Last week’s episode of Disney+ and Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, montage by montage, set the stage for a grand showdown between our titular heroes, the Flag-Smashers, and the disillusioned “new” Captain America. But, out of nowhere, “Truth” dropped in a comic book character that is certain to have fans’ heads spinning. If you want to know why yours should be, Gizmodo has you covered.
Season one, episode five puts Wyatt Russell’s John Walker through even more hell than he got last week, which is saying something considering last week saw Steve Rogers’ replacement cause a diplomatic incident by mulching a man’s face with the edge of a shield in broad daylight. Naturally, such a diplomatic incident brings with it grave consequences: after being detained by Sam and Bucky in a brutal smackdown, Walker is promptly relinquished of his status as Captain America, and near-enough court-martialled while booing crowds turn on him. Broken, defeated, and left alone save for his wife, all seems hopeless for him until the sound of clacking high-heeled boots rouses his attention. Suddenly… Julia Louis-Dreyfus is standing in front of him, and she is very interested in giving Walker the attention he craves.
Alas, this is not a Julia Louis-Dreyfus explainer, though she is pretty fabulous in her own right. We’re here for how she introduces herself to Walker, flicking what turns out to be a blank business card to his wife in the process: she’s Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Better known in the world of Marvel Comics as the current incarnation of Madame Hydra.
Valentina didn’t first appear as a villain, however. She’s been in the comics since the late ‘60s, created by Jim Steranko in Strange Tales as both one of SHIELD’s top agents and, soon enough, the paramour of the original Nick Fury. A member of Italian high society, de Fontaine was orphaned after her parents were killed aiding an anti-communist movement in her home nation. After spending a few years jet-setting, Valentina was contacted by SHIELD, and, wanting to carry on in her parents’ altruistic ideals, she agreed to enter training, quickly becoming one of the agency’s top recruits.
She’d appear intermittently in the SHIELD storylines of Strange Tales until the organisation was seemingly disbanded, and as one of the agencies’ few remaining loyal agents, Valentina was dispatched to Europe as a secret contact. Meanwhile, Fury travelled the world destroying former bases after the organisation was revealed to have been infiltrated by sinister Deltite, an Arnim Zola-controlled Life Model Decoy that worked its way into the SHIELD hierarchy and duplicated agents to subvert its operations. It wasn’t the first time Valentina would cross paths with insidious duplicators: she was one of the first people replaced by a Skrull in the run-up to the infamous Secret Invasion plotline, and the death of her duplicate was what tipped Nick Fury off to the Skrulls’ plans.
Not long after that, during the events of Secret Warriors, it was revealed that — much like it would be in the MCU years later — SHIELD had long been infiltrated by Hydra agents, Valentina among them. In the process of Hydra’s takeover, she seemingly killed Ophelia Sarkissian, the original Madame Hydra, and took her place (Sarkissian… got better, sort of, and would eventually regain her title). However, it’s revealed that she was a triple agent, having actually been a sleeper cell operative, alongside her parents, for the ex-Soviet secret agency Leviathan. Hoping to start an inter-agency war between SHIELD, Hydra, and Leviathan, Valentina was ultimately defeated by Fury and surrendered herself to Interpol. It’s only been very recently revealed in the comics that she escaped prison, joining yet another mysterious secret organisation, JANUS, in the pages of last year’s Ravencroft miniseries.
A comic book history as long and convoluted as the Contessa’s leaves her ripe for many potential ideas in Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hydra, of course, has been a major underpinning of Phase 2 of the movies, with big ties to Bucky and Sam’s storylines. If Louis-Dreyfus is indeed “Madame Hydra” of a resurgent Hydra, not only would it be ripe for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier or future Captain America-adjacent films to investigate such a plotline, she also wouldn’t actually be the MCU’s first Madame Hydra. A version of the character, more inspired by Sarkissian, appeared in Agents of SHIELD’s fourth season, where she was actually the artificial intelligence AIDA in a Life Model Decoy body (played by Mallory Jansen), operating the Framework reality where Hydra had seemingly taken over the world.
But there’s also evidence that Valentina’s presence isn’t a return to Hydra storylines. First off, the character’s brief but important role in the events of Secret Invasion in the comics could potentially be a lead into the Secret Invasion show that Marvel Studios announced at last year’s Disney Investor Day event, which will star Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Ben Mendelsohn as his Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Homecoming character, Skrull agent Talos.
But then, there’s Valentina’s secret-secret history as a Leviathan sleeper agent that’s even more tied into MCU threads old and new. Leviathan made its way to the MCU in the first season of Agent Carter, where it was revealed that one of Peggy’s close friends, Dottie Underwood, was actually a secret member of the group. At that point in history, it was plotting to steal dangerous inventions from Howard Stark’s vault. After the plan was foiled by Peggy and her comrades in the Strategic Science Reserve, we’ve not seen anything of the organisation in the MCU since… but it seems like we actually were meant to have by now.
In the wake of today’s episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson reported that Louis-Dreyfus was actually first meant to have debuted in Disney’s Black Widow film. That was of course meant to hit theatres in May 2020 before the covid-19 pandemic pushed the film back and back (and back — it’ll now debut in theatres and on Disney+ as a premiere access movie on July 9). So if Valentina and Leviathan play some role in Black Widow, whatever her plan for John Walker is meant to be in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an awful long game that we’re only just beginning to see unfold.
Whatever she ends up being will be very interesting indeed, whether or not next week’s final episode of the second Marvel series gives us more of a clue as to what she’s up to.