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Black Widow Villain Taskmaster Is Trending For All the Wrong Reasons

The villain Taskmaster's mask in 'Black Widow'

Black Widow has somewhat divided critics and audiences, with most seeming to agree that it’s a solid movie that might have benefited from being released ten years ago. But one point that is uniting many online is upset over how the villain Taskmaster is handled. The character has trended on Twitter all day, with thousands of Tweets and much debate.

***Major, major spoilers for Black Widow ahead***

There are several factions in the anti-Taskmaster sentiments making the rounds on social media. First, there are your comics die-hards who dislike the fact that Taskmaster is no longer the comics character Tony Masters. Within that group and the wider Internet, there are also people annoyed that Taskmaster is revealed to be a woman. And she’s not a gender-bent version of Masters (as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier turned Flag Smasher Karl Morgenthau into Karli)—instead, she’s a brand new character unrelated to most of the previous Taskmaster lore.

But the criticisms of Taskmaster as a character are hardly all sexist in nature or limited to dedicated comics fans. Judging by the reactions on social media, many feel that Taskmaster was underused and wasted in Black Widow, an analysis that I agree with entirely. The curse of the weak Marvel movie villain strikes again. Malekith wept.

I’ve felt guilty about the fact that I didn’t love Black Widow. It was a watchable movie with some great moments and some not-so-great moments. I wasn’t bored! But as the first Marvel movie to have a solo female director and only the second to star a woman in the lead role, I really wanted this one knocked out of the park.

My issues weren’t with Cate Shortland’s direction—which pulled off some truly wild action sequences—or the actors, who all bring their A-game. Rather, I found the script to be lacking, lagging in some places, too rushed in others, given to overblown speechifying, and the humor many seem to enjoy mostly fell flat for me.

Screenwriter Eric Pearson wrote one of my favorite movies, Thor: Ragnarok, but the cheeky, colorful, bombastic nature of that film is quite different from what they were trying to do with Black Widow. And unfortunately the female villain in Ragnarok—the MCU’s first—left much to be desired as well. I respect Pearson as a writer, but I’m curious why he was the choice for this project, with WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer receiving a story credit and not one for screenwriting.

Taskmaster feels like a wasted character because that’s how she’s written and developed. She’s also an almost entirely silent being, a programmed human automaton sent on missions a la The Winter Soldier. You could argue that this silence was in order to preserve the “twist” of her identity reveal, but it would have been easy enough to give the suit a voice modification device. She’s also often sidelined, presented as an occasional obstacle to be fought by Natasha, Yelena, & Co. and then otherwise forgotten. She never really feels like a threat or a villain to be feared.

Even Natasha doesn’t seem that curious as to how and why Taskmaster can fight in the styles of her friends Captain America, Black Panther, and Hawkeye, to name a few, an awesome element of this character that is treated almost as window dressing rather than a deadly foe.

The big Taskmaster reveal in Black Widow is that the person inside the suit is the evil Colonel Dreykov’s daughter. Natasha had thought her killed as a child in Budapest, collateral damage for what Nat saw as the greater good of bringing down Dreykov. But Dreykov is still alive, chewing up all the scenery in the Red Room, and he’s turned his badly injured daughter into a brainwashed killing machine. One could argue that Dreykov is the true villain of the piece—he is—but he’s also only part of the film for a scant amount of time, so it’s not as though he is shown to be a well-developed character either.

On paper, I guess Taskmaster’s identity seems like an intriguing reveal. Black Widow gets a female antagonist out of Nat’s past, and it’s not anyone in her “family.” At that point in the movie, however, there’s no one else that Taskmaster could be that would surprise us or pack an emotional punch. So I had already divined this twist, and then from there on out everything becomes even more absurd where Taskmaster is concerned.

A big problem here is that Marvel has already done the “brainwashed killing machine” villain, and they did it with a whole lot of earned emotional resonance. We first met and came to care about Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger, and so we can grieve and feel conflicted along with Steve Rogers when he discovers that his best friend is the bad guy in The Winter Soldier. Subsequent movies and series dealt with Bucky’s guilt, struggles with his identity, and Steve’s unwavering faith in him.

Taskmaster and Natasha really have no history beyond the fact that Natasha thought she’d killed her and felt kinda bad about it. She didn’t even “kill” her during her “red ledger” years, but on a mission of redemption thereafter. We’re then supposed to see Natasha’s humanity when she releases Taskmaster from her cell in the crashing Red Room, but that was one of the many moments in Black Widow I actually threw my hands into the air and mouthed, “Come on!”

Then Taskmaster is magically (or I guess scientifically) reprogrammed back to “normal” at the end thanks to the anti-brainwashing serum or whatever that was. I actually found this decision disappointing as well: it would’ve been more interesting if Taskmaster didn’t just revert back and had more of a mind of her own in this whole thing. She could have chosen herself to become a powerful fighter after what Natasha and Clint did to her. It didn’t need to be all her father’s decision-making and nefarious string-pulling.

Of course, some folks enjoyed Taskmaster in the movie and her reveal. You might too!

And some are having fun about the whole “comics accuracy” debate.

I felt that Marvel did better character development with Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost (another of their few female antagonists) in Ant-Man and the Wasp, who begins as a villain but then decides she’s done being manipulated and emerges a friend/antihero at the end. But overall, everything about Taskmaster felt like something we’ve seen played out and rehashed in Marvel villainy before.

Her mimicry style of fighting alone was unique and super-effective, but there wasn’t enough of it, and so much of the potential of this character felt untapped. I think this is more of a Marvel movie problem than a Black Widow problem. I do wonder whether we’ll see Taskmaster again (perhaps with Yelena in the future), and if she’ll get the chance to show us what she can do. She’s hardly the first Marvel villain to get short shrift, and she’s unlikely to be the last

Some fans are glad we’re talking about Taskmaster at all:

In the meantime, there’s always that other Taskmaster based in the UK …

(image: Marvel Studios)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.