Friday, March 30, 2012

Marvel Legends Face-Off: Captain America vs Red Skull

Let's continue our sporadic sojourn through 2000s Action Figure history. As I stated in my Magneto review, Marvel set the standard for awesome action figures in the early 2000s with ToyBiz's Marvel Legends line. These were, in a way unprecedented for their time, colourful, characterful representations of much-loved comic personas given the attention they deserved. Although the ToyBiz line had its ups and downs, it produced a wealth of strong figures and set a high bar. One of ToyBiz's last endeavours before business was handed over to Hasbro, whose efforts have met with more mixed reception, was the Face-Off line. Really, it makes sense: package a classic Marvel hero with their archenemy and fun is pretty much bound to happen at some point. One item from the first wave was the set I'm looking at here, featuring Captain America versus his long time nemesis Johann Shmidt, the Red Skull. This is one of the oldest oppositions in superhero comic history: both Cap and Red Skull debuted in 1941, and the arch-enemy situation was only narrowly pepped by the appearance of guys like Joker and Luthor a year earlier.
Often the best archenemies are always caught in a dualistic quandary of opposites; many heroes and villains are of course great despite not being mirrors of their foes, but a truly great "archenemy" relationship usually has a good foundation in dualism. For Batman and Joker, it's order and chaos. For Superman and Luthor, it was traditionally brawn and brains. For Cap and Skull, the opposition is clear: one represents a utopian dream and the other a fascistic nightmare. Cap is famously loyal to one thing: the usefully nebulous concept of the "American Dream". He fights for freedom, justice, peace and opportunity. He is the incarnation of what America is supposed to represent, although not necessarily what it is. Cap's a guy who's both a thinker and a doer: he wants a better world, and he's fought for it many times. Red Skull, with his classic villain origins as a Nazi leader, is a harbinger of the evils of power for its own sake, of unreasoning hatred and the wilful propagation of misery and terror. Among the supervillain ranks he's a total monster. Their rivalry is a very traditional one, a classic struggle of good against evil. Steve Rogers is, even in his least heroic moments, fundamentally a good man, and Schmidt is never anything less than a completely unsympathetic abomination.
What also makes Cap interesting alongside his utopian ideals are his moments of doubt. He often finds himself struggling to be the representation of a dream in an increasingly cynical time, and to be the heroic avatar of a country with as many problems as any and with whose government he is often at odds. What's engaging about the Skull, alternately, is that in many ways he's uncomplicated, a figure of pure malice who is a fitting contrast to ambiguous villains like Magneto and Doctor Doom. Unlike cynicism or the weariness of the human spirit, Red Skull is someone Captain America can physically confront. Hell bent on causing havoc for no greater reason than sadism and power-lust, he puts himself in the unfortunate position of being the guy Cap gets to beat up at the end of the day. For what is a man compared to the evils that afflict society? For the same reason, that's why I like Captain America, even though I'm not American. I think we all aspire to the notion of a truly free society, a perfectly functioning democracy and ultimately the right to dream of such things. A lot of people who don't really know comics make the mistake of seeing Captain America as some kind of apple-pie-munching right-wing patriot nut job or a stooge of the US government but he's neither of those things, just a man who still dares to dream of, and is willing to fight for, a better world.
Anyway, that's enough of me waxing lyrical about comic characters. Let's talk action figures.
Face-Off Captain America is not the first representation of Steve Rogers produced by ToyBiz. The original version was the very first toy in the first wave of Marvel Legends. While it's gone down as a classic because of how high it set the standard from the off, it has some obvious shortcomings as the first attempt in comparison to Face-Off Cap. It's generally less detailed. The most notable element of this is that the scales on his armour are just a transfer, one which I daresay would wear down or peel off with too much use. On this one, Face-Off Cap, the scales are fully sculpted onto the figure. I believe this is because Face-Off Cap is actually based on the Toybiz Ultimate Captain America, which was an intermediary. A completely new sculpt, it represented Steve Rogers' Ultimate Universe counterpart, who lacks the wings and the swashbuckler boots and stuff. As such Face-Off Cap is basically an Ultimate Cap with new bits again. His head in particular is extremely detailed, and thankfully it doesn't use the face sculpt of Ultimate Cap. While he maybe looks a bit purse-mouthed the quality's nonetheless very high. This Cap also has the utility belt, which is bedecked with pouches and a water canteen for carrying all of Cap's useful crime fighting utilities as well as snacks and so on I imagine. This is another benefit of the figure being "reverse engineered" as it were from Ultimate Cap. The cuffs of the gloves are kind of big and the boots are too; it's really a very comic-oriented depiction, perhaps a little displaced from what you might consider "realistic" if such a term is indeed even remotely applicable to action figures of comic book characters.
The paint's good as usual, with a wash so that it's perhaps a little less bright blue and red than some depictions of Cap. Mostly it's been done with a good amount of care, although there are occasional places on the chest where the stripes are, on the back of the head and on the lower arms where it's not perfect. The white paint on the arms actually seems to have been a bit caked on which makes them a touch difficult to move. It's very good on the belt, though. The buckle and all the buttons on the pouches are done neatly in silver. Overall it's an impressive job. There are a few other sculpting elements worth mentioning, such as the creases on the pants. Cap's a big guy, and he's got an incredibly chunky back with extremely muscled shoulders and neck. This can make him look a little hunched unless you bend his upper torso all the way back but once that's done it's not really an issue. I feel like he was originally sculpted to be in a crouching pose, ready to spring into combat with dastardly Nazis and such so I guess that explains it. The wings and ears are nicely detailed too, I must say. It really is a great sculpt, and the Ultimate body has both been used effectively for its benefits and altered in a way which I think gives us a definitive Mainstream Universe Captain America.
Cap of course comes with his mighty shield, which is removable. This too is appropriately detailed and well painted. It bears two elastic bands so that Cap can wear it on his back as he often does. It also has a sort of clip hinged in the boss of the shield as it were so that it can be clipped onto his wrist but thus far I haven't really managed to do that effectively. I normally just loop one thing of elastic over his arm and one in his hand, and that seems to more or less do the trick anyway. One thing which I think is kind of a shame is that there isn't a way to position the shield so that Cap's holding it on the edge as if swinging for a throw. His fingers are all hinged though so I guess if you wanted to use some blu tac or something to try to make it work you could.
This gets us onto the last issue, the articulation. Cap is certainly the most articulated toy I've ever encountered, and I think he's up there with the most articulated individuals in the range. Let's see what we've got here: ball and socket shoulders, ball-jointed hips and head, double jointed elbows and knees, a hinged torso, ankle joints, toes and wrists, swivel waist, upper and lower arms, and thighs and ankles, and to top it all off, the piece de resistance: individually hinged fingers. Cap can be balling his hands into a fist, he can be pointing, he can be flipping you the bird or giving you the finger, he can be signing V for Victory or blessing someone in a Renaissance painting, he can be drinking a cup of tea like a gentleman, the works. It really is impressive.
I've got to say that this really is the definitive Cap figure. Combining the detail of the Ultimate Cap with the timeless, classic look of the Mainstream Universe, with a good paint job and serious articulation and you've got one well-assembled Avenger. I'd definitely recommend him, because I don't think we're going to see a better representation any time soon.
With that in order, let's move on to the dastardly Red Skull. While still a decent figure in his own right, Red Skull is definitely the lesser item in the set. One reason for this is that he's just not as articulated. The main reason in my view, however, is the design. It's fair to say that Red Skull doesn't really have a definitive outfit like many heroes and villains. Indeed in most of the comics I've read featuring the Skull, which have been in the run, ongoing as of my writing this, by Ed Brubaker, he's usually just been in a suit. If there's any really distinctive outfit it might be a Nazi uniform, obviously a hard sell for an action figure which, no matter its "collector's item" status, is by a company which sells stuff also to kids. The only other one I can think of is the rather dull green baggy jumpsuit thing he wore in the Seventies. In this version they've opted to have the Skull in the outfit he's wearing on the cover of the included comic, Captain America Volume 4 #32. The thing is, as far as I can determine, beyond this cover by Dave Johnson the Skull has never worn the outfit in which he's depicted in the toy.
It's somewhat similar, I admit, to what he's wearing inside the comic as drawn by Scot Eaton. In the story, the Skull's stolen a SHIELD exo-suit so that he can get the physical edge over Cap. The thing is, it's much more understated, somewhat chunkier, and completely black. For some reason this "cover version" of the suit is red and blue, and not only is it not especially intimidating-looking it's a bit too similar in colour to Cap. It has spiky pads on the backs of the hands and on the elbows. It looks kind of like a weird carnival outfit or something, not any kind of armour or indeed really like anything the Skull would wear. It's too ostentatious. If it was all black I think it'd be better. The other really weird thing is that the Skull comes with a sword. It's from the cover too, although as illustrated it's somewhat more like a dagger. In the body of the comic itself it's absolutely nowhere to be seen. It feels like it's included since Cap gets his shield so Skull needs some accessory too. I don't know why he couldn't have a had a gun or something, which I think would be more his style.
The compensation for this is that it completely trumps its predecessor. Like Cap, Face-Off Red Skull is not ToyBiz's first go at the character. Despite being originally portrayed in a conspicuously nonspecific military uniform including cap and pistol, the original ToyBiz Red Skull is a downright ugly sculpt and apparently has very little opportunity for posing. I think if they'd managed to blend the design of the original Red Skull with the detailing and articulation of this Red Skull they would have had the perfect representation of Cap's archenemy but sadly it was not to be. In this way I can say that despite the rather bizarre choice of design the sculpt is nontheless very nice. The outfit's extremely detailed, especially on the chest and arms. There are also realistic creases and folds on the pants and boots much like Cap. The face too is a good sculpt; it's a less exaggerated and thus more intimidating realisation of Schmidt's eponymous visage. His eyes are glowing yellow and he appears to be shouting in rage which is also applicable to this monstrosity of a villain. He really does look rather psychotic.
Red Skull's not as articulated as Cap but he's still got all the expected trimmings. We're talking ball-jointed shoulders and hips, double-jointed elbows and knees, a swivel waist, neck, lower arms and ankles, and hinged wrists, fingers, ankle joints, toes and torso. As such he's perhaps not as almost over-articulated as some more popular characters like Cap and Magneto but he's certainly sufficiently articulated for the task at hand, which may be one of his many past times of laughing maniacally, running away from Captain America, running at Captain America, and striking malefic poses. While his hand doesn't grip the sword amazingly tightly it still stays in place. Amusingly enough it stays in place the best when wedged along the length of the blade into his mouth.
So that's Red Skull for you. Not great, but he gets the job done. As I say, the real let down is the rather confusing choice of costume for the character.
What else do you get with this pack? One thing is a stand. I cannot for the life of me figure out how this thing is meant to work. It has clear plastic poles with hinges and plugs on the end. Cap and Skull have little slots in their backs for these to fit into, but I can't figure out why. When they're put in a likely position Cap and Red Skull overbalance the poles and cause the whole thing to fall over. It only helps them stand up when completely bent perpendicular at the lower hinge so I can't discern what the upper hinge is for. When this is in place they're both so far out that they can't really be positioned so that they're fighting. It also has a slot for a card insert which comes in the back of the back to form a backdrop for the figures and which I dare not remove for fear of tearing it. It depicts a bunch of HYDRA agents running around in an aircraft hangar, and so seems more appropriate for inclusion in the chase variant of this pack which depicts an unmasked Steve Rogers fighting Baron Strucker. It's a nice enough stand I guess, with some empty bullet casings and stuff on, but it's fairly unremarkable.
The next included element is some unique card for some kind of Marvel collectible card game I neither know nor care about. The last element is the ubiquitous included comic, which as mentioned earlier is Issue 32 of Volume 4 of Captain America, by Robert Kirkman, recently of The Walking Dead fame. It basically features Cap having a big fight with Red Skull. A house gets knocked down, Cap thinks Diamondback has just been killed by Skull but she hasn't, and SHIELD turns up at the end for a sort of Inspector Gadget moment where all the good guys laugh while Red Skull is dragged off fuming into the sunset. That's about it; I'd hardly call it a landmark issue. I'm not sure why they didn't pick a better comic and use it to depict Red Skull in a better costume but that's a mystery to me.
I guess the thing I have to emphasise is that this pack is really worth it for Cap. The Captain America figure is extremely good, the best Mainstream universe Captain America figure in this scale and probably in general, and any Cap enthusiast will surely enjoy it. That being said it only includes a decent but rather uninspiring Red Skull, a fairly mediocre comic and a very strange stand. I'm glad I bought it because I really wanted the Cap figure but the relatively unspectacular nature of the additional elements may make some people struggle to justify the cost. I say that because this set is very rare even though it's a late ToyBiz item, and you'll be struggling to find it on eBay for less than a hundred bucks even before shipping. If you want a Cap figure and you're happy with it maybe being a bit used then try to find a separate one because as I say the Captain America is definitely worth it. The other bits may not leave you with the same feeling but at least you'll have Cap confidently bringing the American Dream to your shelf or display case.

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