They Did My Villains Dirty
Part 1: Taskmaster
Important Note: None of the criticism here is meant for the actors, stuntmen, or choreographers who were just doing their best with what the script gave them. Even though I may not agree with the narrative choices the screenwriters have made, I understand that they face a lot of pressure from both studio executives and the general audience. I respect their art and I commend them for their efforts, successful or not.
"Black Widow" and "Wonder Woman 1984" have a lot in common. They both feature superheroines that I've adored throughout my childhood and adolescence, they both had extremely dynamic and visually stunning trailers with fantastic music, they were both films for which I was genuinely excited and had very high hopes, and they both let me down spectacularly.
These movies, though not completely horrendous, clearly suffer from major flaws related to plot, pacing, and character that many other excellent reviewers have already pointed out, but I would like to focus on the one aspect in particular that really ground my gears.
They ruined what I consider to be two of the most complex, charismatic, and captivating comic book villains ever created: Taskmaster and Cheetah.
I will then offer my two cents on how I would've liked to see them adapted instead.
**SPOILER ALERTS FOR "BLACK WIDOW"**
Look How They Massacred My Boy
Homie said it best himself.
“But it’s about time they remembered who they’re dealing with. Need a bastard? Call Taskmaster.”
Taskmaster, born Anthony “Tony” Masters, grew up in the Bronx, New York. Since childhood, he has had the ability to perfectly mimic the physical movements of any hero or villain he’s seen thanks to an enhanced form of photographic memory that extends to his reflexes. This power could theoretically place him on equal footing with the Avengers themselves, or dare I say, even above them, since it has evolved to the point where he can predict their attacks as well.
In fact, in The Avengers Vol. 3 #26, he even used his ability to impersonate the team and spread a smear campaign painting them as religious fanatics and racially intolerant.
Hell, he even designed his own costume: a white cowl with a skull mask that would've been awesome to see on the big screen and certainly would've made a lasting impression upon viewers.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Masters did consider becoming a superhero, but upon realizing that evil pays better, he decided to open up multiple training academies for aspiring thugs (ie. Crossbones) and aspiring do-gooders (ie. Spider-Woman) alike. This mercenary doesn’t follow any ideology, he just follows the green brick road. While I don’t respect his nasty habit of using his weaker students as cannon fodder and punching bags, I certainly respect his practicality.
“When you get down to it, it’s just work. Everyone’s got to work, right? You got to eat, got to put a roof over your head…and these outfits don’t come cheap. Throw some henchmen in the mix and buddy, you can’t afford to take it easy. So you do dirtier deeds for dirtier dollars. Industrial espionage, muscle work, bodyguarding….Murder…Hell, even the lowest of the low….Golf.”
His duality makes him a great foil for Natasha Romanoff, in which they are both morally ambiguous individuals, but she is ashamed by her wrongdoings while he isn't. This is why I don't like the excuse that Natasha was being mind-controlled by Dreykov's *gag* pheromones because it completely absolves her of one of the core elements of her character.
I'm going on a bit of a tangent here, but this is one of the many reasons why I think "Black Widow" would've worked much better as a prequel instead of a side-quest that took place in between "Civil War" and "Infinity War."
Firstly, Natasha has one of the darker - if not the darkest backstory of all the Avengers. She was trafficked as a young girl, her reproductive organs were mutilated, and she was put through a ruthless regimen that she explicitly states some of the other children did not even survive. Honestly, I find it downright offensive that they decided to crack a joke about getting her fallopian tubes ripped out and how proud Red Guardian was of her and Yelena for murdering so many innocents. We're told again and again that she is absolutely haunted by the red on her ledger, and though we get a sense of the horrible nature of her crimes through her conversation with Loki in the first Avengers film, we never actually see them in their full scope. We never get to see the one mission that finally drove Natasha to join S.H.I.E.L.D. and redeem herself. I think that if the screenwriters and directors chose to infuse that darkness into the overall tone of the movie, it would've created a much more foreboding atmosphere. It doesn't have to be all gloomy and depressing. You could still have some lighthearted moments by showing how she became friends with Hawkeye, but there should still be an intense, threatening, and ominous undercurrent. If "Black Widow" was more of a spy-thriller, it would also help it really stand out against the enjoyable, but formulaic Marvel universe.
Secondly, although Red Guardian, Melina, and Yelena are all likable, charming characters, I really feel like they shouldn't have been shoved into a story that should've been a proper send-off for Natasha Romanoff and Natasha Romanoff alone. Natasha and Hawkeye should've had their own movie, and then Red Guardian, Melina, and Yelena should've had their own sequel where they could've been developed further. I think Yelena was fairly three-dimensional, largely due to Florence Pugh's strong performance. We get a sense of her cynicism because of her line about how they will always be no more than trained killers, and the phrase "The best part of my life was fake, and none of you told me" hit particularly hard. Her adoptive parents, though both portrayed by great actors, were not given as much substance. Red Guardian seemed super cool, he had a few good lines about how he was indoctrinated by ideology, and then he got relegated to comic relief. Melina is a stock motherly mentor, although the bit with her pigs was entertaining. Both were forgiven way too easily for selling out Yelena and Natasha to Dreykov. It's kind of frustrating that Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, and Thor got their origin stories fully fleshed out while Natasha's was barely explored and briefly flashed through in the opening sequence. It was just too little, too late.
Thirdly, Taskmaster's powers may not seem too fantastical on paper, but in practice, he is extremely powerful. So powerful, in fact, that I feel he or she should not have been so easily defeated or evaded in one movie. He is literally the villainous version of all of the Avengers combined. This is a supervillain with the potential to be on the same level as Thanos. I would've introduced him in the prequel version of "Black Widow" I described above, but I would keep him alive, so he could come back again for the other films in Phase 3 and Phase 4. Could you imagine watching him duke it out with Shang-Chi, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Panther, or Spider-Man? I’d probably start crying tears of joy in the theater.
He could’ve been a perfect match for Black Widow. The hand-to-hand combat could’ve been insane. The parallels between her battle with her past crimes and a dark mirror of herself were right there. Furthermore, his identity as an abusive mentor means he could be a symbol for the very source of Natasha's trauma: the Red Room. I even found a line from his Earth-616 version that could fit nicely with Natasha’s inner turmoil and search for her loved ones:
“Do you want some advice? Run. Forget all this. Walk away and never look back. Because once you find the answers you’re looking for, there’s no going back. Sometimes it’s better to forget.”
The Taskmaster I know is an incredibly versatile, fascinating, and not just physically, but also psychologically imposing opponent. Sprinkle in a little bit of his pessimism and signature cheesy humor and Tony Stark-esque habit of giving people nicknames and you could’ve had an unforgettable antagonist. If you want to gender-bend Taskmaster, that’s totally fine, but for goodness’ sake, keep the original’s life and personality.
Instead, we got crusty old, straw misogynist Dreykov and his mind-controlled daughter. I actually feel so bad for the actress that portrayed Antonia. They didn’t give her anything to work with. She literally only had three fights with Natasha and three words.
"Is he gone?"
I’m also very bothered by the fact that Antonia instantly forgave Natasha for blowing half her face off, leaving her in debilitating pain, and causing her to be Winter Soldier-ed by her father. Antonia could’ve been an excellent villainess in her own right. Maybe she chose to study Black Widow and learn her fighting style first, specifically so she could kill the assassin who crippled her and murdered her family. Why not kick Dreykov out of the picture entirely and zero in on his vengeful daughter? She is the living manifestation of Natasha’s past sins coming back, not just to haunt her, but to hunt her.
About the author
I'm a mad scientist - I mean, teen film critic and author who enjoys experimenting with multiple genres. If a vial of villains, a pinch of psychology, and a sprinkle of social commentary sound like your cup of tea, give me a shot.