How Scarlett Johansson Could Stay in Marvel Universe After 'Black Widow'
“Who the hell is that guy?”
Last night Marvel Studios released a special look at the upcoming Black Widow, showing off Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) very particular set of skills against an adversary who seems to mirror her moves beat for beat. The question of who this villain is, which punctuated the end of the teaser, is likely one that general audiences share. Natasha’s bench of nemeses isn’t particularly deep, and with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Red Guardian (David Harbour), and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) looking more like allies than enemies, Cate Shortland’s film will be utilizing a character who may not have a deep personal history with Black Widow in the comics but could rock her world and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Enter the Taskmaster.
Heat Vision breakdown
Created by David Michelinie and George Perez, Taskmaster first appeared in The Avengers No. 1965 (1980). A mercenary whose only code is the job, Anthony Masters has the ability to mimic the movements and fighting skills of anyone he observes, though this ability affects his short-term memory in terms of faces, events and names. He lives and exists only for the next job and seems largely incapable of forming lasting relationships, even among those he considers friends, like his current partner, Black Ant. Masters, in his 2010 solo series, was revealed to have served as a SHIELD agent before his mercenary days. A failed mission saw him injected with a Nazi version of the super-soldier serum that further increased his natural abilities and overwrote his long-term memories, calling his very origins into question.
Possibly a mutant, though that's never confirmed, Masters used his unique skill set to observe superheroes in action and set up a training camp, Taskmaster’s Academy, for criminals looking to take on heroes or expand their criminal operations. One of Taskmaster’s Academies, whose front was a mental institution, had its resources stolen by Dr. Pernell Solomon, as detailed in Taskmaster’s first appearance. Solomon created a clone of himself he planned to use for harvesting organs. When the clone, Selbe, found out about this plot, he contacted the Avengers, which brought the team into their first conflict with Taskmaster. They defeated him with the help of the team’s new member, the android Jocasta, whose moves Taskmaster had yet to study.
Since that initial encounter, Taskmaster has floated around the Marvel Universe, appearing in Captain America, Alpha Flight, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Deadpool, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. He’s been a thorn to everyone but a nemesis to no one, and has emerged as a cult favorite among Marvel fans. Chalk it up to his cool skull mask and outlandish costume, or his abilities that make him the closest thing to DC’s Deathstroke, but there’s a surprising amount of love for the character, even if general audiences are largely in the dark about who Black Widow’s new enemy is. Taskmaster's popularity has increased over recent years, thanks in part to significant roles in the Miles Morales/Peter Parker crossover Spider-Men II (2017) by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, and the opening arc of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ current run on Captain America. Outside of comics, Taskmaster appeared in those tough (some would say annoying) side missions in Insomniac’s Spider-Man for the PS4 (2018) and has had a prominent role in the marketing for Crystal Dynamics’ upcoming Avengers video game. Across media, Marvel has been preparing us for the arrival of the Taskmaster for years now, and his prominence is only likely to increase following the release of Black Widow.
But there’s reason to doubt that it’s actually Anthony Masters behind the metallic skull in Black Widow. For one, let’s be honest, Anthony Masters is a pretty awful alias for a guy who decides to call himself Taskmaster. For two, the name has no meaning in or impact on Black Widow’s story, unlike Bucky being the Winter Soldier. There are some theories online about it being a familiar face, with some even speculating that it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), given his use of a bow and arrow in the first teaser. It’s not Hawkeye, that’s certain, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Tasky had studied Barton’s moves sometime in the past. There’s also speculation that Taskmaster will be revealed to be Weisz’s character. In the comics, Melina Vostokoff was a Russian assassin under the name of Iron Maiden. The metal mask and hood that the character wears in the comics certainly share similarities with the MCU’s depiction of Taskmaster. But there’s something about Vostokoff’s appearances in the teasers so far, and her proximity to the other central characters, that makes her pulling double duty as the masked villain unlikely, even if she isn’t to be entirely trusted. Another option that’s been discussed since casting began is O-T Fagbenle’s character Rick Mason, who hasn’t been featured in any of the footage yet. In the comics and in the film, Mason is a SHIELD agent, which certainly fits given Taskmaster’s comic book past. But Mason’s presence and possible romantic interest in Natasha in the film points more toward a red herring than a big bad reveal. No, I'm betting that behind the Taskmaster’s skull is someone else entirely, someone all too familiar.
If you look at Taskmaster’s movements at the end of that special look, there is agility there that looks reminiscent of ballet. It’s a style that’s fluid, and arguably even feminine. There’s also the matter of size, with the fact that Taskmaster seems not only to match Natasha’s movements but her size. Taskmaster’s a big guy in the comics but doesn’t appear so in this film. Johannsson is 5'3". Weisz is around that height, but Fagbenle is 6' and seemingly much too big to be the Taskmaster we’re seeing in this footage. It could be Vostokoff, but as I said earlier, it feels more complicated than that. So who is Taskmaster? A clone of Natasha Romanoff played by Johannsson herself.
In the comics, following her death in Secret Empire, Natasha Romanoff was resurrected via a clone and later given back some of the memories she’d had in her prior life. Ever since Avengers: Endgame (2019), there’s been this question of why a Black Widow movie now. Sure, there’s the guaranteed success factor, but storywise, why launch Phase 4 with a character and actor whose tenure in the MCU is seemingly over? The answer is because it’s not over, not by a long shot. Who better for Natasha to face before her death than a clone of herself, cut off from all the connections, moral decisions, and avenging that has set her apart from the assassin she used to be? What’s more is the fact that Taskmaster’s original appearance involved the creation of clones, making this role for the character in the MCU all the cleverer.
Johannsson’s time as Black Widow in the MCU may conclude with this film, with her mantle and namesake hopefully passed on to Pugh’s Yelena Belova, but if our theory is correct, then she’s just getting started as the Taskmaster.
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan