Is Taskmaster the key to keeping Black Widow in the MCU?

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

The first Black Widow trailer dropped toward the end of last year, like its super spy namesake, without warning. And also like Natasha Romanoff, it seems to hold its fair share of secrets. By rule, MCU trailers hold secrets, and increasingly, they feature intentional misdirection such as the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War to give but one example.

In the trailer’s wake, there are red flags surrounding the Marvel Phase 4 kick-off  – namely some big questions centered on the appearance of William Hurt’s conspicuously-de-aged Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, and whether we’re really seeing the version of him in the trailer that will appear in the movie.

What the presence of a contemporary Ross could mean for Black Widow’s future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (both the film and character) remains to be seen, though there’s a lot left on the table, both in terms of what’s in the trailer, and the possible butterfly effect the film could have.

It’s time to dial it all in like an intelligence analyst and start breaking down our big MCU theory on why we believe Black Widow might not be Scarlett Johansson’s last appearance in the MCU, and how we think Marvel could be establishing a mechanism for her to stick around.

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Right off the bat, if the idea of ScarJo/Natasha Romanoff continuing on after her first movie seems far-fetched – Black Widow died in Avengers: Endgame! – we’d like to remind you that first of all, these are superhero movies, and like comic books, we have to assume nothing must be forever and anything is possible.

Now Johansson has talked publicly about Black Widow serving as closure for her time in the MCU, and yes, while younger than Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans, she's been playing the role for a long time and fairly regularly since her 2010 debut in Iron Man 2. But two things about Black Widow have stuck out for a while now. 

For one, Marvel Studios doesn't do 'one and done' films. At least they haven't yet. And a prequel solo film is something of an odd fit for Marvel's November release date. 

MCU movies are increasingly delving into their own past to shock and delight invested fans as well as setting up future events (see all the Spider-Man: Far From Home twists and turns). We have no doubt Black Widow will do the same in ways that will surprise us all and that Marvel will try their damndest to throw us all off track.

Of course there’s the added element of Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Marvel Comics’ other Black Widow (more on her in a bit). Pugh’s a rising star, and there’s a likelihood she’ll continue on in the MCU as Yelena/a Black Widow – but since when has Marvel stopped at one hero in a key role?

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Captain America had Falcon, Iron Man had Rhodey, and so on – with some of those characters eventually taking the mantle of their mentors, but not before earning their way in as supporting characters. And let's not ignore that Natasha has similar hair to Yelena in Infinity War - and Yelena appears to be wearing Natasha's Infinity War era vest in Black Widow, set partially before Infinity War. Odd.

It just seems like it's prudent to perhaps consider that Scarlet Johansson/Natasha is not quite finished with the MCU, despite her sacrifice in Endgame. 

And the key to her continuing story may be hiding in plain sight in the trailer. With many things around Black Widow, it all starts with a mystery.

Namely, who the hell is playing Taskmaster?

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Since Marvel Studios’ presentation at San Diego Comic-Con, speculation has been that O-T Fagbenle’s “Mason” could be the one under the mask – but if so, why not just say it outright? It’s not like “Mason” is a character everyone knows, or as if Fagbenle’s presence in the film itself is a secret. Mason, by the way, if that is Fagbenle’s character’s name, could be a number of other Marvel Comics characters, such as Tom Mason/The Agent, a superhero spy handler for S.H.I.E.L.D. He has had connections to Russian double agents, too, so it's a possibility.

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Why put such a spotlight on the character and the mystery? In Marvel Studios' parlance, that’s as good as acknowledging there’s something going on with Taskmaster to be discovered. Introducing a mystery character when there are only one or two legitimate candidates among the small announced cast runs the risk of being ultimately anti-climatic, and that is not Marvel's style. Fans should expect the identity to be a shocker. 

This could mean Black Widow will get her own “Winter Soldier” moment, where the skull mask comes off and the face underneath shakes her to her core. And if so, who could be under there that would shake her like Bucky’s presence shook Steve?

The answer to that may lie in Taskmaster’s comic book identity – which is, essentially, a blank slate. All we really know is, he’s got an extraordinary ability to recreate any movement he sees flawlessly, down to the use of weapons, fighting styles, acrobatics, and more – and that his ability comes at the cost of his memories of his life.

In Marvel Studios speak, he might as well be a cool mask with a full on tabula rasa underneath. Which means the MCU’s Taskmaster could be just about anyone. It might not even be a man – that suit could easily conceal a female figure, and the mask covers the entire face. It would be easy to speculate that the person in the Taskmaster suit could even be Rachel Weisz’s Melina (in comic books known as Iron Maiden), a former ally turned double-crossing foe.

But what if the answer to the question of who’s under Taskmaster’s mask is even darker, more chilling than a simple betrayal?

In comic books, Natasha Romanoff is a super spy who began her training at the end of World War II and thanks to a version of the Infinity Formula (the same special secret sauce that kept Nick Fury, Sr. young) she's remained alive and kicking for decades. And what’s more, the current comic book version is actually a clone created by the Red Room.

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

That’s right – the original Natasha Romanoff/Natalya Romanova/Black Widow was killed by an evil version of Captain America in Secret Empire, with her one-time Red Room masters using catalogued DNA cloning her to create their own semi-mindless super assassin, with only the memories her creators wanted her to have. She wound up with all her memories intact, leading her to betray her controllers and join the side of the heroes once again. And which heroes did she join? Falcon and Winter Soldier, who are getting their own upcoming Disney+ show.

And remember Yelena Belova? Also a clone. Basically the same deal – although Yelena’s story gets even more interesting (and complex). There were actually three clones of Yelena, who were all killed along with the original by Natasha Romanoff. But before all of that, her mind was transferred to a brand new body – a body with the abilities of the power-mimicking Avengers foe the Super-Adaptoid.

So what we have is an onscreen villain whose powers include copying movements and a comic book origin that’s basically a blank slate – and a bunch of Black Widow comic book lore that involves cloning, memory loss, and copying the Avengers’ powers. You see where this is going? 

Marvel Studios does like to pull key story and character elements from Marvel Comics. So, what if the face Black Widow finds under Taskmaster’s mask is... Black Widow? 

Consider this: What if the Red Room cloned a version of Black Widow with souped-up abilities and only enough memories to do their bidding? It wouldn’t be far off from what happened to Bucky Barnes at the hands of Hydra and the KGB – but it’s certainly an escalation of the concept. And if Black Widow’s journey back to Russia is all about confronting her past and bringing her ledger back to black, wouldn’t the ultimate villain be someone out there putting more red right back in her ledger?

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Interestingly, a new clip from Black Widow draws visual parallels between Natasha and Taskmaster. There's a moment where the two are fighting hand-to-hand where they each flip toward each other and land - with the exact same motion and pose. And in the next shot, Natasha's face is eerily reflected in Taskmaster's mask. 

Sure, that could be Taskmaster's "photographic reflexes" represented through keen visual storytelling, but in light of the full picture, it could be compelling evidence of the film's inevitable twist.

There's also a moment where Natasha addresses Taskmaster to her allies, saying "Who is this guy?". Maybe that's just the line, but the pointed dialogue could hint at the potential mistaken perception that armor that doesn't look specifically feminine must be worn by a man - another potential bit of trailer misdirection through the film's dialogue.

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said the events of Black Widow would reflect back on the events of Infinity War and Endgame. If Natasha’s death in Endgame was tempered on some level by her own knowledge that she was cloned (or was a clone), that would certainly count as shedding new light on that story. Even if only one clone remained – perhaps the one operating as Taskmaster? – with the tech destroyed to prevent that back door, that would be a big deal.

And what’s more, if there’s another Natasha out there. Well, you see the straight line that takes.

Speaking of which, there is of course the complication of the Soul Stone holding Natasha’s, well, Soul. If there’s a clone out there it might be a moot point – or, that clone could maybe become a vessel for restoring her Soul to the living. It’s superheroes and Infinity Stones – they’ve already done weirder things on camera.

Now with all this on the table, watch the first trailer again. There are three sequences that string together in seemingly reverse chronological order but stand out as separate from the other sequences. 

Just before the two-minute mark, she dives off of something high in the sky (a Helicarrier?) and is chased by some sort of shocktroopers in freefall in a different version of her costume.

Earlier, she seems to be on the ground in the aftermath/wreckage of the sequence with a very stoic look on her face when a caravan of cars pull up around her.  Towards the beginning of the trailer, Ross seems to exit the caravan. 

Over that first/last few seconds Marvel lays down audio of Ross asking Natasha "So what are you doing to do?". This is an odd question given we know exactly what Black Widow does if this scene takes place in any part of her past.

And Ross having some sort of prominent but secret place in her history really makes little narrative sense either, other than making her seem more duplicitous in hindsight, which is a character trait she grew away from over the course of her development.

So what if instead that scene takes place toward the end of the film in the MCU present day, with the Natasha clone/former Taskmaster having escaped the influence of her Russian handlers (but who hasn't gone through her full hero's journey, think the beginning of Winter Soldier), and who is ready to operate for the United States again, but under Ross's influence (whose motivations we should all be questioning) rather than Fury's?

The dynamics that potentially sets up for sequels and the MCU tapestry as a whole moving forward is significant. Far-fetched? Probably. But something big, something very big, is likely coming out of Black Widow that's gonna shake things up, and don't be surprised if that something not only makes us rethink Infinity War and Endgame, but the entire future of the MCU. 

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)