The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: The Secret History of That Surprise Cameo Character
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The penultimate episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gives Marvel fans an unexpected treat in the form of a major cameo. Seinfeld and Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes her debut as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, who is also known as Madame Hydra in the comics.
Given Contessa’s connections to other Marvel heroes like Nick Fury and the fact that such a big-name actress was cast for this brief scene, it’s probably safe to assume the series is setting up a major new storyline. To get an idea of what that might involve, let’s take a look at Contessa’s comic book roots and what could be in store for this intriguing and deadly character.
Who Is Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine?
Her name is quite a mouthful, but Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is all about making a strong first impression. She certainly left an impression on Nick Fury. Created by writer/artist Jim Steranko, Contessa made her debut way back in 1967’s Strange Tales #159. At the time, Nick Fury wasn’t yet the mastermind SHIELD director we know him as today. Instead, he was simply Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, and his globetrotting adventures were heavily inspired by the James Bond movies. And what fun is a Bond adventure without a Bond girl?
That’s basically where Contessa comes in, though describing her as “Nick Fury’s girlfriend” doesn’t begin to do her justice. She immediately wins Fury’s eye (no pun intended) with a well-placed judo throw during a sparring match, and the two have been practically inseparable ever since. As Fury works his way up the ranks, Contessa too becomes one of the agency’s most valuable assets. She’s also a member of SHIELD’s unfortunately named Femme Force, a team spearheaded by none other than Agent 13 herself, Sharon Carter. Along with former Howling Commando Dum Dum Dugan, Contessa is Fury’s most faithful ally.
Or so he thinks. It turns out there’s much more to her tragic back-story than even the Director of SHIELD could have guessed. Contessa may be wealthy, debonair and literal Italian nobility, but her childhood was anything but easy. As a girl she saw her parents executed for aiding a group of rebels. Though she claims to have joined SHIELD in order to give meaning to their deaths, in truth Contessa is a mole with ties to both Hydra and its Russian counterpart, Leviathan. Her love for Fury is genuine, but her goals don’t necessarily align with that of SHIELD or the US government.
Is Contessa a Hero or Villain?
Watching Louis-Dreyfus in action as Contessa, it can be tough to get a read on who she is and what she really wants. Why exactly is she trying to recruit the discredited former Captain America? Is John Walker being groomed to join a team of fanatical, patriotic killers? At this point we simply don’t know, but we do know that Contessa is a character who doesn’t neatly fit into the hero or villain categories.
For most of her comic book career, Contessa has been portrayed as a heroic agent of SHIELD. It was only in 2009’s Secret Warriors (a major source of inspiration for both Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter) that Fury learned the truth about the agency to which he devoted his life. SHIELD has always been a part of Hydra. At this point, Contessa reveals her true colors by claiming the mantle of Madame Hydra. But it’s not long before she betrays her Hydra allies by revealing herself to be truly aligned with Leviathan. So basically, she’s a double mole. By the end of the series, Fury manages to outwit his enemies and manipulates Hydra and Leviathan into destroying one another, leaving a defeated Contessa to rot in a German prison. But ever the romantic, Fury gives it all up to free “his girl” from a lifetime of captivity.
At this point, it’s hard to say whether Contessa will be a force for good or evil in the MCU. We don’t even know how much, if any, of her history with Nick Fury will be adapted for this universe. But as someone who suffered immense tragedy as a child, she seems to value those willing to cross moral and legal lines in order to do what needs to be done (as she sees it, anyway). That may explain the literal calling card she leaves with John Walker. One side is black and the other white, suggesting she believes good and evil are just two sides of the same coin.
Contessa’s MCU Future
Again, we surely haven’t seen the last of Louis-Dreyfus as Contessa in the MCU. In fact, we’ve already learned Contessa was originally intended to debut in the Black Widow movie. While it’s unclear whether she’s still appearing in that movie, the fact that it was ever in the cards gives us a few clues as to Contessa’s larger role in the MCU. It certainly implies a connection to the seedy, espionage-focused underground of this superhero universe. Is Contessa a part of the Red Room Program that created living weapons like Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova? Will the MCU revive the Leviathan organization with Contessa as one of its members? Leviathan already played a big part in Agent Carter, but that organization has had decades to regroup and plan its next move.
If Leviathan is coming back into play, Marvel may finally be gearing up to show us what state the espionage world is in following the collapse of SHIELD. As far as the movies would have us believe, Hydra was effectively dismantled in the year following the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Agents of SHIELD showed that wasn’t entirely the case, but it’s still unclear whether the movies will ever acknowledge the events of that series. The inclusion of the Darkhold in WandaVision may suggest neither Agents of SHIELD nor Hulu shows like Runaways are officially part of the MCU. So it’s anyone’s guess at this point whether Hydra might return. Perhaps Contessa will become Madame Hydra in the MCU, playing Hydra and the relatively young agency SWORD against one another for Leviathan’s benefit?
We may see more Leviathan/Hydra tomfoolery to come, but Contessa’s small role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suggests she’s more interested in recruiting like-minded soldiers. She’s already reached out to John Walker – a man with the powers of Captain America but a much different and more ruthless moral code. Her potential Black Widow appearance could similarly involve her recruiting someone like Yelena Belova or Taskmaster. Contessa may be building a team. And maybe, unlike the Avengers, this team is all about getting results, no matter how much collateral damage they cause along the way.
Could we be seeing the seeds of the Thunderbolts in the Marvel Universe? A Thunderbolts movie/series has been heavily rumored for a while now. That team has undergone several incarnations in the comics, including as a very Suicide Squad-esque lineup of incarcerated villains. But the original Thunderbolts were a team of villains taking on new identities to fill the power vacuum left by the missing Avengers. That team was even led by Baron Zemo. In other words, don’t be surprised if Contessa pops up again outside Zemo’s cell with a tempting offer.
Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that Contessa is one of several Marvel characters who’s kidnapped and replaced by a Skrull impostor in 2008’s Secret Invasion. With a Nick Fury-centric Secret Invasion series in the works at Disney+, it may be no coincidence that Fury’s special lady-friend has suddenly made her first MCU appearance. Whatever Contessa’s motives, we can guarantee the rabbit hole goes very deep.
What do you think is going on with Contessa in the MCU? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.