Black Widow: What is the Red Room in Marvel Comics?

Marvel’s Black Widow movie is now streaming following its limited Disney Plus release and theatrical run earlier this year, and the film is taking viewers into the Red Room – the secret training facility where Natasha Romanoff was trained to be the world’s greatest assassin.

still from Black Widow

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

The Red Room was glimpsed briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron (opens in new tab), and it played a minor role in Captain America: Civil War (opens in new tab), but the MCU version of the concept is, true to its nature, much more mysterious than even Black Widow’s trailers previously led on.

The Black Widow movie takes a dive deep into the lore of the MCU Red Room, with Yelena Belova, Melina Vostokoff, and Red Guardian all associated with it. But its Marvel Comics history goes even deeper, so we’re de-classifying our Cold War files and digging into the history of the Red Room in Marvel Comics.

What is the Red Room?

image of The Red Room

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

In Marvel Comics, the Red Room is a program designed by the fictional USSR super-science division Department X (not too dissimilar to the Department H and Weapon Plus programs associated with Captain America and Wolverine in Marvel Comics’ Canada and the United States) which was originally meant to train and cultivate the world’s greatest female super-spy and assassin.

Let’s just say they succeeded – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Starting at the beginning, the Red Room was created following Department X’s first creation of a Soviet super-spy and assassin, the Winter Soldier program. It was Department X that plucked Bucky’s seemingly lifeless body from the ocean after he and Captain America were apparently killed disarming an experimental rocket. And it was Department X that rebuilt and reprogrammed him into the Winter Soldier – the only one of his kind, in comics.

The techniques that allowed the Soviet scientists to mindwipe and brainwash Bucky were soon developed into a program designed to train young girls to become adult spies and assassins, while also imprinting false memories of fake lives in their minds – that of ballerinas for Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theatre ballet company.

The Red Room also plied its subjects with a version of the Infinity Formula, an experimental longevity drug that allows those who receive it to remain youthful for decades. This is why, in comic books, Nick Fury and Black Widow (among others) have histories that go back to World War II despite remaining youthful and vigorous in the present day.

image of The Red Room

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

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Undoubtedly, the Red Room’s most famous graduate is Natasha Romanova, who was selected from numerous candidates in the program to become the Black Widow, the USSR’s premier female operative – and that perfect agent we mentioned earlier.

Like the others, Natasha received the fake backstory and memories of a career as a ballet dancer. She was also placed in an arranged marriage with famous Soviet pilot Alexei Shotokov, himself the future Red Guardian.

Alongside the Red Room, Department X attempted a similar program to create a male super-spy, dubbed the Wolf Spider program. However, the program’s only graduate, a man named Niko Constantin, went rogue and became an enemy of the Black Widow, leading to the end of the Wolf Spider initiative.

As such, Black Widow often teamed up with Winter Soldier during the Cold War, with the pair developing a strained romance while working together. Black Widow also worked alongside the American archer Hawkeye, whom she attempted to subvert to the Soviet cause (this story was initially told in the ’60s when defection to the USSR was a going concern for America), though their relationship eventually led to Natasha defecting to the United States herself, eventually becoming an Avenger alongside Hawkeye.

When Natasha defected, the Red Room program began training a new Black Widow to operate as a Soviet agent, resulting in Yelena Belova taking on the mantle (though she didn’t initially receive the Infinity Formula that Natasha was dosed with). Yelena worked for the USSR for some time, but she too defected and became something of a free agent.

However, Yelena was cloned by Department X, with many of her duplicates also put into the Red Room program – something they secretly did with Natasha as well. When Natasha died and her clone was activated with her knowledge and memories, it set her on a path to destroy all the Red Room clones, apparently ending Yelena’s life in the process – though she’s returned from death and had clones appear more than once before and since.

The Red Room in the MCU – spoilers ahead for Black Widow

still from Black Widow

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

The MCU version of the Red Room has a somewhat different history from its comic book counterpart, though things start out somewhat the same with the facility serving as a place where young girls are trained to be the best spies and assassins in the world.

Unlike in comic books though, the MCU Red Room underwent a serious evolution after Natasha Romanoff destroyed the program the first time, being rebuilt as a kind of Helicarrier type facility that flies and moves around, hiding its location even from its agents.

Though the MCU Natasha Romanov is not an ageless Infinity Formula recipient with a career going back to WWII, she does seem to share some of her comic book counterpart’s history as a ballerina, though in the MCU it appears these are actual memories of Red Room training methods for young women, rather than a falsely implanted backstory. And the MCU has also established that Natasha underwent medical experiments as part of her training and subversion as a spy and assassin.

We also know that at the same time the Soviet government was running the Red Room program, Hydra was attempting to create their own super soldiers to be led by Bucky. But the subjects were unruly and uncontrollable thanks in part to the unstable Super-Soldier formula they received, which was stolen from Howard Stark in the theft that also led to his murder at Bucky’s hands. The subjects’ inability to be trained led to them being put in cryo-freeze by Hydra until they were all tracked down and apparently killed in stasis by Baron Zemo decades later.

Now, in the Black Widow movie, the Red Room is brought directly into focus as Natasha’s MCU backstory is fully explored for the first time – including reuniting with the MCU versions of Yelena Belova and Red Guardian (who is more of a father figure in the MCU, rather than her ex-husband as in comics), as well as Melina Vostokoff, all of whom have connections to the Red Room.

image of The Red Room

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

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Yelena, like Natasha, is a subject and graduate of the Red Room program, while Melina is their predecessor as one of Russia’s female super-agents who still has connections to the Red Room. Meanwhile, Red Guardian was something of a mentor and father figure for Natasha in her younger days.

Furthermore, in the MCU, Taskmaster is the main trainer and field operative of the Red Room, and her father (yes, her father) General Dreykov is actively brainwashing and mind-controlling the program’s subjects along with Taskmaster herself.

Unlike in comic books, Bucky and Black Widow don’t share a direct connection as much as a thematic one. In both movies and comics, the success of the Winter Soldier program inspires Winter Soldier’s creators to create more super-spy programs. But in the MCU, Winter Soldier is an agent of Hydra, who in fact is often in direct competition with Russian agents. This is why, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (opens in new tab), Black Widow has some hinting knowledge of who and what Bucky is, but doesn’t have the same history with him.

With Yelena, Melina, Taskmaster, and Red Guardian all surviving Black Widow while Natasha goes on to die in Avengers: Endgame, whatever comes next for the saga of Black Widow in the MCU, the Red Room and its participants are sure to be a key part of how the tale unfolds.

The Red Room is a key plot point in some of the best Black Widow comics ever.

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