While most super heroes/villains gained their super powers from cosmic rays, gamma rays, mad scientist experiments, super soldier serums, and freak accidents, imagine getting yours by …. watching TV or YouTube.
Well, that’s what Tony Master aka Taskmaster apparently does whenever he wants to learn a new fighting move (or even a culinary skill).
While imitation is often the most sincere form of flattery, Taskmaster takes it to another level altogether. His photographic reflexes (think of it as the next step to having a photographic memory) enables him to ‘copy-and-execute/counter’ any fighting style he sees.
Having been around for 39 years, Taskmaster’s track record speaks volumes about the effectiveness of his approach, especially since the list of heroes and villains he has trained or crossed paths with is like a Who’s Who of the Marvel universe.
Introduced in the pages of Avengers (Vol. 1) #195 (1980) by David Michelinie and George Perez as a “tutor” for a super villain training school, Taskmaster has never quite made it to the big leagues, with only two limited series (released in 2002 and 2010) and a truckload of supporting roles to brag about.
However, his upcoming appearance in next year’s Black Widow movie could change all that. This week, we revisit Taskmaster’s backstory to understand why he might just be the MCU’s latest hit character!
Practise makes money
Tony first discovered his unique photographic reflexes as a child, perfectly emulating a cowboy’s sophisticated rope tricks after watching it on TV just once!
During his youth, he watched one pro football game and used the skills he learnt to become his high school football team’s star quarterback. He later considered becoming a superhero, but realised that there was more money to be made being on “the other side”.
He then watched as much superhero footage on TV as he could to learn the moves of superheroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Fist and Captain America, and eventually moved on to open his own training institute for criminals!
Taskmaster can emulate the personal fighting styles of heroes and villains, including Black Widow (expect him to do this a lot in the movie!), Captain America, Daredevil, Hawkeye, Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Punisher, Wolverine, Moon Knight, Elektra, Iron Fist, Silver Samurai, and Black Knight, to name a few!
He can also copy and remember any movements he sees, even small ones like a card shark cheating at black jack, forging a signature, and even has a Chameleon-esque repertoire that includes voice mimicry and the use of an image-inducer to mask his true self.
Taskmaster used to carry around replicas of Cap’s shield, Hawkeye’s bow and arrows and Daredevil’s billy-clubs which he used in his battles. But the 2002 series also added a new toy into his bulging bag of tricks – a generator that can solid shapes out of pure energy that he “borrowed” from S.H.I.E.L.D, so whenever he needs a particular weapon, he just makes it out of pure energy!
You either need to be super-strong or super-crazy to take on the entire Avengers team at the same time … unless you’re Taskmaster, who went head-on against the combined might of Captain America, Iron Man, Ms Marvel, Wonder Man, Jocasta, Beast and the Vision on his full debut in Avengers #196!
He didn’t get to engage all of them though, ducking out from a direct encounter with Cap and Iron Man. However, despite possessing Spider-Man’s agility, Cap’s shield-throwing ability, Hawkeye’s archery skills and Iron Fist’s martial arts moves, he fell short against Jocasta’s emotionless counter attack and was forced to make a hasty retreat.
Since his debut, the majority of Taskmaster’s initial comic book appearances hovered around him establishing “Taskmaster Academies”, which are always “accidentally” stumbled upon by the likes of Spidey, The Thing, Ant Man, Hawkeye, etc.
As long as the price is right, he will train anyone, whether hero or villain.
He has coached the likes of Spider-Woman, Stature, Deadpool, U.S.Agent, Agent X, Crossbones, Cutthroat, Diamondback and most of the Marvel Universe’s secret societies!
His “franchise” of academies have also featured in the following teams – A.I.M, Agency X, Cabal, Frightful Four, Initiative, Secret Avengers, Shadow Initiative, Thunderbolts and even …. S.H.I.E.L.D.
Taskmaster’s turning point came via the 2002 limited series by Asian-influenced studio Udon, which helped inject some humanity into his mercenary ways.
In his first ever solo series, Taskmaster still operates his ‘schools for wannabe crooks’, but is also doing more solo, work-for-hire jobs because it’s more lucrative, and “more interesting than teaching idiot students in months what I learned in seconds”.
Taskmaster will do assassinations, larcenies, espionage, and even forgery if the price is right. “Big, small, there’s no task I can’t master,” he boasts.
The series sees Taskmaster going up against tech magnate Sunset Bain, who betrays him after hiring him to sabotage a Stark Enterprises project ( surviving a run-in with Iron Man at the same time).
The 2010 series gave Taskmaster yet another layer of humanity, by stripping him of his memories, gear, and even costume, and setting a one billion dollar bounty on his head for leaking intel to Steve Rogers.
The bounty was commissioned by a mysterious entity called The Org, who once acted as his “surrogate memory”, keeping his money, planning his schedule, and sending him on missions while he stumbled around aimlessly and memory-less.
With a host of mercenary and supervillain organisations are out to collect the bounty (including Hydra, A.I.M, Cyber Ninjas, Black Choppers, Secret Empire, Trenchcoat Mafia, Legions of the Living Lightning, Militiamen, and the Sons of the Serpent), Taskmaster has to retrace his steps and find out who exactly The Org is, and put an end to it.
The series also introduced Mercedes Merced, a waitress who gets caught up in Taskmaster’s quest to seek out The Org. As it turns out, she’s more than a waitress – she’s actually an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D agent who is also his wife!
Along the way, Taskmaster finds out that he is actually an ex-SHIELD agent who injected himself with a Nazi super soldier serum that gave him his photographic reflexes but took away his memories (effectively ret-conning his origin story).
Tragically, the side-effect of this new “power” is that every time he absorbs a new ability, it overwrites his memory, and when that happens, he retains the “illusion of truth” that he has done something bad, which will always drive him to be a villain. Thus, to keep tabs on him, Mercedes became his handler under the guise of The Org!
Hero or villain?
Both the 2002 and 2010 limited series reinvented Taskmaster as not just another supervillain , but more of an anti-hero and mercenary, giving him a wider role as an anti-hero rather than a straightforward villain.
In major events like Dark Reign, Siege and Secret Empire, his tactical skills enabled him to switch allegiances instantaneously, making it difficult to predict which side of the fence he is actually on.
Taskmaster’s latest appearance was in this year’s Spider-Man event, Hunted, in which he helps Kraven the Hunter hunt various animal-themed characters.