Red Skull, Underdog?

Something occurred to me today.  While Captain America is a pretty fun movie, it has one mistake, writing wise.  It’s not a terrible one, but it does end up accidentally weakening the drama and adventure.  I’m not going to talk about the film in tremendous detail, but I will be discussing a few broad plot points, so fair warning, SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

The biggest mistake Captain America makes is that the villain is the underdog.

It’s a basic truism that villains ACT and heroes REACT.  It’s a staple of adventure fiction in particular.  Some bad guys have a sinister plan.  Our heroes attempt to stop them from carrying out that sinister plan.  But the pressure is always on the heroes to counter the villain’s plans.  The Rebellion must destroy the deathstar.  Indiana Jones must recover the sacred stones.  James Bond must prevent the nuking of Fort Knox.  And so on.

On paper, Captain America seems like par for the course.  The Red Skull runs Hydra.  Hydra is out to rule the world.  And it’s up to Cap to save the day.  The only difference is how the story plays out.  And how it plays out puts the Red Skull on the defensive.

In fact, the only proactive scenes with the Red Skull involve him attacking an innocent village and killing some troublesome Nazis in order to establish his villain cred.  After that, everything the Red Skull does is purely defensive and reactive.

It begins with the supersoldier program.  It’s true that his agents manage to sabotage the experiment, to prevent the creation of an army of Caps.  But they also fail to prevent our singular Cap from coming into being, and they don’t even escape with the sample of supersoldier serum.  All of this is a foregone conclusion, so it’s unfair to judge all of Hydra’s effectiveness by this one scene.

Yet later, when Cap invades his first Hydra base, frees Allied soldiers, and forces the Red Skull to push the self-destruct button, the pattern is clearly set.  Captain America even learns the details of Hydra’s master plan before walking away, completely triumphant.  Our hero has only failed to capture the Red Skull at this point.  Everything he set out to do, he accomplished.  And while the Red Skull isn’t down for the count, his applecart has been upset.

And so it is in the film that Cap’s victory is so assured that we’re treated to a montage of he and his team beating nameless Hydra agents, destroying equipment and facilities, and otherwise, succeeding without sense of loss or urgency.  Only when we get to the train scene, do we have a cost to these victories, but it is, relatively speaking, a small cost to the team.  And Cap still accomplishes his task.

It all comes to a head in the grand finale, which isn’t much different than a traditional storming-the-enemy-fortress scene.  EXCEPT our heroes aren’t storming the fortress at the desperate last minute.  Nope, they’re the aggressors, the ones who cause the Red Skull to accelerate his plans.  Once again, the heroes dictate the speed of the plot, not the antagonists.  It would be like if the Rebels blew up the deathstar two weeks before it was actually ready to use.  Or if James Bond walked into the evil genius’s lair and just shot the poor villain while he was working on his master plan.

The Red Skull is still able to launch his final gambit, though at this point in the film, he seems an anemic threat.  He might succeed in killing millions of innocent people, but so what?  He’s already lost so much of his power, suffered one humiliating defeat after another, it seems like the spiteful last act of a defeated character rather than his moment of possible triumph.  In the end, the Red Skull and Hydra come across as ineffectual and toothless.  For all their lasers and giant tanks and storm trooper army, they seem never to be much of a threat.  You almost don’t need Cap to take them out.  Heck, even while storming the fortress, Cap doesn’t actually accomplish anything on his own.  He doesn’t open the way for his team.  He just walks in and gets captured then is rescued.  So while his storming of the fortress is cool from an action scene standpoint, it actually accomplishes nothing in itself.  In the end, it takes an army of soldiers to bust down the fortress doors.  All Cap seemed to do was act as a bit of a distraction, and even that’s debatable.

The question is whether or not this dynamic was intentional or not.

Part of me thinks it must have been.  Because it’s just too obvious.  Perhaps Captain America is meant to serve as an homage to American propaganda films of old.  The heroes are bright and shiny and capable.  The bad guys are dark, sinister, and easily foiled with a bit of muscle and determination.  From that perspective, the film works perfectly.  Its portrayal of a world where the righteous fist of justice is more than a match for the forces of evil might be a little blatant, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with that.  I certainly am not looking for shades of gray in a movie where a guy dressed in the American flag fights a guy with a skull for a face.

But from a storytelling perspective, I find it dissatisfying.  We hear the word “fluff” bandied around a lot, but Captain America is fluff.  It isn’t challenging, and even more disappointing, it isn’t even artificially suspenseful.  The audience knows Hydra won’t win, but the story seems to know this too.  And it isn’t interested in disguising that fact.  There’s no illusion of conflict here.  Good guys win.  Bad guys lose.  And there is never really any doubt.

Even the Red Skulls final defeat is so quick and offhand, it’s almost like the film doesn’t really care itself.  “Of course, he loses,” it says.  “He’s the bad guy.”

I don’t know if I consider it a terrible flaw, but it does keep the film from being great for me.  A superhero is only as good as his villain.  And while Cap comes across as a terrific guy with many wonderful heroic qualities, the Red Skull only comes across as a guy in way over his head . . . er . . .  skull.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. John Sanders
    Posted July 29, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Be thankful for those late night discussions at IHOP

  2. Joe A
    Posted July 30, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Your argument is off right from the beginning. Villians act,heroes react? The reason Cap and the howling commandos(don’t know why they weren’t mentioned by name in movie) were after Hydra was because they were developing hi tech weapons.The Americans learn this from Erskine when he defects, and its driven home after being attacked in Brooklyn. Remember Howard Stark talking about the mini sub? We don’t have tech like this was the gist of what he said. Tommy Lee Jone’s unit was ordered into the field to go after Hydra
    As for knowing Hydra would fail well,they weren’t going to go change the outcome of ww2. If you read the comic you’ll know that was a setback for Hydra,not the end of them. It’s not so much how easy he defeated the Red Skull,the complaint should be that the movie was rushed,used as mainly a lead in to the Avengers. The Red Skull has always been portayed as a man behind the schemes,he’s never really been a fighter. That’s just the type of heel he is.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted July 31, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment.

      I disagree in your assessment. It’s true that the heroes are reacting to Hydra’s intentions, but they are never reacting to anything Hydra actually does. Yes, without Hydra and the Skull, the movie would have no central plot. But they aren’t the movers of that plot. They’re merely the macguffin. It’s a subtle difference, but important. Hydra COULD be the aggressor, but they fail at every turn. A villain who constantly fails is hardly a credible threat.

      Furthermore, much of your argument revolves around backstory. Backstory is not the same as conflict.

      Also, I am a big believer in avoiding expanded universe explanations. If it isn’t in the film, it doesn’t count. While I know that Hydra is a powerful organization in the comic books, there’s no indication of such in the film. I will never accept explanations OUTSIDE of the source material, no matter how canon they might be. After all, if the film was identical to the comic books, Hydra would be led by Baron Von Strucker, the Howling Commandoes would’ve been led by Nick Fury, and so on. So clearly, it’s unfair to assume anything based on comic book continuity.

      And as to your final point, it’s true that in the comic books the Red Skull started out as a scheming agent of the Nazis, the movie continuity is almost completely different. In particular, he is a supersoldier like Cap, which means that he should display and employ the same basic abilities. He doesn’t though. While this fit with the original Red Skull, the movie version is different enough that different expectations can be placed upon him.

      All your explanations are built from a comic book fan’s perspective, but I think my arguments still stand from the perspective of the film alone, which really is the way it should be judged.

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