With Halloween upon us, we're visiting our last comic book villain here on The Geek Beat. I really really wanted to end with symmetry, and focus on a DC villain from an upcoming film so that each universe had two villains. But unfortunately, The Green Lantern is the only DC project that we have a definitive villain for. Some that are in pre-production (The Flash, Green Arrow) have such an enormous rogue's gallery that I'm at a loss as to who a screenwriter might pick. Others (Superman) have been shelved, and the most exciting (Batman) have been beaten to death in the Christopher Nolan rumor mill. There are others I can't talk about because I'd get in serious trouble. So with big apologies to DC fans, we're going to return to the Marvel Universe to meet the monstrosity that I suspect could torment First Avenger: Captain America. His eyes are currently drilling holes into your soul from the top of the post: The Red Skull.
I'm very glad I encountered the Red Skull after I overcame my childhood fear of skulls and skeletons. Given the nightmares that spawned from exposure to the They Live! poster (a permanent fixture on the wall of our ghetto video rental place), I can't imagine what effect the above image would have had on me. Come to think of it, I didn't need to see it. He's exactly what I thought lived in my basement, and lurked around the hallway outside my bedroom.
But when it comes to Marvel lore, the Red Skull isn't the kind of villain my young brain would have imagined. His picture conjures up slaughterhouse horrors. He seems like the kind of monster that will peel you and eat you to sustain his lifeforce, but he's actually far more terrifying because he stems from real horror. He's a Nazi.
Of course the Red Skull is a Nazi. If you're going to inject the humble Steve Rogers with something that'll make him Captain America, you better have the biggest, meanest Nazi you can conjure up. While there's been a few Red Skulls in Marvel history, the main one (and the one you'd probably see in a Cap film) is Johann Schmidt. Yes, that's right. The Red Skull was originally just a Germanic John Smith. Here, let's pause to note yet again how important names are in creating super-villains. Consider such lessons carefully when naming your own offspring. You should avoid giving them ideas (Sinestro) or naming them something so bland (Johann!) that they have to find a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the strudel crowd. Sure, maybe your oh-so-ordinary child will rebel against his name by piercings and tattoos, but he or she might just decide to join a racist political party.
I'm kidding. (Kind of.) Schmidt was driven to villainy by those age-old standbys of poverty and bad parenting. His mother died giving birth to him, and his dad attempted to kill him while he was minutes old. When your first encounter with humanity is your own father trying to "avenge" your mother's death, you're never going to be normal. After his father's suicide he was driven to begging on the streets. As every scholar of Dickens knows, you don't develop healthy feelings towards humanity that way. But all super-villains have one moment where it could have all gone right, and Johann's was when he fell in love with a beautiful Jewish girl. She wanted nothing to do with him. He killed her. Wouldn't you know it, his first murder just happened to fit in with Germany's zeitgeist, and fate introduced him to Adolf Hitler.
Johann became Hitler's right hand man after undergoing a grueling indoctrination. Hitler decided that the Nazi Party just wasn't scaring people enough, so he designed a special red skull mask for Johann to wear. Johann was transformed into the Red Skull, and became the real bad guy of the regime. He became head of the Nazi terrorist division, and specialized in espionage, propaganda, and sabotage. He was so scary and successful that America felt there was no recourse but to create the living embodiment of red, white, and blue: Captain America. They eventually met, fought, and the Red Skull was exposed to experimental gas, and buried under rubble. While everyone thought they could sleep soundly, he was really in suspended animation. That's a plot twist that'll get your superheroes every damn time.
By now you're thinking "Oh, so he's not really a red, raw skull? It's a mask? Lame!" Oh, how wrong you are. As the Communists dusted off the Red Skull concept and ran with their own version ("Lucky! He matches our decor!"), the real Johann was discovered by the terrorist group HYDRA. They revived him, and he became bent on the dual plans of world conquest and killing Cap. He also fought with the Communist Red Skull. He doesn't get along well with others. When you're as antisocial as he is, you spend your idle time designing weapons like "the dust of death." Of course, super-villains are notorious for their lack of judgment, and Johann decided the best place to put his poison was a cigarette. Intended for Cap, it instead flew into his face after he was whacked from behind by one of his lackeys, and turned him into a real Red Skull.
It's almost unfortunate that he's so hideous, because it pushes him into the realm of the cartoon. The menace of this character is that he's real. He doesn't have superpowers, he's just very gifted mentally and physically. (Depending on what body he's inhabiting -- and he's been everything from an android to a Cap clone -- he can, but that's a lot of continuity to get into.) His goal is to dominate the world by the kind of evil schemes we see working in government and big business today. He's no longer a Nazi, nor does he cherish dreams of cloning Hitler and reviving the Third Reich. He just manipulates world events to put him in positions of money and power. He wants to control everyone and everything, and put all the good guys to be six feet under.
He'd also like to see all his villainous rivals buried, too. It's a shame that Marvel Studios lacks so many of its characters, as one of the best aspects to this character is that the Marvel villains loathe and fear him as much as its heroes do. In a wonderful meet-up of nastiness, Magneto buried him alive for his role in the Holocaust. That's the kind of story that is just begging for cinematic crossover. I would genuinely love to see a movie that focused on two villains fighting for supremacy, and to have the Red Skull punished brutally for his past crimes. Now that would be a very awesome time at the movies.
When it comes to silver screen appearances, the Red Skull has an advantage over most comic villains because his foothold in history and conspiracy theory makes him easy to understand, believe, and hate. It's only his appearance that can send audiences into the land of eye-rolling skepticism. Things that are scary thanks to ink and paper can be pretty ridiculous when embodied by an actor. While good writing is paramount with any onscreen villain, this is one case where the actor will have to be paramount. It's easy to make audiences hate Nazis, but it might prove rather difficult to make someone hate one that wears a Skull mask. You'll need who can scare through the visage, like Ralph Fiennes has done so brilliantly with Voldemort. You can't let audiences laugh off his menace just because he looks weird.
Like the Skrulls, Johann Schmidt is the kind of villain you can resurrect again and again. His long reign of terror has been unstoppable, and while it may steer into the realms of cheese (saved by an android body!), I think the most frightening thing about him is that he's an idea as much as he's a physical threat. As his history has proved, if one Red Skull falls, another psycho can easily revive it. Like the Nazis that spawned him, he's the symbol of fear as much as he's the mastermind of it. In a very simplistic sense, he and Captain America represent the best and worst of humanity, and possibly exemplify that basic dichotomy more than any other hero-villain pairing in the Marvel or DC universe. While the roots of their story lie in WW2, their battle could prove to be one of the most overreaching that Marvel Studios produces. After all, who needs a threat from outer space when you have someone exploiting the ugliest elements of Earth, and few who are good enough to stand against it?