Marvel Studios is currently shooting its next movie Black Widow, coming May 1, 2020, but revealed a lot of significant new information about its characters and plot at San Diego Comic Con’s Hall H. That included the introduction of David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov, better known to comic book readers as the Red Guardian. There have been 7 notable characters called the Red Guardian in mainstream Marvel Comics continuity alone, not counting all of the other versions spread across the multiverse. It makes understanding the significance of Harbour’s role in Black Widow difficult to unpack, especially for fans who focus primarily on Marvel movies. That’s why we’ve assembled everything you need to get to know about Red Guardian in a single, convenient rundown here, complete with comics recommendations and previous adaptations.
Creation & Origins
Red Guardian was created by writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema to debut in Avengers (vol. 1) #43. This version of the Red Guardian was the alter-ego of Alexei Shostakov, the same Red Guardian set to appear in Black Widow. He was introduced as a rival for Captain America, trained by and serving the Soviet Union.
Alexei’s career as an acclaimed Soviet soldier predates his time as Red Guardian. He was originally a renowned pilot who helped battle the Nazis during World War II, fighting in notable battles like Stalingrad. This led to him becoming a national hero in the wake of that war, as acclaimed in Soviet propaganda as Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space). Celebrated in public and continuing to serve in the military introduced him to the famed Russian ballerina Natalie Romanova (better known as Black Widow). The pair would be married before Alexei chose to become the USSR’s Red Guardian.
It was during the 1950s that Alexei was asked by Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to become a national icon, much like Captain America. This required Alexei to fake his death, not even revealing the secret to his wife, before undergoing intensive KGB training. As the Red Guardian, Alexei reached the peak of human performance, although he never possessed a superpowered serum like Captain America.
The role would eventually lead him into conflict with the Avengers. Working alongside a Colonel Ling, a Chinese Communist ally, Alexei helped to protect secret Chinese weapons from the Avengers. However, after he encountered Captain America and Black Widow, the former spouses recognized one another. This led Alexei to make a change of heart, revealing himself to his former wife and refusing to harm her before being shot and killed by Ling. It was only recently revealed that Alexei was still alive, operating under the alias of Ronin in Bulgaria, no longer appearing sympathetic to Black Widow or the Avengers.
There have been multiple other iterations of Red Guardian as well. Alexei is technically the second person to hold the mantle in chronological order (preceded by Aleksey Lebedev in the Golden Age). The most notable successor is Josef Petkus, the fourth Red Guardian, who led the Winter Guard and fought alongside the Avengers and Alpha Flight to protect Earth. Like almost all iterations of the Red Guardian, Petkus was eventually killed, this time battling Dire Wraiths in an attempt to resurrect a fallen comrade.
Color Him… The Red Guardian!: Avengers (vol. 1) #43-44: This pair of issues provides new readers everything essential for understanding the original Red Guardian. It comes at a peak creative period for the Avengers series, one in which new characters and concepts were being introduced with almost every story. In the course of this duology, Red Guardian is introduced, featured in multiple battles, has his origin story explained, and meets a somewhat noble end after finding closure with his former wife. It’s very likely that this serves as a source of inspiration for the upcoming Black Widow movie, hinting at both Alexei’s connection to Black Widow and his ultimate fate.
The Widow: Daredevil (vol. 2) #61-64: The original Red Guardian has remained largely forgotten in Marvel Comics since his debut, in spite of his notable marriage to Black Widow. This story provides the exception and features the iconic Daredevil run from writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev. In addition to delivering another great Daredevil and Black Widow crossover, this story suggests a more sinister version of Alexei, a plotter who could influence Harbour’s role in Black Widow.
Refuge: Captain America (vol. 1) #351-352: This introduction of the fourth Red Guardian, Josef Petkus, features a showdown between the new and old guard of Russian superheroes in a post-Cold War era. It clarifies both what the Red Guardian role means after the fall of the USSR and how that might be interpreted in the current MCU timeline set in the modern day.
Fiery Revolution: Darkstar and the Winter Guard #1-2: In addition to providing lots of information on more of the Winter Guard characters, this story also features the death of Petkus. It’s a noble end for one of the most heroic versions of Red Guardian to ever make its way into comics.
Avengers Assemble, “Secret Avengers”: This episode features a showdown between the (mostly American) Secret Avengers and the Winter Guard, Russia’s national superhero force, including Red Guardian voiced by Troy Baker. While it is not made clear which version of the Red Guardian this is, the episode does provide a great sense of the role’s general powers, leadership, and ties to other Russian superheroes.0comments
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2: Red Guardian has also appeared in the much-loved LEGO adaptations of Marvel Comics. He is not a major character in the game’s second installment, but again features alongside several other Russian superheroes, including the bear-like Ursa Major.
Black Widow: There’s no doubt that the upcoming Black Widow movie will be Red Guardian’s biggest profile boost to date, providing both a well-liked character actor and massive audience. However Harbour’s portrayal of this classic Soviet superhero plays out, there’s no doubt that there will be a lot more interest (and, most likely, comics) focused on Red Guardian in the next few years.