28 October 2011

A Defense of the Red Skull and HYDRA in Captain America: The First Avenger

The package arrived in my mail yesterday, one day earlier than expected: the Blu-ray of my favorite movie of the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger. Since I had a Halloween party to go to that night where I was dressing up as Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull, I immediately fired up the film on my player and watched it again, soaking in all its comic-book goodness.

I’ve gushed about this film plenty already, and its hero has a major place on this website. You know my bias on this topic, and I won’t pretend that everyone will get the same thrill from the movie that a Cap-fan like me does. As a long-time nut about the character, the film delivers everything that I want. There are flaws, but the more I watch the film the less I care about them. Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect old-fashioned comic book movie, with grandiose thrills and colorful heroes and villains, archetypal Good vs. Evil, and the right amount of pathos mixed with heroic optimism.

But I wish to address the villains now—the Red Skull and HYDRA—because some of the higher criticism aimed at the film has taken it to task for “whitewashing” World War II by reducing the role of the Nazis. Hitler and his gang of murderers are in the background (Hitler does appear as a character in a USO show). Johann Schmidt, alias the Red Skull, leads Hitler’s science division, HYRDA, but early on in the story he starts to separate from the Nazi ranks. He breaks completely from them around forty-five minutes into the running time when he disintegrates the generals sent to shut down his organization for “lack of results.” HYDRA wages its own war against the Allies, using its super-technology so that the Red Skull can conquer the world for himself.

When Captain America premiered, I encounter a number of reviews and blog posts unhappy that the movie had “taken the Nazis out of World War II” and the character of the Red Skull. I understand these concerns, and I would like to counter them and provide an explanation for why it happened this way—and why I prefer it this way.

There were obvious business reasons for keeping the Nazis and their iconography out of a movie meant for all ages. Increasingly in film, Nazis only work in serious or dark stories. Nobody wants their kids playing with toys that have Swastikas on them. But this isn’t the prime reason for making the Red Skull his own master running a fictional villainous organization.

The rationale for this approach is that the character of the Red Skull, as portrayed in comics since his revival and retcon in the 1960s, believes he is beyond the Nazis, Hitler, Fascism, et al. He sees the Third Reich as a failed experiment because it did not go far enough. “I am bigger than fascism,” the Skull tells the Captain at one point in the comics. He followed Hitler’s orders during the War because he was as much a lover of cruelty as der F├╝hrer, but when Nazism died with the Allied victory in the war, the Red Skull marched on as his own force—one that was “freed” because it did not have to follow anyone’s ideology other than its own.

The Red Skull caused the stock market crash. The Red Skull created SARS. The Red Skull embezzles money from charities for disabled children to buy crack to sell to Girl Scouts. The Red Skull broke up the Beatles. The Red Skull ran over your cat. If you don’t own a cat, the Red Skull will steal money from you, buy you a cat, and then run over it. This is not a nice man.  

The Red Skull we see in Captain America: The First Avenger is this same megalomaniac of the comic book pages: he thinks the Nazis are doomed and he is too superhuman, too “godlike,” for the likes of them. Hell with the goose-steppers: he can commit genocide all on his own, dammit.

The non-Nazi Red Skull of the 2000s
This is why the Red Skull is such an awesome villain, and why I love watching Captain America take him down. His ruthless cruelty, his complete lack of a mote of sympathy, are essential to the Skull’s power as one of the greatest comic book baddies ever created. There are many great villains from the superhero world who have elements of tragedy and pathos: Magneto, Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Galactus, Ra’s al Ghul, Two Face. In each of these characters, there is something about them that readers can “get,” if not condone. But the Red Skull is through-and-through evil; there is no time I have felt any empathy for him. Even when he talks about his pathetic orphaned street urchin days, you get the sense that he isn’t upset that he was poor; he’s upset that he didn’t learn his lesson from his terrible childhood and start killing people sooner. (For the record, the Red Skull’s first homicide was as a teenager when he murdered a young Jewish girl who tried to resist him raping her. Yeah, what I said before.)

I appreciate multi-dimensional villains, but there’s a place for those you just love to hate. If any superhero needs this kind of blackheart as an adversary, it’s Captain America, who is as decent and good a hero as possible. The two men are binary opposites.

(Digression: Although the Red Skull has led HYDRA at a number of different times, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented the organization as an enemy for the 1960s James Bond-style revision of Nick Fury. This explains why HYDRA is capitalized, even though it is not an acronym: it imitates SPECTRE and all the other spy organizations acronym names of the time. HYDRA’s original leader was the “Imperial Hydra,” later retconned as Baron Strucker with the support of the Red Skull.) 

The Red Skull isn’t totally de-Nazified in the film. The flashback with Dr. Erskine shows that Johann Schmidt was a fanatic believer in Aryan Occultism and the quest to find “the superior being”—obviously a white Germanic man. But when Schmidt gains the superhuman power from Erskine’s experiment and loses his human face at the same time, he moves into territory far past that of Nazi ideology. He decides he is a god and has “left humanity behind.” When he takes hold of the Cosmic Cube, he sees the power to change the world, not just change the War as Arnim Zola suggests. Why waste this power on an effort that is failing? The Skull wants his own movement, he wants to be the God.

Tommy Lee Jones’s character sums it up: “Johann Schmidt belongs in a bughouse. He thinks he’s a god, and he’s willing to blow up half the world to prove it, starting with the USA.”

Here’s an example of the Red Skull’s dialogue that shows how well the screen version matches the modern comic book:
RED SKULL: Hitler talks of a Thousand-Year Reich, but he cannot feed his armies for a month. His troops spill their blood across every field in Europe, but still he is no closer to achieving his goals.

GENERAL: And I supposed you still aim to win this war through magic?

RED SKULL: Science. But I understand your confusion. Great power has always baffled primitive men. HYDRA is assembling an arsenal to destroy my enemies in one stroke, wherever they are, regardless of how many forces they possess, all in a matter of hours.

GENERAL: Your enemies?

RED SKULL: My weapons contain enough destructive power to decimate every hostile capital on Earth. Quite simply, gentlemen, I have harnessed the power of the gods.

GENERAL: [Looking at map of hostile cities.] Berlin is on this map!

RED SKULL: So it is.
Berlin stands as much in the way of the Skull’s glory as any other large capital. He then fries the three Nazi “superiors” who have come to chastise him, and wraps up with a bit of dialogue to the cowardly Dr. Arnim Zola:
My apologies, Doctor, but we both knew HYRDA could grow no further in Hitler’s shadow. Hail HYDRA.
His words to Captain America at their first meeting:
You are deluded, Captain. You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality, you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. Without fear!
The Red Skull feels that he is now the Master Race. Who needs nations and flags when you know you are have the power of the gods?

I can’t resist quoting the Red Skull’s final speech to his fanatic followers. Nazi war power has failed, but HYRDA is going to win the war themselves:
Tomorrow, HYDRA will stand master of the world, born to victory on the wings of the Valkyrie. Our enemies’ weapons will be powerless against us. If they shoot down one plane, hundreds more will rain fire upon them! If they cut off one head, two more shall take its place. Hail HYDRA.
This is a pulp story, and this is a pulp villain. The megalomania comes with the territory.

The HYDRA Red Skull
The movie presents an ideal interpretation of the Red Skull. His break from Nazism was inevitable to make the character work in this fantasy version of the Second World War. And the HYDRA aesthetic—their guns, tanks, goggle-eyed suits, weird planes—is so damn cool looking. Because HYRDA is fictional, we don’t have to feel bad for thinking it is so damn cool looking.

When you come right down to it, we have a villain who is more evil than Hitler. That is the kind of bad guy you want in your World War II comic book story!

Is this “whitewashing” World War II? Only if Captain America: The First Avenger is meant to be an honest take on World War II, which it isn’t and doesn’t pretend to be. If people expect their children to learn about World War II from a summer comic book movie, they need to rethink their educational approach. This is a fantasy about World War II—look at all the gizmos!—and the lessons it teaches come from its hero. Captain America tells viewers about the role of America and its Allies in World War II. It teaches lessons about heroism and standing up against the bullies of the world, no matter who they are. It’s a good message and the film gets it across. It isn’t offering a treatise on Nazi atrocities. Children need to learn about that part of history in school, from books, from their teachers and from their parents.

From the standpoint of telling a tale of Captain America, the movie does its job. The Red Skull doesn’t need Nazis to be the ultimate adversary for Captain America. He’s scarier without them. Here’s one mass-murderer who can never argue that he “was only following orders.”

Not as if the Red Skull would apologize for anything, ever.

Now, go get ‘em, Cap!