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. Red Skull/George Maxon first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 (March, 1941). The better known Red Skull/Johann Schmidt first appeared in Captain America Comics #7 (October, 1941). 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 1920s. 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 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.
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. Erksine. 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 abroad. 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 wreck 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 Syn. 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 wrecking further damage was expelled and killed, this time for good.
- 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....
- He's an aboslutely horrible parent to his own daughter, as well. When she was born he originally planned on killing her, because she wasn't a boy. His first words upon seeing her were literally, "A daughter? Kill It!". And he would have if it wasn't for Mother Night convincing him to let her live.
- A God Am I: Has had tendencies of this, especially with his incarnation in Captain America: The First Avenger.
- Arch Enemy: One of the oldest in comics.
- Artifact of Doom: Cosmic Cubes, in his hands anyway.
- Artistic License Military: When he is not depicted is 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.
- Ax Crazy
- Back from the Dead
- 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.
- Badass Normal: Though he may be a thoroughly despicable human being, there is no doubt that the Red Skull is Badass. 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.
- Bastard Understudy: To Hitler.
- 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.
- Card-Carrying Villain
- Classic Villain
- Cloning Blues: He spent quite a while between the late 1980s and the early 2000s inhabiting a cloned body of Captain America, albeit with a "red skull" disfigurement for most of that time.
- Daddy's Little Villain: His daughter, Syn.
- 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.
- Diabolical Mastermind
- 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.
- 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 could and should brutalise 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.
- 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!
- Evil Counterpart: To Cap, obviously. Actually, if you want to get technical, Cap is the Good Counterpart to him, because he was created expressely to be the Skull's opposite number.
- Evil Mentor: His was Hitler
- Evil Redhead: Back when he had his original body.
- Technically now, too.
- Even Evil Has Standards -- Not for the Skull himself, but for the rest of the major villains of the Marvel Universe, most of whom are too disgusted by the Skull to willingly work with him. It doesn't help his case that two of Marvel's heaviest hitters, Doctor Doom and Magneto, are a half-gypsy and a Jewish Holocaust survivor, respectively. He does however have 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.
- In a crossover, he mutually refuses to work with The Joker, not so much for ethical standards as "artistic" ones. The Joker glories in psychological torture and poetic death - he finds far more value in compelling a good man to kill a child, or an entire major American city to abandon basic hygiene, than he does mass(even millions-strong) graves full of indiscriminate victims. So to the Joker, Skull is a talentless hack, and to the Skull, Joker is a useless lunatic.
- 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.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: He was just a bitter, angry, psychotic street kid who had somehow managed to get a job as a bellhop at a posh hotel. Then Hitler noticed him, and took him under his wing.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The Nazis ain't exactly kids' stuff, and yet the Skull got to appear in Mini Marvels.
- 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 1980s, 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 memory either completely justify 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.
- Joker Immunity
- 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.
- He had an Ignored Epiphany moment here too. After being locked in that shelter for days, starving and alone in the dark, he finally resigned himself to his fate and for the first -- and only -- time in 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 (Cap's reaction to this meeting is the page quote, incidentally), 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).
- Lack of Empathy
- Large Ham: Hugo Weaving clearly had fun playing him in Captain America: The First Avenger.
- Laughably Evil: While he is usually a serious and often pretty angry villain, when he is doing what he loves- outplaying his enemies, screwing over his minions and allies, Cold-Blooded Torture, mass murder- he'll at least be sporting a good Slasher Smile, and on occasion laugh like a maniac when he is doing something really evil.
- 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.
- Master of Disguise: The list of people he's successfully impersonated to run his schemes must be a yard long at this point. And that's not counting the times he's just used other folks' bodies.
- 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.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Although none of his creators, Joe Simon and France Herron, could have known in early 1941, and they imagined him as a purely fictional and cartoonish incarnation of evil, the Skull's espionage exploits match those of both SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich and his close colleague SS-Brigadeführer Walther Schellenberg, while his cruelty, sadism, ruthlessness and physical appearance match the lesser known SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger. It can be said the reality of the Reich surpassed the imagination of Marvel Comics writers.
- Skull for a Head: Used to be a mask, now is a deformity.
- The Social Darwinist: He has abandoned Nazism (it was "out of date"), but he still believes in a world where the strong rule and bully the weak.
- The Sociopath
- The Spymaster: This was basically his job under the Third 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.
- Those Wacky Nazis
- Torture Technician: His hobby, apparently. At least on one occasion he even had his own Torture Cellar, which he said was for "recreation".
- Training from Hell: Claimed to have liked it, to hope and pray that Hitler would come up with something more intense and cruel than last, because pain and punishment and torment were his motivators.
- The Ubermensch
- 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 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 himself sound more remarkable than he was.
- 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 villian Apocalpyse! 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) 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.
- Wicked Cultured: His theme tune is Chopin's Funeral March. He used to play it whenever he dosed someone with his Dust of Death poisoned gas.
- World Domination