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"When it comes to bad, the Red Skull is in a class all by himself."
His eyes, unfathomably empty, devoid of all compassion... all humanity... No one has eyes like that... no one! All these months I've lived in a fool's paradise, refusing to believe his claim to be the real Red Skull, refusing to believe that my greatest enemy had found a way to cheat death... but he has. The Red Skull lives... God help us all.
The Arch-Enemy of Captain America and one of the oldest villains in comics, and widely regarded as one of the most despicable. Right-hand man of Adolf Hitler in the Marvel Universe, HYDRA brought him Back from the Dead to plague the world once again. There have been at least three major versions of the Skull. George Maxon, the first Red Skull first appeared in "Captain America Comics" #1 (March, 1941). The most (in)famous Red Skull, Johann Schmidt, first appeared in "Captain America Comics" #7 (October, 1941). The third Red Skull, Albert Malik first appeared in "Captain America Comics" #61 (March, 1947). Malik was established as the Communist Red Skull in "Young Men" #24 (December, 1953). Schmidt was revived in "Tales of Suspense" #79 (July, 1966).The established origin of the better known Skull is relatively complex. He was born as Johann Schmidt in a small German village, probably sometime in the 1910s. The Skull's mother Martha died giving birth to him, causing his drunken lout of a father to try and drown him, saying that the infant had murdered his wife. A doctor managed to prevent him from killing his newborn son, but the angry father went on to commit suicide. Growing up alone, the rise of the Nazis backdropping his life, young Schmidt eventually found himself living a hard life on the streets. All while nursing a growing anger and frustration towards the rest of the world. As an older teen, Schmidt managed to get a job as a bellhop for a major hotel frequented by Adolf Hitler. Schmidt was present for one occasion when Hitler was angrily berating the head of the Gestapo (or just some random German officer) for letting a spy escape, and screamed at the man that he could make even the bellhop into a better Nazi than him. He did.Hitler, who seemed to recognize much of himself in the frustrated, resentful, unsuccessful yet obviously talented young man, became a sort of Evil Mentor and father figure to him, encouraging him to educate himself and grooming him for a powerful position in the Nazi state. (According to one version, to be his own successor.) Subordinate only to Hitler himself, the young, brilliant and ruthless Schmidt was placed in charge of foreign espionage and terrorist activities, playing a key role in Nazi victories in Europe and spreading fear (his red skull mask was intended to be a symbol of terror while Hitler could remain the popular leader in a national version of Good Cop/Bad Cop). He eventually moved onto the United States as World War II continued and sabotaged the top secret Project Rebirth by assassinating Prof. Erskine. Preparing for the inevitable war against Germany, the Americans decided to create their own Good Counterpart to the Red Skull's evil, the sole successful Super Soldier serum test subject, Steve Rogers, and trained him to become Captain America, the man who was to become Schmidt's Arch-Enemy.However, as the war dragged on the Skull started to see that Germany was not going to win, and instead made plans to escape and build a new power base elsewhere to continue the struggle. In the meantime he assigned rival Nazi Baron Heinrich Zemo to a secret mission to assassinate Captain America, hoping the two would kill each other off. In the event, Zemo was defeated and Roger's sidekick Bucky Barnes was (seemingly) killed, but not before Captain America tracked the Skull to his secret bunker and engaged him in battle. Cap won and apparently killed the Skull, but in reality he was merely placed in Suspended Animation, a fate that Cap would shortly suffer too after his battle with Zemo.Captain America was revived by The Avengers, but not long after their enemies HYDRA discovered the Skull and revived him too. The Skull allied with them for as long as they were useful but secretly he was biding his time until he could steal the Cosmic Cube from AIM, the science division of HYDRA, the Cube being an Artifact of Doom that bestowed upon the user Reality Warping and godhood. He once again battled Captain America and was once again defeated, but subsequently managed to establish himself as a major and continuous threat to the world, with access to considerable resources.The Red Skull subsequently engaged in numerous more terrorist and mass murder schemes to wreak havoc across the world and kill Captain America, even managing to make himself Secretary of Defence disguised as one Dell Rusk, plus more attempts to possess a Cosmic Cube, before finally being assassinated by the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed, insane and very-much alive Bucky Barnes, but used a weakened Cube to transfer his mind into a Russian general named Lukin, the man who had him killed. Sharing his body, the Skull forced Lukin to go along with his schemes to manipulate the superhero Civil War so as to get one of his puppet politicians elected as President, and later tried to transfer his mind into Captain America's unborn child, before it was murdered by an increasingly rebellious Sin (his daughter). He later allied with Norman Osborn following his rise to power and finally managed to take over the body of Captain America himself, but after wreaking further damage was expelled and killed, this time for good.This being a comic book, the Red Skull seemingly returned in the pages of Uncanny Avengers during the Marvel NOW relaunch. This was then revealed to be a clone of the original that was frozen back during World War 2.The Red Skull appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a villainous Chessmaster, Nazi super-scientist, and the founder of HYDRA in Captain America: The First Avenger. The MCU version is a Composite Character of the comic book Red Skull, Baron Strucker (the founder of HYDRA in the comics) and Baron Zemo (the Stupid Jetpack Hitler elements). It amused many fans that Hugo Weaving was cast to play yet another powerful enemy named "Schmidt" with an appropriately and enjoyably OTT performance.
Abusive Parents: His mother died in childbirth, and his alcoholic father tried to drown him for it. Someone rescued him, but he just got put in an orphanage and things just went downhill from there....
Anarchy Is Chaos: He once turned his back on Fascism and made this his creed of choice, believing that a world without government would inevitably devolve into the kind of Social Darwinist hellhole that a sadistic power-mad psychopath could call home.
Artistic License – Military: When he is not depicted in some bizarre leather faux-uniform, the Skull wears a pre-1938◊ black Allgemeine-SS uniform◊ (single shoulder board) with SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) collar insignia and an Iron Cross. Leaving aside the fact Iron Cross was not reinstated before 1939, regardless which heroic deeds might the Skull had performed before that, but there is no reason the second most dangerous man in the Reich's administration should have such a junior rank. He also often has an Honor Chevron for the Old Guard and a Golden Party Badge, even though his backstory usually has him joining the party after Hitler assumed power, which would make him ineligible for these "honors".
A recent Retcon has the Skull as an SA rank-and-file before he met Hitler. So he might qualify for the Chevron. And while it certainly wasn't his standard practice, Hitler sometimes did hand out the Golden Badge to late-enlisting but exceptionally worthy followers. So that could be a case of Reality Is Unrealistic.
Shadow Archetype: He's the Nazi counterpart of Captain America, and has the rank to fit.
A corollary explanation might be that the Skull simply liked the uniform and decorations, and was so powerful in Hitler's inner circle that he could browbeat or kill anyone trying to lecture him on decorum.
Bad Boss: He frequently kills all but his most loyal or competent underlings—and sometimes even them—either for failure or for outliving their usefulness, but just as often For the Evulz. He once killed his accountant, for pete's sake, because "she was a bad accountant". And he usually uses his "Dust of Death" poison, one of the most agonising and horrible weapons in his arsenal, when he feels like doing the deed. Bizarrely, he can still count on the fervent loyalty of most of his followers.
Badass in a Nice Suit: When the Skull isn't wearing his Nazi swag, he typically dresses in stylish, well-tailored suits.
Badass Normal: Though he may be a thoroughly despicable human being, there is no doubt that the Red Skull is Bad Ass. He is a highly skilled fighter capable of regularly holding his own against Captain America, one of the best martial artists in the world. He is an expert marksman and a brilliant and imaginative strategist, and like a true Magnificent Bastard is unafraid to put himself in harm's way or use himself as his own best chess piece to see his plans come to fruition. He is considered one of the deadliest threats to mankind in a world that has to put up with regular Alien Invasions, Eldritch Abominations, power-mad superhumans and all manner of catastrophes, and he consistently demonstrates why he has that reputation.
Big Bad: One of the major supervillain threats on a planet drowning in them, and one of the most despicably evil.
The Bully: Terrorizes and often kills his own subordinates For the Evulz, routinely; savagely beat and sadistically abused his girlfriend, one of his most devoted followers; big fan of Revenge by Proxy; tends to laugh like a lunatic when causing the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The Skull is not only The Bully; he is proud of being The Bully and has made it his calling.
Dark Messiah: There's an Aryan brotherhood gang called "The Skulls" and they worship the Skull as the second coming. Oddly enough the gang and their leader are mainly Wolverine villains. You could also say Crossbones sees the Skull this way.
Despite his propensity for sudden lay-offs, many of the Skull's ex-Nazi or neo-Nazi henchmen seem to adopt an almost fanatical loyalty and trust toward him.
Domestic Abuser: The villainess Mother Night is a truly terrible human being... but read the stories where she and the Skull were an item, and cringe. It was one of the most hideously abusive relationships in comics; the Skull beat her savagely, yelled and screamed at her for no reason, humiliated her in front of his subordinates, and refused to let her kill herself (which she requested because she thought, if he was beating her so much, clearly she is failing him somehow) because "you'd like that, wouldn't you?", whereupon he promised to beat her some more.
The Dreaded: Just mentioning his name is a good way to end villain deals, and you'll have to look pretty damn hard if you want to find someone who would willingly work with him. He's not just feared- though he is greatly, greatly feared-; he is almost universally despised amongst both heroes and villains. Any character who actually likes him or what he stands for is likely either seriously delusional or an vile, hideous bastard themselves.
Dystopia Justifies the Means: His ideal world varies between a violent Police State and a lawless, chaotic hellhole; in either case he believes that the strong should brutalize the weak, commits mass murder on a regular basis, and demands absolute power which he wants to use primarily to oppress and torture people, not simply power for its own sake. And he enjoys it, every minute of it.
The occasions he has had the Cosmic Cube have given him nigh-omnipotent power; he once used it to hold an apple in front of a starving crowd, just so he could deny them it! Oh, and shortly after, he ate it in front of a starving baby.
Evil Counterpart: To Cap, obviously. Actually, if you want to get technical, Cap is the Good Counterpart to him, because he was created to be the Skull's opposite number.
Captain America: The First Avenger takes this even further by having him be the original test subject for the Super Soldier Serum. He rivals Captain America not only ideologically, but physically as well.
Evil Gloating: Red Skull has had many opportunities to kill Captain America, especially every time that he has had the power of the Cosmic Cube. Each time he has allowed Captain America to live so that Skull could torment him with being helpless or attempt to bring Captain America to the dark side (all the while gloating), thus giving Captain America the opportunity to turn the tables on Red Skull (like knock the Cube out of his hand).
Evil Is Petty: However, this is initially averted in the Silver AgeWorld War II period stories with the Skull being professional enough to hear about at least one scheme failing by shrugging and moving on to new business.
Executive Meddling: Mark Waid wrote a story narrated by the Skull, very much from the Tautological Templar perspective, in which the Skull self-identifies as an embattled and unappreciated defender of the future of the white race against the rising tide of color. It's very much Deliberate Values Dissonance, as the story quite blatantly showcases his Moral Myopia and paranoia, and meant to show how delusional he has to be to consider himself a hero. But somewhere along the way, the studio execs still got cold feet and ordered a full last-minute rewrite to remove the self-justifications and increase the cackling villainy, resulting in an utterly Anvilicious final product. See here for some elaboration. Eventually, the original version was published in a collected edition.
For Want of a Nail: Aside from his father trying to drown him, the night he met Hitler he claims he was contemplating suicide, and may have gone through with it had he not been granted the opportunity.
While it isn't mentioned very often, the Communist Red Skull killed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents John and Mary Parker, otherwise known as the father and mother of Spider-Man. If he hadn't, Peter would not have had to live with his Aunt and Uncle Ben and possibly would have never become a superhero.
Ghostapo: In Fear Itself he had a group of Nazi occultists perform the dark ritual that ultimately led to the events of that story in an effort to turn the tide of the war. Unfortunately for him, it worked- 65 years later. He had a couple of other experiences with the dark arts later on, but you can see why he prefers Mad Science to get results.
In the comics, Red Skull will make a A God Am I speech pretty much every time he gains possession of the Cosmic Cube, which is like half of all his appearances in the comics.
Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Very, very evil, especially given that half the time he isn't actually smoking, because the cigarette actually contains his Dust of Death poison that he'll use on unsuspecting victims.
Gone Horribly Right: He was Hitler's attempt to show that he could create the ultimate Nazi Ubermensch. He was such a success that even Hitler started becoming scared of him.
Grand Theft Me: He's taken over Captain America's body twice: once in the 1960's, and once more recently. He also spent some time sharing a body with his rival Aleksander Lukin, and in a spare robot body belonging to his underling, Arnim Zola.
Hard Work Hardly Works: According to the Skull, in a story from the 1980's, his brutal training regime organized by Hitler lasted... weeks. Not years. Not months. Weeks. He went from a bellhop nobody to the most dangerous and competent man in the Reich in weeks, despite having next to no formal education, being a human punching bag on the streets, and having worked nothing but the most menial jobs in between scraping by as a beggar and a thief (a bad one- again, his own words). He says he was thirty too, which would mean he literally just never learned anything until then, but subsequent materials say he was in his late teens, which is a bit of an improvement.
Of course, the same story has him remembering both of his parents, including their faces and behaviour, despite both of them being dead before he was a day old, as well as what it was like to be pulled out of the womb- he says he has an amazing memory. These days, that's largely ignored. His superhuman powers of remembrance either completely justifies his amazing out-of-the-blue ability to learn anything, or suggests he was being less than honest about it.
Hoist by His Own Petard: After coming Back from the Dead with the "perfect Aryan" face of his rival, Captain America, his first major scheme ended with him being disfigured with an actual "red skull" for a face after he inhaled his own "dust of death" while trying to kill Cap.
Ignored Epiphany: After being locked in that shelter for days (see Kick the Son of a Bitch below), starving and alone in the dark, he finally resigned himself to his fate and for the first -and only- time in his life, he felt remorse for his life of villainy and privately conceded that he deserved this fate. He was rescued shortly after, regained his will to live after seeing Captain America and remembering how much he hated him... and after telling Cap as much, began ranting about how he would get revenge on Magneto for putting him in there (though, tellingly, he didn't put much effort into that particular scheme).
Jerkass: The Skull is a terrorist, mass murderer and would-be world conqueror; but quite apart from that, he is a jerk in the little things too. He bullies his subordinates, was violently and sadistically abusive to his girlfriend, and once sank into a depression that he got out of when Crossbones cheered him up by reminding him of all the evil things he had done in his life.
Joker Immunity: Unlike the Joker, it's infuriating, considering what he is.
Kick the Son of a Bitch: Magneto once kidnapped the Skull and locked him in an abandoned fallout shelter, telling him that death would be too good for him and that he wanted the Skull to wish that Magneto had killed him after the coming ordeal. The shelter was completely empty except for some jugs of water, which Magneto advised the Skull to conserve, and had no light source. So for weeks, the Skull was locked in a dark room with concrete walls, slowly starving to death. He raged, pounded on the walls, tried in vain to reach the exit high above him, sobbed, and eventually began hallucinating. By the time he was found by Crossbones, Mother Night, and Machinesmith, he was utterly broken and wished to die.
After stealing Xavier's psychic powers, Skull could simply make people do things without a word. But where the fun in that?
Legacy Character: There have been 4 Red Skulls. Technically, Johan Schmidt is actually the second; the original Red Skull was a Nazi spy who was retconned into being one of Schmidt's agents. The third was a Dirty Communist, and the fourth is the Skull's own daughter.
It's actually rather complicated in publishing terms, since the first three versions were originally intended to be the same character, and only a series of Retcon stories have created the distinctions between them.
Offscreen Villain Dark Matter: Justified as the Skull not only having access to hidden Nazi caches, but also frequently running organizations like HYDRA and various factions of AIM from whom he takes resources.
Politically Incorrect Villain: Aside from the fact that he's a (former) friggin' Nazi, he's also pretty sexist, to the point of nearly killing his own daughter because she wasn't a boy, though he's expressed a certain level of respect for certain supervillainesses like Madame Hydra, and Syn when she grew up. Doesn't make up for his treatment of Mother Night, though, which was outright and frequent physical abuse, and he loved every minute of it too.
Pragmatic Villainy: He has one standard: pragmatism — if you are killing people and breaking things on his dime, you'd better have something to show for it besides craters (even if it's just that he now owns those craters and they're full of gold or something). He notably kicked Viper out for wasting his money and resources on acts of terrorism with no strategic benefit, violence for its own sake.
Psychic Powers: He now has this ability after using Xavier's brain in Uncanny Avengers.
Psychopathic Manchild: Type C with some Type B traits. His Moral Event Horizon was murdering a Jewish girl when he was just a boy to take out all the frustrations he felt in life, and his core motivation and personality hasn't really changed much, other than the fact that he discovered he enjoyed it. Very few of his goals are pragmatic like those of an evil politician or a Corrupt Corporate Executive should be, profit for him is a means to doing more evil, not an end. From a certain point of view, since the moment he met the Führer, the Skull never grew up.
Which is even more chilling when one sees how well it matches his below-quoted Real Life counterparts from the Reich.
Start of Darkness: The Red Skull miniseries by Greg Pak has shown most of how the Skull spent his childhood in Germany and how he began his path to ruthlessness.
Stupid Jetpack Hitler: Turns out the Skull financed the research into a lot of sci-fi technology in the 1940s.
Sympathy for the Devil: He claims that his violently abusive father genuinely loved his mother in the same way that Hitler genuinely loved the Jews, the way a victimiser needs victims, without whom there is only madness. He is dead serious and though he never directly links himself to either in the same way, it can be inferred. He relates to the bully more than the bullied, even when the bullying is on a genocidal scale.
Note that the training isn't sadistic or over-the-top, so much as simply mind-numbingly boring and exhausting and the equivalent of a full-time job in terms of time spent. Keeping up with the superheroes requires effort when you don't have the benefit of super-serums ...
Ungrateful Bastard: He once claimed to have searched for years for the physician who pulled him out of the womb... so he could kill him for dragging him out of the darkness and into the light, and for saving him from his father's attempts to murder him.
Unholy Matrimony: When he was with Mother Night. Though Skull was always abusive to her, even if she was completely loyal to him.
He also tried it briefly with Madame HYDRA/the Viper, but she turned out to be too crazy for him.
Unreliable Narrator: The Skull's own version of his life story includes the claim that he remembers every detail of his birth, knows in-depth what his parents were like despite never really meeting them (he claimed to "feel the hatred" of his father for him - yes, when he was just born) and some other stuff like being thirty years old when he committed his first murder and met Hitler, despite subsequent versions portraying him as a teenager, not to mention his claim of having completed his Red Skull training in weeks, whilst simultaneously being an uneducated failure at everything in life up to that point. Obviously a lot of these changes are Retcon, but it actually makes sense that they are different because if you read between the lines, the Skull could be taken as just a blatant liar, trying to make his transformation sound more remarkable than it was.
There's also the point that the Skull who told this version of the story was also ancient and rather obviously senile. When he first related his origins to Captain America some forty years earlier, the tale was very similar, but noticeably free of all the extravagant and shocking details.
The recent miniseries Red Skull: Incarnate shows the actual truth to be different, but no less spectacular (Johann orchestrated his "chance" meeting with Hitler).
Villain Exit Stage Left: The Red Skull is really slippery when he is making his getaway, with escape routes carefully designed to discourage pursuit.
What Happened to the Mouse?: In some issues of Peter David's. 90's Incredible Hulk run, the Red Skull had formed an alliance of criminals called the New World Order. in order to prevent infighting, perform negotiations, and foster cooperation. This group appeared in several Hulk issues and even tangled with X-Men villain Apocalypse! Of course, they haven't appeared or been mentioned since. Later Hulk stories made some vague mentions of the New World Order "collapsing," but we never saw how or why....
Who Is This Guy Again?: Nobody from the common folk knew his original name had been Johann Schmidt (specifically chosen by the writers for being among the most common names and surnames in German-speaking people; it's literally "John Smith") and his early life is perpetually hidden in a maze of lies, treachery and deceit. Just as his face was perpetually hidden behind a mask, before the moment he became the mask.