With Marvel’s MCU Phase 4 rapidly approaching, it’s almost surprising that it has taken this long for the Taskmaster to show his skull-covered face. Taskmaster has been taking on various Marvel heroes since 1980 and has gone on to star in two miniseries while getting the occasional supporting character role. He’s on that border where it was hard to tell whether he’d show up in the movies or get relegated to TV, showing up as a villain on Agents of SHIELD or something from the Defenders’ neck of the woods on Netflix. But now we know he’ll be the villain of the Black Widow movie, and we got our first look at him in the trailer.
Taskmaster first appeared in Avengers #195, created by David Michelinie and George Perez, mainly as a cliffhanger villain to set up his showcase in the next issue. A fifth-rate villain by the name of Pernell Solomon had a rather inconsequential plot involving cloning himself that ended badly, mostly because it exposed the Avengers to the existence of the Taskmaster and his secret villain school. You see, Taskmaster has a special power called “photographic” reflexes. If he sees someone perform an action – as long as it is a human movement – he can do the same on command. He’s essentially a greatest hits mixtape of every great warrior in the Marvel Universe. That shot of him in the Black Widow trailer wielding a bow might tell us that he has encountered Hawkeye at some point, for example.
But seriously, he can’t do superhuman stuff. He once tried to copy the movements of living cartoon character Slapstick and Bane’d himself.
At first he was going to become a superhero, but he realized that being a villain is where the money’s at. Then he came up with an even better and safer plan: keep the mercenary part of the job minimal and instead make money by teaching goons how to fight. If you’re joining Hydra or AIM and you want to know how to fight, just pay the guy who knows exactly how Captain America throws his shield so well and can perform Daredevil’s exact flips. He’d be able to make all that money using his skills while refraining from taking on superheroes head-on.
In his first appearance, Taskmaster easily took down Scott Lang Ant-Man, Hank Pym, and Wasp. He was even able to take on Captain America and Iron Man at the same time. His downfall was when he got in a one-on-one with Jocasta, who had no human movement to play off of, plus she was straight-up out of his league in terms of power. The other Avengers caught up and Taskmaster barely escaped.
In the years that followed, he remained the renowned villain coach while taking the occasional job if the money was right. Taskmaster was driven by greed as he had no trouble working for Crossbones or the US government if they paid up. During the memorable storyline where Steve Rogers was stripped of his Captain America title, the government had Taskmaster train John Walker, the star-spangled replacement who would later go on to be US Agent.
Marvel was weird about Taskmaster’s identity. For the longest time, they never gave him a real name, but they also didn’t seem to mind showing him unmasked from time to time. Like one time the Punisher nearly killed him and Daredevil later visited him in the hospital. Other than some bandages on his head, Taskmaster looked like a completely average white dude, albeit with a history of plastic surgery. We would eventually get some answers on his backstory, but there would be some contradictions.
Taskmaster appeared in the second issue of Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness’ legendary Deadpool run where Taskmaster kidnapped Deadpool’s sidekick/abused best friend Weasel. The showdown was played for laughs as Taskmaster, boasting about how he can read anyone’s movements and can predict your attacks before you even think about it, was completely helpless against the unpredictable Deadpool. Initially, this was supposed to build towards Taskmaster as a major nemesis for Deadpool during the Kelly run where the plan was that he’d start gaining the ability to inherit strategies the same way he inherits movements. That subplot was cut early on.
Regardless, Taskmaster remained a major part of Deadpool’s corner of the Marvel Universe and would appear in countless runs. While at times Taskmaster would be targeting Deadpool, other times, he would be his long-suffering partner in crime. One of their more memorable meet-ups had Taskmaster one of many hired guns working for a mobster against Deadpool and Spider-Man. Taskmaster whispered to Deadpool that his heart wasn’t really in it and offered to throw the fight for old time’s sake.
It was through that Deadpool connection that we got the brief “UDON Taskmaster” phase in the early ’00s. The art studio UDON was drawing the Gail Simone run of Deadpool while also taking care of Ken Siu-Chong’s Taskmaster miniseries. The connecting tissue of this was mainly Sandi Brandenberg, a love interest to Taskmaster and secretary to Deadpool. But also, Taskmaster changed up his appearance, going from “albino Skeletor” to “street-wise Skull Man.” He was more gun-based than sword and shield.
The miniseries went deeper into his abilities, showing that he can remember every moment of his life with 100% clarity. He can also amp up his powers by watching fight footage in fast-forward, which makes him move at super speed at the cost of his body breaking down if he does it for too long. There’s also a neat anecdote about the pitfalls of his powers, as when he was a kid, he watched someone perform a perfect dive, copied it, and then almost drowned because he didn’t know how to swim.
Also, they finally revealed that Taskmaster’s real name is Tony Masters. Of course it is.
The miniseries and the cancellation of Deadpool coned into a new series called Agent X, centered around a scarred-up amnesiac named Alex Hayden who had Deadpool’s powers and personality and appeared months after Deadpool’s supposed death. Taskmaster was a major part of the series, taking time to be annoyed by Hayden’s antics, pining for Sandi, and being an all-around badass.
While the UDON Taskmaster look showed up here and there, he was back to his original appearance by the time he was going after Moon Knight. He ended up getting more play thanks in part to Civil War and its aftermath, going from a member of the government’s pro-registration force to training cadets in Avengers: The Initiative. It was there that he became friends with one of his students, Eric O’Grady, the Irredeemable Ant-Man.
Once Norman Osborn took over the superhero wing of the government, Taskmaster briefly joined Osborn’s inner-circle of top villains, otherwise known as the Cabal. Taskmaster ultimately hated being Osborn’s whipping boy and secretly worked against him, eventually escaping and laughing when Osborn’s empire came crumbling down.
In 2011, Fred Van Lente and Jefte Palo joined together to create another Taskmaster miniseries, which was not only fantastic, but it added a few twists and retcons to the character’s backstory. It showed that Taskmaster answers to a higher power called the Org that calls him and gives him orders. Also, Taskmaster has a mental problem where he can only retain so much knowledge, so his brain tends to dump information that isn’t based on physical survival. In other words, he can fight in countless ways, but he can’t remember who he is or really anything about his past. Just a nagging feeling of unforgiveable guilt.
In this story, he protected a diner waitress named Mercedes from all sorts of assassins, only to discover that not only is Mercedes his Org handler, but she’s also his wife. Taskmaster is in fact a SHIELD agent who took a special kind of Super Soldier Serum that gave him his powers, but forces him to constantly forget the woman he loves. Hence the endless guilt.
There’s also the thing that he’s been unwittingly working for SHIELD all these years.
While that take on Taskmaster was eventually forgotten about (how fitting), it did lead to Avengers Academy member Finesse. Finesse is an Audrey Hepburn lookalike with powers exactly like Taskmaster’s who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter. When she tracked him down and fought him, it was heartbreaking to Taskmaster, as she only fought with copied movesets and he’d never be able to remember her for being her.
Since then, Taskmaster has shown up here and there, usually working alongside Black Ant, who is a robot duplicate of the Eric O’Grady Ant-Man. He tends to pop up whenever Marvel needs a throwaway villain and they’re tired of calling in the Wrecking Crew.
Outside of main continuity, Taskmaster’s shown up in a handful of alternate universe stories. One thing I find amusing is how there’s a What If issue based on the whole “John Walker as Captain America” storyline that has Taskmaster explain his powers by claiming to be a mutant because back then, nobody at Marvel thought too hard about how he got his skills. Then there’s House of M: Avengers, where Taskmaster does the same for the sake of fitting in with the high-status mutant community.
Taskmaster only showed up in the Ultimate comics towards the end of its run, but there wasn’t much to him. The only thing memorable was that they made him black.
The series Deadpool MAX reimagined Taskmaster as a grizzled and horny woman assassin who turned Wade Wilson into a killing machine and groomed him in the sexual sense. It’s probably better that they didn’t go with this version of the character for the movie.
Taskmaster has shown up on several cartoons and in some video games. One of the more memorable is the recent Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 where he acts as a bonus threat, serving a similar purpose as Riddler in the Batman Arkham games. In a look that merged his classic appearance with his UDON appearance, he stalked Spider-Man through the city and came off as more of a knockoff of Deathstroke.
No wonder he and Deadpool keep crossing paths.
Lastly, I can’t help but mention Taskmaster’s appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Not just because you get to play as him and pull off sweet moves stolen from Hawkeye, Captain America, and Black Knight. Not just for his charming Brooklyn accent. Instead, it’s for his rad-as-hell theme song.
Hopefully we’ll hear this when he goes into action in Black Widow. I’m pumped for anything after listening to that song.