Red Skull: Who is the Leader of HYDRA?

Hail HYDRA

Red Skull: “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!”

Captain America: The First Avenger

A man observes several monitors and watches an army tear a swath through New York City, slowed only by the so-called superheroes. Another screen shows buildings crumbling as bombs planted by saboteurs explode. A third screen shows mutants, Inhumans, and minorities being rounded up. Those with useful abilities are sent for reeducation. All others are sent to gas chambers.

An assassin sneaks up behind the man. He pulls out a gun, but too loud. Loud enough to alert his target. The man dodges the assassin’s bullet and rushes him. He knocks the gun from the assassin’s hand and punches his stomach. He follows up by hurling crimson dust at the doubled-over assassin, whose head slowly shrivels into a bloody skull. Red Skull grins at the transformation and turns back to the monitors to lead his troops.

Red Skull is Marvel’s cruelest character. He was raised by Hitler, participated in the Third Reich, and left to start his own organization because the Nazis weren’t extreme enough. So who is he? How did he create HYDRA? How is he alive today? Let’s find out.

Nobody to Nightmare: Red Skull’s Backstory

Schmidt: “My apologies, Doctor, but we both knew HYDRA could grow no further in Hitler’s shadow. Hail HYDRA.”  

Captain America: The First Avenger

Red Skull debuted in Captain America Comics #1 in 1941. He was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Simon came up with the character after finding a cherry on an ice cream sundae that looked like a skull.

Johann Schmidt was born to a poor German family. His mother died in childbirth and his father committed suicide almost immediately afterwards. Johann grew up alone and bitter. The only person who cared for him was a young Jewish girl he fell in love with. She rejected his affection and he killed her. Initially horrified by what he had done, Johann realized that killing her was the happiest his demented psyche had ever felt.

Johann met his mentor while working as a hotel bellhop. Hitler was staying at the hotel and learned that one of his military operations had failed. While yelling at the messenger, he pointed out Johann and claimed that he could make a mere bellhop a better Nazi than the messenger.

Hitler found a kindred spirit in Johann and ordered his top operatives to train him. Johann became a skilled saboteur, tactician, and general under their tutelage. After training, Hitler gave him a new identity for propaganda purposes. Johann Schmidt was dead. In his place was Der Roter Totenkopf, The Red Skull.

The Red Skull rampaged through Europe, inspiring the Allies to create a counterpart. Their Super Soldier project created Red Skull’s archenemy, Captain America. The pair clashed repeatedly, but neither could defeat the other.

Realizing that Germany was losing the war, Red Skull instructed Baron Strucker to clandestinely stockpile troops and weapons in Asia. Red Skull claimed that if any of their soldiers were killed, two more would take their place, naming his hidden organization HYDRA.

Red Skull suspended his plans for HYDRA as the Allies advanced on Berlin. He engaged Captain America in one last battle. He was thought to be dead when his bunker exploded.

Evil Reborn: Red Skull’s History

Captain America: 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.”

Captain America #370

Shortly after Captain America was revived from being frozen, he encountered the Red Skull again. He learned that Red Skull had been trapped in suspended animation by an experimental gas and hidden from the world by the rubble. Red Skull was rescued by A.I.M., the science division of HYDRA.

Red Skull created a clone of Captain America and transferred his mind into it to gain similar powers. Newly-empowered, he set off to conquer the world in the name of his Fourth Reich. Red Skull also became obsessed with an artifact called The Cosmic Cube, which conveys the ability to warp reality.

Red Skull recently appeared in the lead-up to Secret Empire, using the Cosmic Cube to make Captain America believe that he had always been a deep-cover HYDRA agent. The former enemies manipulated events to set up a HYDRA coup d’etat against the U.S. Unfortunately for Red Skull, HYDRA-Cap was loyal to the organization and its ideals, not him. Captain America finally murdered Red Skull, bringing an end to Johann’s reign of terror.

SS Super-Soldier: Red Skull’s Powers and Personality

The Joker: “You mean that isn’t some crazy disguise? I’ve been working with a Nazi?!
Red Skull: “But of course. Why are you so upset, Joker? From what I have read of your exploits, it seemed obvious you would make a superb Nazi!”
Joker: “That mask must be cutting off the oxygen to your brain. I may be a criminal lunatic, but I’m an American criminal lunatic! Keep back, boys! This creep is mine!”

Batman and Captain America (Elseworlds)

The Red Skull originally lacked superpowers. His training made him an expert sharpshooter, tactician, general, saboteur, assassin, and martial artist. Transferring his mind into a Captain America clone added superhuman strength, speed, agility, durability, and a healing factor.

Red Skull’s signature weapon is the Dust of Death, a crimson gas that kills on contact and causes the victim’s head to shrivel until it resembles a bloody skull. He commonly hides the Dust of Death in a fake cigarette and plays Chopin’s Funeral March as the victim dies. Yes, that means that Red Skull provides his own theme music.

Red Skull is an unrepentant Nazi whose friend and mentor was Hitler himself. As you might guess, this has made him the most hated character in the Marvel Universe, bar none. Half of the supervillain community is terrified of him and the other half consider him too evil to work with. 

Even the head honchos of supervillainy hate the Red Skull. The Kingpin considers it his patriotic duty to oppose him, Doctor Doom hates him because of the slaughter of his Romani ancestors, and Auschwitz survivor Magneto tries to kill him on sight.

The Actors Who Play Red Skull

Paul Kligman – The Marvel Super Heroes
Peter Cullen – Spider-Man (1981)/ Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends
Cedric Smith – X-Men
David Warner and Earl Boen – Spider-Man: the Animated Series
Mark Hamill – The Super Hero Squad Show
Steven Blum – The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Liam O’Brian – Avengers Assemble/ Hulk and the Agents of S.MA.S.H./ Marvel Future Adventures
Motomu Kiyokawa – Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers
Scott Paulin – Captain America (1990)
Hugo Weaving – Captain America: The First Avenger/ Avengers: Infinity War/ Avengers: Endgame

Didya Get All That?

The ultimate Nazi supervillain

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