We’re almost halfway through the long nine-month Marvel Cinematic Universe breather between July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home and May 2020’s Black Widow. While Marvel Studios has given fans lots to talk about with a blockbuster, announcement-filled San Diego Comic-Con panel and subsequent D23 Expo and Disney+ events heavy on their streaming plans, the Marvel faithful have been waiting for the first real public glimpse of the next chapter in Hollywood’s longest-ever winning streak.
Fan patience was rewarded Tuesday with the first, and by the looks of things well-received, Black Widow trailer. Like our readers and all MCU fans, we’ve been watching and rewatching the two-minute teaser looking for any and all clues as to what possible secrets it holds. And after digesting the clip many times since Tuesday morning, the same two things that nagged on us the very first time we watched still aren’t sitting quite right with us.
The first is how conspicuously benign the trailer is.
That isn’t a criticism. We don’t mean it isn’t a well-edited trailer or that it doesn’t make the film look appealing. Quite the opposite. The introduction of characters like Yelena Belova, the Red Guardian, and Taskmaster and the international setting and a more grounded, espionage flavor all look like welcome additions to the MCU landscape.
But we’ve all already been led to believe Black Widow is a prequel set sometime between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War that finally gives some well overdue solo time to the character.
And the trailer doesn’t stray from that premise one iota. There isn’t much to indicate the film is anything more than a look into the past, filling in some unrevealed details about a now-beloved Natasha.
But here’s the problem with that…
Marvel Studios doesn’t do benign.
While we’ll get into this in greater detail another time, for now we’ll remind you that the MCU narrative style doesn’t really allow for one-off adventures. Marvel Studios, in increasing fashion, is all about using the past to set up surprising new revelations about the future.
Whatever Black Widow is or is not, it almost certainly won’t just be a 120-minute final tribute to Natasha/Scarlett Johansson because Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans got the bigger hero send-offs in Avengers: Endgame. It will almost certainly also seed important new parts of the future of the MCU.
The trailer tries to undersell its impact on things to come, and that makes us suspicious.
Now that impact could be Yelena/Florence Pugh picking up the Black Widow mantle and/or the Taskmaster continuing on as a significant MCU villain or anti-hero, but the trailer gives no indication of where it’s going to lead.
Or does it?
The second thing that really stood out for us was at the 0:34-0:35 second mark - the brief appearance of William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross.
Or should we say a digitally de-aged William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross…
Or should we say a really, really, really very obviously digitally de-aged William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross.
The moment sort of sits with us in the same way Nick Fury darting Ned in the neck in the first Far From Home trailer sat with us.
Something just seemed … off.
… and purposely so. And ultimately we were right about Fury/Far From Home.
In similar fashion, something just seems a little off about Ross.
Now obviously it’s only early December, Black Widow doesn’t come out for another five months, and the very superficial and conspicuous obviousness of the de-aging just might be something they improve upon further in post-production. So we might be reading too much into this.
That said, the moment is less than two seconds and his appearance doesn’t seem to do anything narratively other than indicate he’s de-aged. It seems like Marvel Studios could have made it more seamless if they wanted to. Its obviousness seems somehow purposeful.
And as we remind readers often, Marvel intentionally misleads folks like all of us in their trailers.
Recall this scene from Endgame.
Here’s a moment from the first trailer released almost exactly one year ago.
Here is how the scene really played.
The blond, shorter-haired Natasha was digitally inserted, not to mention the word “Archive” was digitally inserted into the Scott Lang-at-the-front-door video (not there in the film), both intentionally manipulated to throw fans off the scent of the failed first Thanos mission and the five-year jump so important to Endgame.
And there are other problems with a de-aged Ross, besides the curious conspicuousness of it.
For one, where does a much younger, civilian-suited Ross even fit in a Black Widow timeline? It’s established canon Natasha was recruited directly into S.H.I.E.L.D. after Hawkeye was sent to kill her and “made a different call.”
In 2008’s Incredible Hulk, less than two years before Natasha’s debut as a well-established S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Iron Man 2, Ross was a noticeably heavier, much fuller-faced-and-necked, bushier-moustached, cigar-chomping U.S. Army General, who wore his full dress uniform even while drunk in bars.
If we’re seeing a post-military/Secretary of State Ross from between Civil War and Infinity War, Hurt doesn’t need to be de-aged, at least not that much. But if we’re seeing a pre or immediately post-Incredible Hulk Ross, why is he wearing a suit and not a uniform and why does he not look more like his actual, younger self for which Marvel has plenty of reference to?
Remember, the Incredible Hulk version of Ross isn't yet the guy who says he's changed after having a heart attack on a golf course. 2008-ish Ross was a highly immoral, unethical zealot obsessed with creating living weapons by playing god with iffy scientific procedures on human guinea pigs, alienating his only daughter along the way. That Ross doesn’t seem to align with his empathetic voiceover exchange with Natasha.
And as we’ve detailed before, Hurt-as-Ross’s return to the MCU is still pending a real narrative pay-off.
William Hurt wasn’t a particularly popular character from a film that isn’t particularly popular in the MCU library. Ross’s return still seems like it’s waiting for the other shoe to fall. So much so we once speculated he could be a sleeper Skrull agent - a theory that Captain Marvel and then Far From Home mostly torpedoed.
And there is one final nagging detail about de-aged Ross.
Copyright issues prohibit us from showing you the images, but here are a set of paparazzi photos of Hurt on the Atlanta set of Black Widow, wearing the same blue shirt and tie as seen in the trailer.
The one thing he isn’t wearing in those images, however, is digital tracking dots or tape on his face. As established in set visit reports from Captain Marvel, actors who will be digitally de-aged wear the tracking dots on their face and tape to pull back areas of looser skin to aid the post-production digital artists in making the illusion realistic.
But Hurt doesn’t appear to have any dots or tape on his face.
Which makes us wonder two things:
1. Was Hurt digitally de-aged for the trailer without the aid of the tracking dots and tape, which in part would account for the very superficial appearance of the special effect?
2. If he was, will Hurt actually appear in the film as his current self and not de-aged? And if so, why would Marvel Studios try to intentionally throw us all off that track given we already know the film (mostly) takes place between Civil War and Infinity War?
Here’s our crack at it, which also accounts for Hurt’s more slicked-back Endgame-like hairstyle, somewhat different than his previous three appearances.
Could it mean that the real hidden, underlying shock of the trailer and the real less-than-benign shock of Black Widow and what it means for the future of the MCU is in fact hiding in plain sight?
Could it mean that this seeming meeting between Natasha and Ross and seemingly empathetic, forward-looking dialogue between them (“So what are you going to do?”) doesn’t occur pre-Iron Man 2 at all, as the trailer indirectly although purposely leads us to believe? Or even between Civil War and Infinity War?
Could the scene, speculatively speaking, actually take place in the present day MCU?
Now that obviously opens up a whole other can of worms … which don't worry, we’ll be addressing in short order.