Here's what you need to know about Taskmaster's comic book roots and how they changed for the MCU.

By Nick Romano
July 10, 2021 at 10:30 AM EDT
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Warning: Spoilers from Black Widow are discussed in this article.

The movies (and now TV shows) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe routinely take known elements from the comics and reinterpret them in ways that make sense for this interconnected world. It wasn't a surprise the same was done for Taskmaster, a primary adversary in Black Widow (in theaters now).

It was practically expected that there would be some big twist to this masked militant chasing down Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh through the streets of Budapest, especially after the trailers claimed this figure was in control of an army of Widows who were all cycled through the same assassin training program as the Black Widow herself, Natasha Romanoff.

The name Taskmaster is known to most readers of Marvel comics, or most people who watched Saturday morning superhero cartoons, or players of the more recent Marvel games. The villain has been everywhere, but Black Widow takes the fundamental aspects of Taskmaster and reinterprets them not just literally but thematically for Natasha's first (and presumably last) solo movie outing.

The comics

Taskmaster
Cover of 'Avengers' #196.
| Credit: Marvel Comics

The man known as Taskmaster was born Anthony "Tony" Masters, and the name fit his unique set of skills. Growing up in the Bronx in New York City, he learned quickly of his mnemonic abilities. He watches a cowboy show on TV and moments later can replicate the lasso moves. He sees a man backwards dive into a pool, and Tony is able to do the same — though he nearly drowns because he didn't watch the man swim, apparently. Tony sees, Tony does. Tony masters his craft.

He could've gone the way of heroism but reasoned there were more perks to being a supervillain. Tony debuted as Taskmaster at the end of Avengers issue #195 from David Michelinie and George Perez in 1980 and became more prominent the following issue, even claiming the cover.

Sporting a hood and a skull mask, Taskmaster proved to be a formidable foe for the Ant-people — Hank Pym, Janet Van Dyne, and Scott Lang — thanks to his abilities to replicate their moves. He wasn't able to mimic a hero's superhuman powers at the time, just their physical movements. But that did come later for a short while, thanks to some experimentations.

Tony took the name Taskmaster from his days heading his own school of villainy, where he would train aspiring criminals in combat. He then later became a hired gun, working for various organizations.

Pop culture prominence

Taskmaster
Taskmaster in 'Marvel's Avengers' video game.
| Credit: Square Enix/Crystal Dynamics

Before Black Widow, Taskmaster appeared more and more across Marvel entertainment, notably in Marvel's Avengers and Marvel's Spider-Man video games.

The former actually saw Taskmaster in combat with Natasha in a very similar setting to their first run-in during the events of Black Widow. During A Day, which was a big celebration for the opening of Avengers' West Coast headquarters in the story of the game, Taskmaster and his cohorts set off a series of explosions on the Golden Gate Bridge. With Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk already occupied, Natasha finds herself on a bridge battling the man of the hour.

The fight becomes incrementally more intense. The more Taskmaster is able to watch Widow in action, the more he learns and the more difficult he becomes to subdue.

He takes on a different role in Marvel's Spider-Man as a side mission in the open-world game. On patrol in Manhattan, Peter Parker's web-slinger comes across these strange devices, some of which are bombs, some of which are obstacles — or "tasks" — designed to put him through the wringer. This is Taskmaster's way of learning how Spider-Man moves and fights. After a few of these impediments, the shadowy figure emerges to face off against Spidey, using everything he's learned about the hero against him.

Elsewhere in pop culture, actor Clancy Brown voiced Taskmaster in the animated Ultimate Spider-Man series on Disney XD. Brown returned to the role for the Avengers Assemble and Iron Man and Captain America: Heroes United cartoons.

Black Widow

Black Widow
Taskmaster in 'Black Widow.'
| Credit: Marvel Studios

The MCU's version of Taskmaster is so far different than these origins in other properties. This figure is an assassin that operates on behalf of the Red Room, the Soviets' top-secret program that takes young women and turns those who survive the training into Black Widow assassins.

We learn over the course of Black Widow that Natasha has been led to believe the Red Room and its excruciating practices were dissolved. Her final task to prove herself to S.H.I.E.L.D. way back when was to execute Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who heads the Red Room. She never confirmed the kill, assuming his body and that of Dreykov's young daughter, Antonia, were destroyed in a bombing she initiated. Natasha realizes the harsh reality of her mistake when she encounters Taskmaster, otherwise referred to as "the Taskmaster program," in the present.

Instead of Tony Masters, Taskmaster is Antonia all grown up, whom he brainwashed to serving his every command, just as he's done to all the active Widows in the Red Room. Olga Kurylenko, who previously appeared in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace and the Tom Cruise actioner Oblivion, plays Taskmaster in the film.

As Natasha is pursued by this deadly force, we see Taskmaster channeling the physical abilities of Captain America (complete with her own shield), Black Panther (with extendable metal claws on her gloves), Hawkeye (with a bow and exploding arrows), and Natasha. All these moves have been uploaded to her mind through Red Room technology.

With Taskmaster, especially in this context, comes a question of identity. The character as we've come to know can so easily adopt the attributes of others to mask his own identity. Black Widow takes this to another level. It's a film about men taking away female agency to the point where they lose themselves, even if the events of the story are pretty on the nose. (A brainwashing gas that makes women susceptible to male influence.) Antonia loses herself entirely in this person her father has forced her to become, and it's only with her death and the destruction of the Red Room that she's able to free herself.

It appears that's now it for Taskmaster in the MCU, as Black Widow is setting up the return of Pugh's Yelena in the Disney+ Hawkeye series. That and more devious plans from Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Val.

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