Flight. Invisibility. Super strength. All three are common answers when asked about the best comic book superpower. But Marvel’s Taskmaster — who appears in the newly released Black Widow — has one that should rank right up there. The character has the ability to mimic anything they see perfectly, which makes them a near-impossible foe for most heroes to defeat: they’re fighting themselves.
Taskmaster debuted in Marvel Comics over 40 years ago, in 1980’s Avengers #195, and in recent years has gained a boost of popularity thanks to appearances in video games like Marvel’s Avengers and Marvel’s Spider-Man. Both of those almost certainly happened because the powers that be knew the character was coming to the big screen in Black Widow. But now that Black Widow is here, it’s come as a shock just how different the new version of the character is from the original, and there are certainly deeper implications because of it.
Time to talk spoilers.
One of the big revelations in Marvel’s Black Widow is that Taskmaster — a character whose identity is hidden for 80% of the movie — is revealed to be Antonia Dreykov, played by Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Oblivion).
If we’re being honest, it probably wasn’t that big of a revelation considering Kurylenko’s famous name is in the opening credits and yet she doesn’t appear until the final act. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) believed she killed Antonia years earlier during an attempt to kill the young girl’s father, the leader of the evil Red Room played by Ray Winstone. Somehow (we’re never told how) General Dreykov and Antonia survived Natasha blowing up a building with them inside it.
In the many years since then, Dreykov brainwashed and trained his daughter into becoming his number one assassin, the Taskmaster, who can mimic the fighting styles of anyone she sees. Which, over the years, she’s done with Captain America, Black Panther, Hawkeye, and probably more. In the comics, Taskmaster was born with an eidetic memory and grew into it organically but in the film, she’s brainwashed and uses some sort of tech that’s never explained.
Based on powers alone, both the original version of Taskmaster and the film version are fairly similar — but really that’s the end of any adaptation and we don’t learn that much about her here minus what’s needed for the plot to move forward. Of course, some sexist idiots are mad that the original character, Tony Masters, is ignored in favour of Antonia Dreykov, but altering the character’s gender and directly linking her to Natasha’s past is one of the most interesting things about Black Widow.
Her very existence is all tangled up with Natasha’s overall MCU arc which dealt with bodily autonomy — something the film digs into heavily with its Red Room plot and the sisters’ individual ways of dealing with what happened to them. She also exists as a larger example of Dreykov’s need for power over women — this father subjugating his daughter to endless battles and continued trauma makes him that much more of a despicable villain. Together, that all serves to make the battles Taskmaster has with the titular hero that much more complex; killing Antonia was one of Natasha’s biggest, deepest regrets. That she now has a chance to right that wrong or make it a reality this time, is a fascinating thread to potentially pull at for the audience and the characters.
And yet, Black Widow doesn’t explore those depths too well, which becomes the biggest failing for Taskmaster. Everything about her is shoved into the massive, action-heavy third act, giving a newly freed Antonia no time to process what’s happened to her life, and giving Natasha very little time to comprehend the scope of the revelation. The whole thing feels like it’s there to shock instead of inform. Also, that Dreykov controls Taskmaster (and the rest of his Red Room Black Widows) undercuts the fundamental power of the character.
Taskmaster isn’t her own person, she’s this old white man’s tool, and though he gets his comeuppance and she gets a bit of redemption, it all feels under-serviced, especially in regards to Natasha. So much happens so fast it’s hard to believe she’s been able to process changing this fundamental personal building block of her life.
Though there have been some missteps along the way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe usually gives its villains just as much gravitas as its heroes: Loki, Thanos, Killmonger, Red Skull, etc. But Taskmaster — and to an extent, Dreykov himself — absolutely falls short of that, and it holds Black Widow back from being the top-tier Marvel movie it certainly strived to be.