Marvel’s Black Widow: Let’s Talk About Taskmaster

Marvel’s Black Widow: Let’s Talk About Taskmaster
Who is the Taskmaster? (Photo: Marvel Studios)

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.

Kotaku AU Spoiler Warning

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.

Olga Kurylenko as Taskmaster. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel Studios)

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.

Comments

  • Im still angry about seeing my boy done dirty by this movie.
    Its xmen origins wolverine all over again, something i thought the MCU would never do.

    • It’s not the first time an MCU movie has significantly altered a character for the worse. The biggest example is probably Mandarin in Iron Man 3. In that case they seemed to realise how unpopular that decision was and started trying to walk it back almost immediately.

      • The Mandarin couldnt be done ‘accurately’ because of China, They did the ‘best’ they could do given the “we dont wanna eliminate millions and millions of dollars.”

        • The character couldn’t be done accurately because he’s a terrible collection of stereotypes that wouldn’t fly these days, anywhere.

          He was also a bad fit for the Iron Man films in general which focus on science and technology but thankfully it looks like the Shang Chi movie is a much better vehicle to reintroduce the character.

          • Who can even afford the comics? They have crossover and you’re up for $100+ in crappy spinoffs you’ll never continue reading and can’t get an omnibus for because they’re from different series. Looking at you Star Wars and your recent event. What the fuck.

        • I’m not so much focusing on strict accuracy, as an example of changing a character for the worse. Pretty much every character has seen some level of change when being brought to the screen: people get annoyed when they feel a character’s potential has been wasted.

          And it looks like they’re giving the Mandarin another go in a film that is probably far more concerned with the Chinese market than Iron Man 3 was. There will be differences from the comic portrayal (especially from the original 60s character design), but I doubt people will complain about it so much since he’ll likely be a three dimensional character rather than just there to serve a plot point.

          • Taskmasters potential was nuked from orbit, to see what they took from EVERY appearance hes made, to be a voiceless mind controlled robot. Man that stings as much as Barakapool.

            Changes happen alot, but getting the core of the character is something the MCU has gotten for the most part, even a character that was gender and ethnicity swapped, at least got the core correct in Dr Strange, which, once again was done because of China.
            I also didnt have a problem with Mandarin in the IM3 as much as i enjoyed him in the comics and Iron man 90’s Cartoon, i knew i was going to get that version, so the bait and switch was something i could get on board with, as well as enjoying the All Hail The King short. I would have preferred the original version of the script where it WASNT Guy Pierce being the Mandarin. But…Cant win em all.

          • @m2d2: I agree with you that it would be good to see the Taskmaster from comics on the big screen. The recent Taskmaster mini-series written by Jed McKay was great. He’s the underdog going up against people with super strength, and often beats them through skill. He’s a bit of an arsehole, and doesn’t like being used by others (although will happily do just about anything for money). None of that came through in this film, where Taskmaster was generally dominant in any fight she was part of.

            My point was that this isn’t the first time fans have complained about the MCU doing a character dirty.

  • It’s incredibly annoying seeing characters with great potential get wasted on screen, this applies for both Taskmaster & Black Widow. The film was average at best & they both deserved better.

  • For years I saw Taskmaster as a lame c-list villain who got dusted off for filler and fudge but like other villains he’s gotten a lot more development over the years in the humour and antihero comics.

    Can’t say I’m especially bothered by the change but I think the character could’ve been great in a Deadpool movie.
    (As long as he got his arse kicked by Wade doing the Macarena)

  • ” she’s this old white man’s tool”

    Would it have been better if her father was a one of the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities instead? What’s the point of stressing the fact that, surprise surprise, slavic people have pale skin.

    What exactly was the film’s racial commentary aside from further demonising the Russian people and the ethnic erasure of Americans playing Slavic characters?

  • I just couldn’t get into the film? It had the building blocks of a great movie… if it were released just after the Winter Soldier for example.

    Now, had they released it years back, then had the same credits stinger, it could’ve worked as a cliffhanger leading up to Endgame, a ‘what the hell are they talking about? Did he really do it?’ sort of situation, where you have a new mystery leading you into Endgame. As it stands, it just felt like a boring mishmash of backstory and exposition for future Disney+ shows.

    David Harbour was great, and hilarious, ScarJo, honestly, just felt like she was walking through it, she kinda felt uninspired in it like this wasn’t really testing her much (surprise, it wasn’t). But the standout for me, was Yelena, Florence Pugh, who was uniformly excellent. So the cast wasn’t the issue. It was the lack of stakes in the movie, the fact we know it was all going to work out, who would essentially live, who would die etc.

    Then Taskmaster was a complete waste, no better or worse than any of the other Widows. Meh.

    In the end, Black Widow was a waste of time film, when it damn well should’ve been up there with Winter Soldier, it should’ve knocked it out of the park. Should have. But it didn’t. Which is a real pity.

    • Well considering the Earth side is supposed to be leading up to a Thunderbolts v Avengers movie/TV show. Youre not wrong with how it ‘felt’.

  • Kurylenko got absolutely shafted with how they treated the Taskmaster character here.

    She was utterly wasted on what they could have done something great with. All the opportunity in the world to have her on the level of like a Winter Soldier type villain but they just utterly botched it.

  • Don’t forget that she has that cool helmet that makes her have the body of a man when it’s on, and return back to the body of a woman when removed.

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