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By Thomas Wheeler

There haven't been a lot of action figures of the Red Skull over the years. This is understandable, I believe, because the guy is, quite frankly, a Nazi. You don't get much more unpopular than that. Even military action figure lines that might produce World War II figures are careful to avoid that word. They'll call the soldiers "Germans", but not "Nazis", and sure as heck you're not going to see any swastikas.

In the case of the Red Skull especially, for years his basic uniform was a plain green jumpsuit -- with a big white swastika in the center of it. You're just not going to put that in the action figure section of Toys "R" Us and get away with it. Fortunately, over the past couple of decades, the Red Skull has been dressing better. But he still hasn't seen a lot of action figures.

The last one that I really recall of any significance was one from the Famous Covers line, a series of 9", cloth costumed Marvel action figures, produced by Toy Biz. And even then, the Skull was exclusive to comic shops and the like, and the costume was careful to avoid any armbands with controversial insignias on them.

Nevertheless, the Red Skull remains the best known arch-enemy of none other than Captain America. So when a big-budget, live-action movie featuring the Star-Spangled Avenger was produced, especially since the movie spent most of its time in the days of World War II, there was really only one choice for the main villain -- the Red Skull. And that also meant that there would have to be an action figure of him.

Let's consider the comic book history of the Red Skull, and then how the character was presented in the movie.

The Red Skull, real name Johann Schmidt (a German version of "John Smith" as much as anything), in the modern Captain America title, is a former Nazi general officer and confidant of Adolf Hitler. He has been closely affiliated with HYDRA and is regarded as an enemy of Captain America, SHIELD, the Avengers, and the interests of the United States and the free world in general. Some years back, he was physically augmented by having his mind placed into the body of a clone of Captain America, the pinnacle of human perfection. He has been seemingly killed in the past, only to return time and again.

Johann Schmidt was born in a village in Germany to Hermann and Martha Schmidt. Schmidt's mother died in childbirth and his father blamed Johann for it, and tried to murder him, only to be stopped by the attending doctor. The father later committed suicide and Johann was orphaned. He grew up on the streets as a beggar and a thief, struggling to survive. Constantly bullied and robbed of his meager stolen provisions by orphan children larger than himself, he developed a hatred for humanity in general.

A key episode in his life was when he fell for a local Jewish girl, but when she spurned his clumsy advances, he murdered her, finding a release for his frustrations.

Schmidt worked as a menial laborer and in his late teens, during th rise of the Third Reich, Schmidt got his most prosperous job; a bellhop in a major hotel. While there, he served the rooms of Adolf Hitler himself. By chance, Schmidt was present when the Fuhrer was furiously scolding a subordinate officer, during which Hitler pledged that he could create a better Nazi out of the bellhop. Looking closely at the youth and sensing Schmidt's grim potential, Hitler decided to take up the challenge he had just uttered and recruited Schmidt.

Dissatisfied with the standard drill instruction his subordinates used to train Schmidt, Hitler took over personally, and trained Schmidt as his right-hand man. Upon completion, Hitler gave Schmidt a unique uniform with a grim red skull mask, and he emerged as the Red Skull for the first time.

His role was to be the embodiment of Nazi intimidation, while Hitler could remain the popular leader of Germany. To that end, the Red Skull was appointed the head of Nazi terrorist activities with an additional large role in external espionage and sabotage. He succeeded, wreaking havoc throughout Europe in the early stages of World War II. The effect was so great that the United States government decided to counter it by creating their own equivalent using the one recipient of the lost Project Rebirth, Steve Rogers, as Captain America.

The two clashed for the first time soon after, and would continue to battle throughout the war, ending with a final battle that left the Skull buried under the rubble of a bombed building. Exposed to an experimental gas as the building collapsed, he remained there in suspended animation for decades, even as Captain America survived by being frozen in a block of ice.

The Skull was eventually rescued and revived from suspended animation in modern times by the terrorist organization known as AIM. The Skull quickly subverted a cell to his own ambitions of global conquest and the death of Captain America. He stole the Cosmic Cube, an artifact that can bring to reality the thoughts and dreams of its user, an item the Skull has been obsessed with over the decades, and later fought Captain America for the first time since the War, but was defeated and fell off a cliff while trying to get the Cube.

Thus the two enemies resumed their war, with Captain America, along with other opponents, consistently frustrating the Skull's schemes. Over the years, the Skull captured part of Manhattan Island, fought doctor Doom, clashed with the Kingpin, fomented racial hatred in New York, and was revealed as the true power behind the Las Vegas branch of HYDRA.

The war between Captain America and the Red Skull reached a breaking point when the Red Skull discovered that the gas that had placed him in suspended animation was now wearing off, and that his body was rapidly aging to what would be the Skull's true age. Now physically in his mid-80's, a weakened Red Skull planned for a final showdown. Kidnapping Captain America's closest allies, he forced Captain America to surrender himself and to forcibly undergo a treatment that aged Captain America's body to its rightful age, equivalent to the Skull's. The two men fought one last battle to the death. Yet at the last minute, Captain America refused to kill the Skull, and the Skull died cursing Captain America. The Avengers were able to restore Captain America's youth.

However, the Red Skull would not stay dead for long. Nazi geneticist Arnim Zola had obtained DNA samples of Captain America years earlier, and arranged for the Skull's mind to be transplanted into a clone body of Captain America at the moment of his death. Before long, however, an exposure to his own "Dust of Death", to which he is largely immune, would leave the Skull permanently disfigured, with his head taking on the appearance of his former mask, that of an actual Red Skull.

The Red Skull decided that he would reinvent himself and his quest for absolute power as a means to celebrate his cheating death. He abandoned his longstanding Nazi beliefs, on the belief that the Nazi philosophy made him look like a relic of the past. The Skull instead turned towards American ideology for his new motivation. He saw much potential in the American dream of capitalism and self-determination and set about establishing his own foothold inside Washington DC, eventually gaining control over "The Commission", a government body that monitored and strive to regulate superhero activities.

Skull's tenure in Washington came to an end when he was captured and taken to Germany to stand trial for crimes against humanity, stemming from his days as an agent of the Third Reich. He escaped with the help of Arnim Zola, and ended up on the run. His schemes have continued, and he manages to turn up when least expected, and always dangerous.

The Red Skull's relationship with other supervillains has been fraught with problems over the years, mostly because not even super-villains want to associate with a Nazi. He has gone up against the Kingpin, Doctor Doom, Magneto, and even The Wizard, demanding an apology for an insult, to which the Wizard replied, "You'll see yourself welcomed into Heaven before I speak those words." One of the Skull's few allies is a fellow Nazi, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, leader of the terrorist organization HYDRA. The Red Skull has frequently made use of HYDRA resources in his own schemes.

As for the movie, Captain America is portrayed by actor Hugo Weaving. He is the commander of the Nazi deep science division HYDRA. This Red Skull was also the recipient of an earlier version of the super-soldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America, and hence has the physical strength and fighting ability similar to that of Cap. The red skull appearance of his face was a side effect of the serum.

The basic plot of the movie as it relates to the Red Skull is this. In March of 1942, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt and his men invade Tonsberg, Norway, to steak a mysterious tesseract -- effectively the Cosmic Cube -- possessing untold powers. In New York City, Steve Rogers is rejected for military duty due to various health and physical issues. Later, he is overheard in a conversation with a friend by Dr. Abraham Erskine, who allows Rogers to enlist, and recruits him as part of a "super-soldier" project. The night before the treatment, Erskine reveals to Rogers that Schmidt underwent an imperfect version of the treatment, and suffered side-effects, leading to his becoming the Red Skull.

In Italy, in 1943, Rogers' learns that a unit including his friend, Bucky Barnes, was lost in battle against Schmidt's forces. Mounting a rescue attempt, Rogers infiltrates the fortress belonging to Schmidt's HYDRA organization, freeing Barnes and the other captured soldiers. Rogers confronts Schmidt who reveals his human face to be a mask, removing it to display the red-colored, skull-like face underneath that earned him the sobriquet the Red Skull.

Later in the movie, Rogers leads an attack against Schmidt's final base to stop him from using weapons based on the tesseract device. Rogers climbs aboard Schmidt's jet before it takes off, and during the fight with Schmidt, Rogers damages the tesseract's container. Schmidt physically handles the tesseract, causing him to dissolve in a bright light. Rogers, seeing no way to safely land the plane without the onboard weapons detonating, crashes the plane in the arctic.

Rogers awakens in a hospital room. Deducing that something is wrong, he flees outside into what is revealed to be present day Times Square. There he is met by Nick Fury, who informs him that he has been "asleep" for nearly 70 years, and following the end credits, proposes a mission with worldwide ramifications, thus finally setting the stage for the 2012 Avengers movie, as there have been links throughout the recent Marvel-based movies to accomplish just this.

There's no shortage of connections even though the bulk of the movie takes place during World War II. One of the prominent characters is Howard Stark, Tony Stark's father, for example.

The Nazi-HYDRA connection serves two purposes -- it somewhat blunts the Nazi presence in what is otherwise a comic-book based movie, without removing it entirely, since doing so would be a disservice to the characters and the comic history, which did use Nazis (not at all uncommon for comics published in the 1940's), and there is a connection between the Nazis and HYDRA in Marvel Comics, as in the comics continuity, HYDRA was founded by former Nazi agent Baron von Strucker following the war, as a means of carrying on the Reich in a different way, and HYDRA continues to exist in modern-day Marvel Comics, as arguably the most prominent terrorist organization in the Marvel Universe.

However, placing the movie Skull in charge of HYDRA allows for the film's main villain to be ever so slightly distanced from historical Nazis, and as such a little more palatable to modern movie audiences -- and action figure lines.

So, how's the figure? Very nicely done, I must say. Although clearly designed as part of the movie-based line, I am of the opinion that this Red Skull figure could work with just about any aspect of the Marvel Universe action figures. As it is, the Captain America line itself has no shortage of comic-based figures in it, in a special division.

The headsculpt is excellent, and looks very much like a somewhat more realistically plausible version of the Red Skull. In the comics, the Skull has alternately worn a somewhat exaggerated skull-like mask, or suffered some injury that has left his actual head resembling that of a skull, colored red. The latter is clearly intended to be the case in the movie, but obviously that presented some interesting make-up challenges for the production crew. According to some details about the movie, Hugo Weaving wore a latex prosthetic mask conceived by prosthetic makeup designer David White. However, the visual effects team nevertheless had to manipulate his face considerably due to the bulkiness of the mask, to make it look like right skin wrapped around a very bony structure. The team thinned out Weaving's cheeks and lower lip, hollowed out his eyes, and removed his eyelashes and much of his nose to make him appear more like the Red Skull character.

The action figure does a good job of imitating this modified look. The head is relatively narrow, with sunken eyes, a pronounced, angular brow, jutting cheekbones that quickly sink into the face underneath the eyes, an angular jaw, an ugly slash of a mouth, and a definitely minimized nose. The head is a moderately dark red in color, with a certain amount of shadow painted on it, especially on the nose, which in this case is not at all inappropriate. Somewhat surprising is the presence of ears, or at least the remnants of ears, on either side of the head. This is something that, in the comics, sometimes the Red Skull has had, sometimes he hasn't. Depends on the artist, really.

Interestingly, even the Red Skull's hands are red, but if we take the movie origin, then this is not a mask, but a side effect of the super-soldier serum, so we would have to assume that the Red Skull's entire body has been affected.

As I said earlier in the review, the Red Skull has improved his wardrobe in the comics in recent decades, and no longer wears just a green jumpsuit. This is fortunate for the movie incarnation, although I suspect something would have been done here regardless.

The Skull's uniform looks like a somewhat futuristic Nazi officer's uniform. It's a little sleeker, a little less ornate. Call it a bit of a side-step from the traditional Nazi wardrobe. There's enough there to be sufficiently reminiscent of Nazi uniforms, without pegging it directly as such and incurring the wrath of those who might pitch a fit about a character like the Red Skull being rendered as a toy. Smart move on the designers' part.

The uniform features a fairly long-bodied jacket, that descends far enough to almost be regarded as a tunic. It is a dark gray-green in color, with a line of black trim down the front, and angular lines of black trim on the sides, both front and back. These side lines of trim give the outfit its semi-futuristic look as much as anything. They also serve to outline large pockets on the sides of the jacket below the belt. The black line of trim down the front is punctuated by a series of silver buttons, and intersected bu a black belt across the waist, with a silver buckle.

The insides of the sleeves are also black, with black cuffs, and there are ridged details along the arms, adding to the somewhat futuristic look of the coat. Two pockets with silver clasps are near the top of the coat on the front, and perhaps most Nazi-like, the jacket has a fairly high collar, in black, outlined in light gray. It's really a very effective design, and entirely appropriate to the character.

The figure's trousers are very military, the same dark gray-green color, and billow out near the top somewhat, again not uncommon for the fancy dress uniforms that the upper echelons of the Nazis were known to wear. Couple that with the very high black boots and you've certainly got a complete and effective image.

About the only mild annoyance on the figure is a small number -- not sure what the purpose of it is, but I encounter this sort of thing on a wide range of action figures from various companies all the time, imprinted on the side of one of the boots. Unfortunately the numbers are white against a black boot, so it's pretty obvious. It's also nothing that a little bit of black acrylic paint can't remedy.

The figure is nicely designed, and certainly neatly painted. I'm especially impressed with the deepset eyes. They're smaller than usual for a figure in this size range, and they can't have been easy to paint.

The Red Skull is very agreeably articulated, but there are a few hindrances. The Red Skull is poseable at the head, arms, elbows (including a swivel), wrists, waist, legs, and double-jointed knees. There is also an upper-leg swivel. Now, there's two issues here. One is the fact that the lower part of the coat hangs low enough so that it is a severe impedance to the leg articulation. The Red Skull isn't going to be sitting down anytime soon. The second is the fact that, much to my surprise, there is no ankle articulation. The end result of this is that, as much as I normally frown upon double-jointed elbows and knees, I'm sort of glad that the Red Skull has double-jointed knees, because it allows for the necessary adjustments to the legs to allow him to stand up well.

Ultimately, there wasn't much that could have been done about the coat, so I'm not blaming the toy designers for that. I do think the figure should have been given articulated ankles. Given the limitations of the leg articulation, it would've helped.

The Red Skull comes with four accessories -- a Cosmic Cube tesseract molded in transparent blue that is giving off some "energy" bursts, a very nicely made pistol done in silver gray that I recommend putting either very securely into his hand or a Ziploc bag, as the figure lacks a holster, and the inevitable large accessory with a spring-loaded capability, defined as a "Fast-Firing Rocket Launcher". This is actually one of the better-looking such accessories that I've seen for a while. Although comically large, the basic design isn't all that far afield. It's more futuristic than anything that came out of World War II, but it looks a little more plausible than some of the items included with figures in this line. It comes with a missile molded in translucent blue.

So, what's my final word here? I'm glad I found this figure. There's just not that many action figures of the Red Skull out there, because of the character's history, but they pretty much HAD to make him for this line, and honestly, I do believe the figure is workable in any Marvel 4" collection, and need not be restricted to the Captain America movie line. If you want to integrate him into your mainline Marvel Universe line, he's pretty workable for that. And certainly the figure is well-designed, well-made, nicely painted, and I commend both the movie producers and Hasbro for coming up with such an effective rendition of the character.

The CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE SERIES figure of the RED SKULL definitely has my very enthusiastic recommendation!