How Ultimate Red Skull Could Have Worked

August 7th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

Mark Millar’s in the news due to how his comic Nemesis is officially being turned into a movie. That’s good a reason as any to talk about him. Usually when his name comes up on this site, it’s David cursing his name for saying or writing something stupid. David does not like that guy. I see Millar in a different light.

As a writer, Mark Millar is an extreme mixed bag. His stories are filled to the brim with lots and lots of ideas and it’s a crapshoot on which ones are going to be good and which ones are going to be bad. Most of the time, the bad overshadows the good. Sometimes the contrast causes the story to implode upon itself. Though sometimes it’s also the lack of real substance outside of, “Here’s some crazy shit!” that does that.

It’s telling that two of my favorite Millar stories are Red Son and Civil War (the miniseries itself, not the event). Morrison had a hand in Red Son, giving it an ending that really glued the whole story together. Civil War became more interesting after seeing Tom Brevoort post Millar’s original idea for the series before Brevoort had to play damage control. No pun intended. Millar’s original concept involved killing off Happy Hogan and Pepper’s non-existent child, having Thor come back as part of the series and including Hulk’s return from space as something everyone teams up against. One of the ideas with the Hulk part was that Hulk had so much space poon that the superheroes are challenged by an army of Hulk babies.

I find it funny that the unused Hulk babies idea became one of the bigger ingredients for Old Man Logan later down the line.

Millar belongs to the pantheon of writers who really need a filter of some kind or their writing reaches unfortunate levels of insanity. Other members of this club include Jeph Loeb, Vince Russo and John Kricfalusi. Granted, I hold Millar in higher regard than the rest.

Recently Millar’s returned to the Ultimate line to write Ultimate Avengers comics. I spend so much time focusing on the Loeb Ultimates stuff that I rarely ever bring up what Millar’s been bringing to the table. The one thing that comes to mind that people have talked about a lot is Ultimate Red Skull. The very concept of Ultimate Red Skull is interesting in that Millar had two easy outs prior to this. The first volume of Ultimates had marquee member of the Chitauri alien race, who could have been labeled Ultimate Red Skull and it would have been acceptable. Red Skull reimagined as an alien Nazi who continues to haunt Captain America so many years later? It works, I suppose. Ultimates 2 had an even easier out with Colonel Abdul al-Rahman of the Liberators, a Middle Eastern Super Soldier out to get revenge on Captain America for invading his country. He wears a red mask and is the anti-Captain America. Again, he’d make sense.

But Millar decided neither was good enough. In Ultimate Avengers he wrote the first set of issues based on the real deal Red Skull. It did start out as exciting. The dude certainly looked the part and was on par with Captain America. Then they got the shocking reveal that he’s Cap’s very bastard son. Steve Rogers never knew he impregnated his girlfriend prior to the war and due to threat of scandal, they couldn’t allow anyone to know that Steve’s son existed. He was instead trained for years to take up his father’s mantle until the one day he killed a bunch of guards, tore off the skin on his head for “what the fuck?” dramatic effect and escaped to be a mercenary. He shot JFK out of spite for the government (some hated this, but in retrospect I don’t mind it) and became an all-around asshole. He retired for a while, but came back into the game once AIM was able to create a Cosmic Cube with the power to rule time and space thanks to some blueprints lying around in the Baxter Building.

Another flashback showed how ruthless Red Skull was by forcing a woman to brutally murder her husband. Following that, Red Skull threw her baby out the window and had his men “torture” her in a way that strongly suggests rape. People blasted this part and I completely understand why. It’s trying too hard. There’s a reason why Nazis are a villain staple to this day. They’re a mix of sinister belief and actions and it’s hard to really equate to that with, “Man, that murderer is an extra jerk!” Especially the 616 Red Skull, whose evil comes from megalomaniacal nihilism in addition to being the King of Nazi Scum. I’m sure 616 Red Skull has tossed many a baby out of windows, but that’s just a symptom of how terrible a person he is. We don’t need to see it or hear about it to know what kind of monster we’re dealing with. On the other hand, Ultimate Red Skull’s behavior makes him about as three-dimensional as Carnage.

Red Skull stole the Cosmic Cube, had a one-sided fight with the Ultimates and then got killed when his father teleported a jet into Red Skull’s torso. After all that build-up, the guy is taken out of the picture by the sixth issue. But wait! There’s more!

In another big twist, Red Skull revealed that his big plan was to use the Cosmic Cube to rewrite time so that Captain America came home from the war and they could have lived like a regular family. Awww… Then he got shot in the head and died. Aw. Rightfully so, many rolled their eyes at this turn of events. It made him even lamer, especially in how it didn’t seem to jibe with his horrible, horrible actions throughout the comic arc.

Except it came to me that like with many Millar concepts, it could have been brilliant. If you refined parts of it and rewrote the story in a couple minor ways, the reimagining of Red Skull could have been really well done.

Obviously, the idea is to make Ultimate Red Skull a horrific and cruel demon of a man who is comparable to a super Nazi, but without actually being a Nazi. Shooting JFK and tossing babies isn’t enough alone, as I’ve already gone over. It has to be in his very ideals that drive him that make him horrible and on par with John Schmidt.

What makes a Nazi such a good villain, anyway? The self-importance. The feeling that they can get away with killing with a clear conscience because they feel themselves that superior to their victims. That due to your twisted psyche, there’s belief that every act of evil against innocent people is vindicated by the idea that you’re really making the world a better place.

So let’s go back to Red Skull’s backstory. Yeah, he still escapes from captivity and training and kills a bunch of dudes. He shoots JFK as a form of revenge. That’s fine. But it ends there. He’s finished and he doesn’t want to kill anymore. In fact, after he’s had time to relfect, he’s disgusted by his own actions. Still, he has to move forward and he needs to earn money. The only thing he’s really good at is murder, so he puts himself out as a highly paid mercenary. You can even say that he only chooses the jobs that has him killing more deserving targets and not innocent women and children. He’s still anchored.

He kills a lot of people over the years and becomes a huge name in the assassin game, but he doesn’t care to let it last. He’s saved up his earnings and is more than capable of living the rest of his life in bliss, outside of having to deal with the oceans of blood on his hands. Maybe he even did kill some innocent people out of mistake or because of the heat of the moment. But it’s okay, because he can leave that life behind and does.

While the Cosmic Cube shouldn’t exist earlier, the very theory of it should. AIM geniuses know that it can be a reality, but haven’t perfected the science of it. This is what really drives Red Skull and causes his mental downfall. He works with AIM to pull jobs and steal resources to make the Cosmic Cube a reality. Like in the actual story, he plans to steal the working Cube and use it to screw with time and space so that Steve Rogers is never lost in time and fulfills his role as a father and everyone lives happily ever after.

That brings up a tempting piece of wiggle room for Red Skull. Not only would he grow up in a happier, more normal environment, but all those kills would never have happened. The government agents, the contract killings, the accidental dead children, etc. They’d all be wiped away by history, as would his conscience be wiped clean. He’s so into this idea that he’s able to let loose and kill even more victims during his missions because it no longer matters. To him, life is like something out of Groundhog Day.

The temptation slowly poisons his mind and he begins to lose his grasp. He can even start having his fun with it all. He can throw the babies out of windows. He can torture people. He can do whatever he wants to whoever he wants and it won’t matter because he’s going to set everything back and make everything BETTER! The ends won’t justify the means, but it will nullify it. The repeated setbacks for AIM to create a working Cosmic Cube and the repeated realization that he has to live with everything he’s done only drives Red Skull further and further into insanity.

When he fights his father and the Ultimates over the real deal Cosmic Cube, it’s finally all come to a head. If he succeeds, he can get a chance at happiness with no strings attached. If and when he fails, all he can do is mull over the fact that he is one of the last century’s greatest monsters and there’s no longer anything he can do to change that. Forget the Ultimate stories with Ghost Rider or Loki. THIS is what happens when you sell your soul and it blows up in your face.

Maybe that is more or less what Millar intended, but the rushed start and finish of his existence in six issues didn’t do him any favors. Either way, the idea of a man who kills innocent people out of optimistic nihilism is good enough to fulfill the Red Skull mantle in my eyes.

On second thought, this is very similar to how Bishop’s been written lately, isn’t it? At least this way we aren’t forever ruining a mainstay hero’s character through pointless corruption. For a character derived from a villain so bad that even the other villains outright hate him? Yeah, that’s more like it.

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13 comments to “How Ultimate Red Skull Could Have Worked”

  1. This article is damn fine. It’s not crappy Millar bashing but it does understand that he’s just not that great. I wonder what his creator owned ideas would be like with heavier editing…? They might even end up good.

    I didn’t realise there was another Millar synopsis for Civil War. Be very interested to read it, might get my Google on right now.

  2. That would have been nice. Rather liked that take/idea.

    But, I also didn’t have as much of a problem with the character as others (especially when I reread the story in one sitting).

  3. I think it was Chris Sims, but definitely someone on Comics Alliance, who pointed out that Ultimate Red Skull is basically a repeat of the plot beats from The Authority’s fight against a previous Doctor. Even, apparently, down to being brutally killed after he gains complete control of his reality-warping powers and becomes more sympathetic.

  4. Great article Gav

  5. @Steven: He was specifically pointing out that the scene where Red Skull makes Red Wasp relive the destruction of her family was identical to when the evil Doctor made the Engineer relive a moment of sexual abuse

  6. Maybe Millar should use you as an editor, Gavok! Great post. I thought your explanation for the Skull’s sadistic actions was especially clever.

  7. I haven’t read these comics, but it sounds kind of interesting, repeated motifs aside (hello, ten years of Marvel movies). Setting up Red Skull as a literal nemesis for UltCapAm – the dark mirror/dark heart of the American dream (bit ’90’s, maybe?). UltCapAm isn’t a nice enough guy for that to work, though – although maybe that’s a good thing? Lets the ambivalence of ol’ CrimCrain work?

    Nemesis Cap. Hmm.


  8. Well, Millar can still use this idea for an Ultimate Molecule Man, I guess…

  9. Good summary, flipped through these issues at the comic shop enough to get Millar’s “big idea.” This is why I bought Ultimates 1 and 2, Authority, and pretty much all of Millar’s output and ceased exactly at Civil War and beyond. Two big criticisms that have been cited here (your piece and the comments) and elsewhere
    a) over reliance on “money shots” with zero regard for plot and character, which maps to why your Red Skull would have been better and
    b) rehashing old ideas, especially money shots, we’ve already seen from his earlier, better work (especially “cool” ways to kill baddies like flying through their skulls) and looking at him apart from his work
    c) his relentless self-promotion and over-hyping without any sense of humor or irony about it

  10. I could be wrong since I haven’t read it an awhile but didn’t the evil Doctor actually go back in time and sexually abuse the engineer, thereby causing her to have a breakdown during their fight?

    Anyway great post. Millar is very hit or miss for me, mostly miss. I did like his wolverine enemy of the state, but not his WW2 wolvie concentration camp story, ugh.

  11. […] the first. Then again, I didn't have nearly as many problems with the Red Skull as others. Though, Gavok at 4thletter has some cool thoughts on how the character could have worked better without changing a […]

  12. they’re not so much full of ideas as they’re full of one idea and that idea is “what if you took __________________, but instead, he was a huge douche?”

  13. About the supposed let-down of him being taken out so quickly…am I the only one who thought they were going to reveal the Red Skull who gave that story about going back in time to change history was really just a duplicate made using the Cosmic Cube and the real Red Skull is still out there working on something else?