The 2021 Golden Issue Award for Best First Appearance

2021 was a year of multiple giant surprises, and that theme held up with comic book movies and fantasy TV shows. The entertainment industry still had to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic — however, there were some notable debuts that didn't get pushed back to 2022 or further by the existing challenges dotting the entertainment landscape. New characters are always fun, and this year provided some new additions to the world of the screen.'s Golden Issue Awards, where our staff votes on the best movies, TV, comics, gaming, anime, and wrestling from 2021 wanted to highlight one such introduction with this year's Best First Appearance Award.

While the Marvel Comics and DC Comics universes loom large, they're not the only place that a key actor can charm an audience. There are decades of stories from many genres and indeed, 2021 saw a good mix of beloved characters make their live-action debuts. Representation also grew even more in 2021, as long-established franchises decided to take some small leaps when it came to bringing new entries to life, making 2021 a great year for new characters flourish. 

The winner of 2021's Golden Issue Award for Best First Appearance is…


Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova from Black Widow

The MCU absolutely runs off of strong characters, as some of the most memorable faces in the business have donned a cape or spandex for Marvel Studios. Black Widow introduced a ton of Scarlet Johansson's backstory as Natasha Romanoff. But Nat's long-awaited solo movie also gave us one last gift — the best character introduction to the MCU in years, as Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova is one of the clear bullseye casting decisions that the company has made as of late. As an added bonus, fans also got even more of Yelena in Hawkeye before the year came to a close.

Yelena's days as a Red Room assassin and her origins in Ohio with her sister get some time to shine in Black Widow. The theme of family beats throughout the film, but a definite high point is the interplay between Pugh and Johansson, who completely make you believe that they are sisters. By the end of the movie, the baton has been metaphorically passed to Pugh in ways that are none too subtle, but crowd-pleasing. From the jokes about posing, to her contributions to family dinner, audiences were smitten with Pugh.

In Hawkeye, it became clear that Marvel would be smart to do exactly what they did with Nat, and find ways to bring Yelena along for as many of these future adventures as possible. Pugh carries the kind of screen presence that a lot of critics said was sorely lacking from some of the post-snap MCU entries. Her interplay with fellow newcomer Hailee Steinfeld's Kate Bishop is really worth mentioning here, as a lot of people watching at home wouldn't even be mad if the entire second season of Hawkeye was just a road trip with the new Hawkeye and Black Widow.

Thus far, Phase 4 of the MCU has been obsessed with legacy and identity. Yelena differs from a lot of the new "standard bearers" in that she completely refuses that framing. Yelena doesn't even understand why he sister had to die. Being an Avengers isn't some noble calling to her, it's just the thing that separated her from Nat multiple times. Even though she didn't take out Clint Barton at the end of that series, it's clear she won't be trading one-liners with Nick Fury anytime soon either. It's a nice counterbalance — one that you can't help but hope Marvel decided to explore soon.

Luckily for Pugh, the Marvel Studios movies and TV shows take some liberties with the source material. So, she's not bound to one single interpretation of Belova moving forward. Some think she'll appear as a member of The Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers — but it's pretty clear that no matter where her character shows up next, people will be paying attention, because her performance it.

Congratulations to Pugh for her Golden Issues win!

The nominees for Best First Appearance are:

  • Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, Dune)
  • Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, Eternals)
  • King Shark (Sylvester Stallone/Steve Agee, The Suicide Squad)
  • Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)
  • Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, Black Widow) — WINNER