First appearing in 1967’s Avengers #43, Alexei Shostakov, better known as The Red Guardian, was created to be The Soviet Union’s equivalent to Captain America. While consistently presented operating as a beloved hero to his people, he has also been portrayed as a villainous antagonist to Western heroes such as The Avengers.

Confirmed to be making his on-screen, live-action debut portrayed by David Harbour in the MCU’s upcoming Black Widow, it remains to be seen how exactly Shostakov will be portrayed on film. As a character who has existed since the early years of modern Marvel Comics, The Red Guardian has a long and complicated history to pull from.

10 Winter Soldier Connection

As revealed in Captain America vol. 5, Alexei Shostakov was orphaned as a teen when his parents were killed during a Nazi campaign in Russia during World War II. Following the death of his parents, a young Alexei was taken in by high-ranking Soviet officer Vasily Karpov, who after the war would become the head of the KGB’s secret, super-soldier development program, Department X.

Around the same time that Alexei was being trained under Karpov and the KGB to become the future Red Guardian, Department X was initiating the mental conditioning that would turn Captain America’s former sidekick, Bucky Barnes, into the deadly Winter Soldier, an operation also overseen by Alexei’s surrogate father.

9 Expert Pilot

In the latter days of WWII, young Alexei, immediately after reaching adulthood, would enroll in the Soviet military. There, he proved to possess an uncanny aerial aptitude, quickly becoming one of Russia’s most decorated combat pilots.

Because of this ability, after the war, Alexei was selected to test pilot some of the USSR’s most experimental and potentially dangerous aircraft. His subsequent fame and decorated combat career stretching into the early days of the Korean War would eventually lead to his selection when Soviet President Khrushchev was determined to create his own counterpart to Captain America.

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8 Not A Super-Soldier

Despite being trained and equipped to operate as the Soviet Union’s version of Captain America, Shostakov was never given any form of the Super Soldier Serum, as the Russians had not successfully obtained either the American or Nazi versions of the formula existing at the time.

Instead, Alexei was conditioned to peak human performance by the KGB, building upon his perfect vision, above-average reflexes, and the natural aptitude towards spatial awareness that he had already displayed during his career as a pilot. After mastering multiple fighting styles from throughout the world, Shostakov would become the closest possible approximation to the American hero, without ever being exposed to the legendary performance-enhancing substance that empowers his inspiration.

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7 Fought Captain America And Lost

While the timeline of the MCU makes it unlikely that their version of Alexei Shostakov would have had any previous contact with Steve Rogers, his comic book counterpart most certainly has. In fact, Shostakov’s very first published comic book appearance brought him into direct conflict with the Avengers, and their leader, Captain America.

Excited by the long-awaited opportunity to defeat his counterpart in combat, Alexei as The Red Guardian engaged Steve Rogers one-on-one during this original mission. Bested by his American equivalent, Alexei would subsequently turn against his communist partners, sacrificing himself to save the heroes when his associates attempted to dispatch them via predictably villainous underhanded means.

6 Ronin

Years after he was thought deceased following his initial encounter with Captain America and The Avengers, Alexei Shostakov returned, revealed alive and in perfect health in 2010’s Widowmaker mini-series. Having abandoned his original role as The Red Guardian, Shostakov was now operating as the newest version of Ronin, an identity that had been previously used by the Avenger Hawkeye, amongst others.

As Ronin, Shostakov eschewed any semblance of his former inherent heroism, becoming the leader of the organized crime organization The Dark Ocean Society, and embarking upon a complicated plot to destroy the Avengers who he believed had left him for dead in the past.

5 Centenarian

While the sliding timeline of Marvel’s comic book universe often makes determining any character’s exact age nearly impossible and subject to change, Alexei Shostakov’s confirmed history allows for some assumptions to be made.

Considering his established history as an adolescent orphan turned fighter pilot during the final stages of WWII, it can be inferred that Shostakov was at least 18 years old around 1944/45. This lines up with his depiction as a man in his early to mid-20s during Russia’s involvement in the Korean War, which began in 1950. With this timeframe established as canon, it can be assumed that Shostakov today must be close to 100 years old, just slightly younger than Captain America himself. While the catalyst for his ability to maintain this youth has yet to be revealed, Alexei’s close ties to the Winter Soldier project, which notably extended the lifespan of captured American WWII operative Bucky Barnes, leaves multiple possible explanations on the table.

4 The Winter Guard

In modern Marvel Comics, The Winter Guard is well known as a Russian pastiche of The Avengers, often led by their own Captain America counterpart, The Red Guardian. Despite this obvious connection, and being portrayed as their leader in various ancillary media including animated series, Alexei Shostakov in the comics has actually never been associated with the team. Instead, the first incarnation of the comic books’ version of The Winter Guard was led by Josef Petkus, a Russian soldier who was given the legacy identity of Red Guardian years after Shostakov’s presumed death in combat.

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As “Russia’s Avengers,” The Winter Guard has boasted membership from notable Marvel heroes such as the former Champions founder Darkstar, frequent Iron Man rival The Crimson Dynamo, and Ursa Major, the team’s personal Hulk counterpart who instead of transforming into a gamma-irradiated behemoth, becomes a nine-foot-tall, two-ton, monstrous grizzly bear.

3 Not The First

While he was the first depicted bearer of The Red Guardian identity in the comics, future retcons would establish that Alexei Shostakov was not, in fact, the Soviet Union’s first actual wielder of the Red Guardian mantel.

As revealed in the 1991 Namor Annual, this distinction instead belongs to Aleksey Lebedev, a Russian soldier inspired by Captain America who fought alongside Rogers and the allied heroes, The Invaders, during World War II. Lebedev would, unfortunately, later be executed during the Soviet Purges of the 1950s, when he publically opposed the methods being used by the Russian military to eventually create his successor as the Red Guardian, Shostakov.

2 Not The Last

Just as it has been revealed that there has been at least one Red Guardian prior to Shostakov, there have additionally been many to wield the identity after him. As an iconic and patriotic moniker, the existence of The Red Guardian amongst Russia’s nationalized heroes is an important role and has subsequently been filled by at least five other operatives following Shostakov and Lebedev’s tenures.

This includes Dr. Tania Belinsky, a neurosurgeon who would later join The Defenders, and Nikolai Krylenko, the current Red Guardian and brother of founding Champions member and Winter Guard agent Laynia Petrovna, the hero better known as Darkstar.

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1 Widow’s Husband

In a climactic moment during his initial encounter with The Avengers, The Red Guardian would remove his mask, revealing his identity as Alexei Shostakov, who Natasha Romanoff, The Avengers’ Black Widow, immediately recognized as her long lost husband. Revealed in flashback as this adventure unfolded, Alexei’s fame as the greatest pilot in Russia led to a greatly idolized and celebrated public persona between missions, where he established himself amongst the country’s elite citizens and eventually married the equally famous ballerina Natasha.

When he was selected to become The Red Guardian, the KGB faked Alexei’s death as a test flight gone wrong, subsequently forbidding him from any contact with his past associates as his training began. Distraught and looking for a way to honor the heroic legacy of her “late husband,” Natasha would then go on to join the KGB herself, where she was recruited into the fledgling Red Room program that eventually turned her into the super-spy and future Avenger, Black Widow.

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