If you’re all caught up with the recent trailer for Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, you might have some questions. Marvel Comics faithful got an eyeful of not just Scarlett Johansson‘s title character, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff, but also her extended family of sorts in Florence Pugh‘s Yelena Belova, Rachel Weisz‘s Melina Vostokoff, and David Harbour‘s Alexei Shostakov, a.k.a. Red Guardian. But while that colorful cast of costume-changing characters clearly forms Natasha’s allies, fans out there might be more interested in just who they’re going up against.
Meet Taskmaster. The mysterious, masked mercenary stars front-and-center in the final trailer for the film, employing quite a few familiar fighting skills that should be recognizable to those of you who have been watching the MCU from the beginning. That’s by design. The Marvel Comics character–who has played hero, antihero, and villain–has the unique ability to mimic the physical movements of anyone they observe, which makes for a versatile character in the comics world. Taskmaster can not only mimic superheroes and supervillains alike, but can also train others to fight in those same styles. That’s bad news for MCU heroes who rely on their tech and training rather than superpowers to get them through a fight, because Taskmaster comes fully prepared to go toe-to-toe with the best of them.
We’ll find out more about Taskmaster, their MCU identity (we hope), and just what the Marvel mercenary is up to when Black Widow opens on May 1st. For more on the curious character, read on:
Who Is Taskmaster?
Black Widow will be an unofficial 40th anniversary of the Taskmaster character. Making a first, brief appearance in the May 1980 edition of “The Avengers” before their full debut a month/issue later, the character was created by writer David Michelinie and artist George Pérez. It would be more than 20 years before the character got their own solo limited series, followed by supporting turns in the comics for a decade or so.
Taskmaster has also popped up in other Marvel media, like a ton of video games and the animated series Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble, voiced by Clancy Brown (and briefly by Stan Lee). Two animated Marvel direct-to-video movies–Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher and Iron Man and Captain America: Heroes United–also featured the masked mercenary, though the latter movie made them a main antagonist alongside Red Skull. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Russian terrorist organization Leviathan and/or Taskmaster’s Iron Master tech from these movies made their way into the live-action MCU version in one way or another.
The traditional bio for the character tells the tale of Brooklyn-born Tony Masters, who used his abilities to become a star athlete in school before turning to a life of crime in adulthood. Rather than risk his life directly, Masters adopted the Taskmaster costume and persona in order to train aspiring criminals and polish them up into competent professionals, or at least slightly more reliable henchmen. One infamous student of Taskmaster in the past was Crossbones, a Red Skull henchman in the comics who has popped up on occasion in the MCU as a HYDRA operative. Eventually, Taskmaster became a mercenary hired out to either take out superheroes, defeat and kidnap them, or mimic them entirely, usually for nefarious purposes.
But perhaps the most interesting part of working Taskmaster into a narrative is just how versatile the character is and what storytelling opportunities arise when you pit them against any and every Marvel character, essentially tasking the heroes with battling themselves at their best.
What Are Taskmaster’s Powers?
From a young age, Masters was gifted with a sort of “photographic memory” or “photographic reflexes” that allowed him to mimic anyone he observed. That means that all he had to do was watch a TV cowboy perform rope tricks, see a pro running back score a touchdown, or witness a solo superhero battling against a squad of henchmen to be able to do the exact same things, instantly. In other storylines, the character didn’t possess this ability innately but rather injected themselves with a chemical derived from Nazi science to vastly improve their muscle memory and potential.
However Taskmaster derived their powers, what we get is a unique character who can study the best of the best and go up against them, mano a mano. Taskmaster can not only call upon a particular character’s physical skills to fight them but can also predict what they’re going to do next. And if that particular combatant happens to get wise to Taskmaster’s moves, the skilled fighter can change things up, pulling from a vast repertoire that’s been built up over the years. So whether you’re a fan of Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Panther, or others, you should be, if not a fan of Taskmaster, than at least impressed by the character’s multi-faceted abilities and fighting styles, many of which are shown off in the recent trailer.
How Does Taskmaster Factor into the MCU’s Plans?
Back in 2016, 20th Century Fox had plans to factor Taskmaster into Deadpool, but that didn’t pan out as the idea was deemed too expensive for a cameo. Flash forward a few years (and a few tens of billions of dollars with Disney’s buyout of all things Fox) and now Taskmaster appears to be the main antagonist of a major standalone picture. But how will the character factor into the story of Black Widow, Phase Four of the MCU, and beyond?
For starters, we’re told that the merc going by the callsign Taskmaster (referred to as a “Him” in the trailer, but who knows if this is misdirection or misinformation) is in charge of the “Red Room.” This long-running Soviet/Russian training and brainwashing program takes young women and turns them into super-spies (if they survive), like alumni Natasha, Yelena, and Melina. But unlike that trio (as far as we know), the new crop of fighters are essentially fully conscious puppets of the Taskmaster (and whoever hired them to track down Natasha). So they’ll have all the training of Black Widow and Taskmaster combined, making for some formidable foes.
But Taskmaster rarely acts on their own orders; there’s more often than not some big spender or megalomaniacal supervillain behind the scenes. And it’s clear that Taskmaster has either been watching Natasha for some time or that someone has, because they’re watching combat footage from Black Widow’s earliest adventures in the MCU. Could they be acting on Red Skull’s orders? Probably not, considering that this is a prequel story to Avengers: Endgame which featured some iron-clad story moments for both Red Skull and Black Widow herself. Could Taskmaster be acting on the orders of Leviathan or a resurgent HYDRA? That’s more likely; introducing Leviathan would freshen up the storytelling with the “HYDRA”-like organization and its Soviet/Russian spin, also opening up a path for new characters in the future.
There’s even the slim chance that the MCU could introduce the versatile Thunderbolts, a sort of second-tier superhero team brought in after the “death” of the mid-90s Avengers who were actually revealed to be a team of supervillains in disguise. Over the years, the Thunderbolts would go on to change memberships, leadership, and purpose, so it’s conceivable that the MCU could put their own spin on things. Granted, Taskmaster’s role on the team had to do with taking sides with the pro-Registration team during “Civil War”, and that ship has already sailed in the MCU, but the story arc remains a fertile one for reinterpretation.
One thing’s for sure: We’ll find out a lot more about Taskmaster and the future of the MCU when Phase Four kicks off with Black Widow this May 1st.