal or superior.
As the character has appeared in a single film so far, his backstory has not yet been clarified. The million-dollar question is: what was the origin of the super-soldier serum used on him?
How did Red Guardian become super-soldier?
Perhaps the Soviet Army managed to develop its super-soldier project from scratch. Or maybe their formula was developed through blood samples taken from Bucky Barnes.
The movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier explained that Barnes was held in a Soviet prison camp after WWII. Dr. Arnim Zola used Bucky as a guinea pig, turning him into the Winter Soldier. Zola's formula most likely served as the basis to create the serum used on the Red Guardian.
Why Shostakov was the only Russian super-soldier is something that also remains to be explained. Was he the only volunteer or the only one to respond well to the formula and survive the experiment? The same happened with Isaiah Bradley in the United States, as shown in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
If there are more Russian super-soldiers besides Red Guardian, the MCU hasn't introduced them yet.
How strong is the Red Guardian?
The MCU's Red Guardian had extraordinary skills before the super-soldier serum. After the formula, his abilities were enhanced to superhuman levels. Shostakov received enhanced strength, speed, agility, and reflexes.
The Russian super-soldier also appears to have healing powers and enhanced durability. Just do the math: having been created at the beginning of the Cold War, he was supposed to look like a man aged between 70 and 80 years old right now. Isaiah Bradley looks older in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Instead, despite being a bit fat, Shostakov still looks younger. Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes' longevity was guaranteed thanks to freezing processes. It was accidental in the case of Captain America and induced in the case of the Winter Soldier (frozen by HYDRA between missions).
So maybe the formula used in Shostakov was more advanced and efficient than the others. The MCU's Red Guardian also used his own shield in his Cold War-era missions.
In contrast to the MCU, Marvel Comics' Red Guardian didn't have any superpowers. Shostakov was just a skilled athlete trained by the KGB. He didn't even use a shield in his classic 1960s version. His main weapon was a throwing disc carried on his belt buckle back then.
Red Guardian vs. Captain America
Did the Red Guardian fight Captain America in the MCU?
Red Guardian and Captain America couldn't have met in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, the Russian super-soldier was created during the Cold War, just after WWII. At the same time, Steve Rogers was already frozen in the Arctic and remained missing in action from 1945 to 2011.
However, in The Black Widow movie, there is a scene where Shostakov is reciting stories of his past to fellow inmates in a Russian prison. One of those tales is about the time he defeated Captain America. Somebody asks when it happened, and Shostakov says '1983 or 1984'. The prisoner immediately corrects him by saying that Cap was still frozen during that time.
But the producers of Black Widow considered the possibility of Chris Evans making a cameo in the film. It's unknown how exactly this would have happened.
Is Red Guardian stronger than Captain America?
It isn't easy to know who is stronger - Cap or the Russian super-soldier. However, they have similar powers and even similar shields. It would have been an even match for sure. Something like the fight between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. While they never came to blows in the movies, Red Guardian and Captain America exchanged punches in a one-on-one fight shown in Avengers #44 (1967).
For the Russian, it was an opportunity to show the USSR's superiority over its American counterpart. The two fight as equals, although the Red Guardian of the comics is not a super-soldier. Captain America even loses his shield at one point.
But their fight ends without a winner. Another villain, Colonel Ling, cheats and electrocutes the Avenger, leaving him unconscious.
At this moment, the Red Guardian reveals himself as a 'communist villain,' unlike others of the time. Enraged by the deception, he refuses to let Ling kill Captain America for good. He even states that such a worthy opponent cannot be defeated in such a dishonorable manner.
Finally, there's an alternate version of Alexi Shostakov/Red Guardian in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. He was re-imagined by Warren Ellis and Trevor Hairsine as a true psychopath with a shield made with his victims' human flesh and bone! This villain was short-lived and killed in combat by Captain America.
What is the Red Guardian shield made of?
In the MCU, the Soviet super-soldier had a shield as a weapon during his Cold War glory days. The goal, of course, was to imitate Captain America down to the last detail.
In the Black Widow movie, the character was already retired, so there's no sign of his original shield. Its material is also never mentioned. But at least Shostakov still remembers how to use it. When the Taskmaster's shield falls into his hands during the final act, he wields the weapon masterfully.
The classic Red Guardian from the comics had no shield. His more recent incarnations began to use a shield as a projectile weapon made with Vibranium.
Who did Red Guardian fight in the 80s?
The 1980s marked the worst part of the Cold War in the real world. USA and USSR keep threatening each other with nukes almost every day.
In this historical context, we can assume that the MCU's Red Guardian was used in covert missions on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But his pre-Black Widow past is still a complete mystery.
The Soviet government may indeed have sent the super-soldier against several enemies. But some of Red Guardian's exploits may be simply manufactured by the Russian propaganda machine.
And then there's that lie told by Shostakov in the movie, that he would have faced Captain America in the 1980s. Is the aging Red Guardian a pathological liar, or does he really believe he has faced somebody with a similar costume or skills?
Marvel fans have different theories trying to justify the Red Guardian story. Some argue that he may have faced Steve Rogers after he went back in time at the end of Avengers: Endgame.
Others suggest the U.S. Army may have used spies and soldiers as decoys during the Cold War. These men would act dressed as Captain America to confuse the enemy. This way, the Red Guardian just managed to defeat an enemy impersonating Cap.
And let's not forget that Doctor Strange opened the door to the infamous multiverse in Spiderman: No Way Home. Maybe there's another Captain America from an alternate universe going back in time?
Maybe the answer lies in the future of the MCU.
Who is Red Guardian to Black Widow?
Natasha Romanoff and Alexei Shostakov's relationship in the MCU is very different from their relationship in the comics.
Is Red Guardian Black Widow's dad?
In the Black Widow movie, Shostakov is presented as a father figure for the young Natasha (Scarlett Johansson). In the early 1990s, the retired Red Guardian was sent to the US on a spy mission. He was accompanied by assassins from the Black Widow Program posing as his family. Rachel Weisz played Melina Vostokoff (Shostakov's 'wife'), and Yelena Belova (Natasha's 'sister' played by Florence Pugh).
In 1995, after years on American soil, the 'family' came under the radar of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was investigating Russian sleeper agents in the United States. They were forced to flee to Cuba and from there to Russia. Betrayed by their superior, General Dreykov, the group ended up separated.
Natasha Romanova and Alexei Shostakovs's Relationship in the Marvel Comics
In Marvel Comics Chronology, the relationship between Red Guardian and Black Widow is a little more complicated. The two were married during the period she lived in the USSR. Alexei was a test pilot for the Soviet Army and she was a ballerina, years before her career as a super-assassin.
When the KGB recruited Shostakov to become Red Guardian, they told Natalia that her husband had died in a mission.
The couple's reunion took place in that adventure published in Avengers #43-45 (1967). Black Widow was part of the Avengers and discovered that her husband was alive and had become a villain. At the time, Natasha was dating Hawkeye.
There have been other traumatic reunions between them in the comics. In a graphic novel called Black Widow: The Coldest War (1990), Natasha discovers that her ex-husband is still alive. In the end, however, it's just a robot (or Life-Model Decoy) created by Russian agents.
The Black Widow and the real Shostakov would only meet again in the 2000s, in the pages of Daredevil's magazine. And a third time in the miniseries Widowmaker (2010-11). Dressed as Ronin, the ex-husband even tries to kill his former companion. These guys could certainly use some couples therapy...
Whilst in the Black Widow movie, Natasha ended up reuniting with her 'father' and the rest of the family for a while. In the comics, Natasha Romanova never resumed her marriage with Alexei. Something understandable - every time they met, one tried to kill the other!
Why was Red Guardian in jail?
The plot of the Black Widow movie takes place in 2016, before Thanos and The Blip. Natasha discovers that the Red Room Program is still creating new super-assassins. The man behind it all is General Dreykov, the guy who betrayed her family earlier.
To find out his whereabouts, Natasha and Yelena must rescue Shostakov from prison. The retired Red Guardian has spent the last few decades in the Seventh Circle, a Russian maximum-security prison. The order came from Dreykov himself, betraying his old pal.
The film shows that Shostakov retains his super-soldier powers. In one scene, he easily breaks another inmate's arm. But he also accumulates years of anger and self-pity. Covered in tattoos, Shostakov still receives letters from his fans. His 'daughters' rescue the aging hero and promote a quick family reunion just before settling the score with Dreykov.
Were there other Red Guardians in Marvel Comics?
The chronology of Marvel Comics is sometimes complex and hard to follow. Between Alexi Shostakov's "death" (in the 1967 Avengers adventure) and his official return to life (in 2004), other heroes have taken on the Red Guardian costume.
There are at least five more successors to Lebedev and Shostakov. The third one was Russian neurosurgeon Tania Belinskaya. Created by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema, the “Lady Red Guardian” made her debut in Defenders #35 (May 1976), wearing a female version of the same outfit (and even the same throwing disc!).
Unlike the men who preceded her, Tania later mutated and received superpowers involving nuclear energy. She also changed her nom de guerre to Starlight.
Other famous Red Guardians were Josef Petkus and Nikolai Krylenko, a mutant originally called Vanguard.
The legacy of the Russian Captain America
The MCU has given second chances to forgotten characters from the comic book chronology.
Alexei's Red Guardian is an amazing example. He was created as a "threat of the month" in an Avengers magazine in the 1960s. Killed off and forgotten for decades, he suddenly returned in the 2000s. In the meantime, his name and uniform have been used by other more or less popular heroes.
All things considered, the Red Guardian was never a popular Marvel character.
But in Black Widow, the MCU added humor, nostalgia, and even sensitivity to the "Russian Captain America" ("Captain USSR" doesn't sound good).
First, the cinematic Alexei Shostakov is a legitimate super-soldier, not a KGB-trained agent. More than that, he's shown as a faded relic of the defunct Soviet Union. He was rotting in prison, betrayed by his government, and forgotten by the “family” he once swore to defend.
Like Isaiah Bradley in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, David Harbour's Shostakov is a tragic hero. Ironically, both are doomed consequences of Captain America's existence.
In the comics, Red Guardian was one of the first interesting Russian characters in Marvel Comics after Black Widow herself. She was created in 1964; he, three years later. The character stood out in an unimpressive gallery of communist villains who followed all the clichés of the Cold War playbook.
The next famous Russian on Marvel Comics will appear almost ten years later: the X-Men Colossus, created in 1975.
In the following years, Marvel Comics would introduce various of Russian superheroes. For example, in the pages of Incredible Hulk #258 (April 1981), they presented the Soviet Super-Soldiers. It was a government-sponsored team considered the Russian counterpart to the Avengers. The classic lineup had Professor Phobos, Ursa Major, Darkstar, Vanguard, and one of the Crimson Dynamos. The group enjoyed some success and their own publication in the 1990s.
Later, Marvel Comics would present the Russian People's Protectorate and the Winter Guard. Both teams were formed by dissidents from the Soviet Super-Soldiers.
Red Guardian's future in the post-Black Widow MCU is still anyone's guess. Can we dream of a cameo of the Soviet super-soldier in a future Captain America 4? Maybe this time he can finally meet his American counterpart (even if it's not Steve Rogers, but Sam Wilson).
A Red Guardian return for some future cinematic mega-saga can't be ruled out either. Having a super-soldier close by always offers some advantage. Maybe he could play some part in upcoming MCU epics like Armor Wars or Secret Invasion.
And while the timing is delicate for Russian superheroes, there is always the possibility that there are more. What if... the Seventh Circle Prison is a penitentiary for other Soviet superhumans?
Black Widow showed that one of the inmates is a big guy called Ursa Major. In the comics, Ursa Major is a Russian mutant with the ability to transform into a brown bear. On his Instagram account, actor Olivier Richters confirmed that is the same character. If that's true, the MCU introduced its first mutant character and hardly anyone noticed!
So whatever the Red Guardian's future in the MCU, one thing is for sure: even if a little tight, that traditional red uniform will always fit.