Tuesday, June 28, 2016

March of the Living (indie game)

Not quite the cruellest month.
No, it's got nothing to do with the Holocaust education program... it's a rogue-lite zombie indie game by Machine 22, available on Steam. Yeah. Not sure they thought that one through. Anyway, this came to my attention because I saw Splattercat playing it. I can recommend Splattercat; I started watching him at random when another indie game, The Forest, came out, and he's the only "Let's Play"-er I watch, mostly because his affable raconteur style, deriving apparently from radio experience, and his academic background, make him appealing to my sensibilities. Similarly, I like atmospheric, emergent storytelling games with pixel artwork graphics, and despite how overdone they are now zombie survival scenarios still interest me, so I kept an eye on March of the Living until it was on sale. The gameplay is obviously, and I believe quite deliberately, reminiscent of FTL: Faster Than Light, except that in March of the Living instead of controlling a spaceship flying through space you're, as is so often the case in zombie games, some guy walking across post-apocalyptic America. You move across a map from point to point and whenever you get to a new point you have some kind of encounter.
This is Greg. He is both marching and alive.
The encounters are more or less the heart of March of the Living. They range from fairly straightforward situations, like finding a place trading supplies or accidentally running into a bunch of zombies you have to fight, to more bizarre ones like finding a hole filled with zombies covered in petrol just waiting to be immolated or a travelling rock band that offers to play you music in return for food. Some of these encounters I found quite atmospheric and mysterious, like one involving seeing a strange girl with an axe in the distance; if you hang back and watch her, she just walks away. Some are rather clichéd and predictable, like one presenting a run-in with a couple who offer you free food which of course turns out to be cooked human flesh. Some I found affected, trying too hard to be cool, like one featuring a well-dressed man with heavily-armed butlers who appears out of nowhere and asks you if you have any collectible bobbleheads.
"We got this, man! We got this by the ass!"
I hate to say it, however, but the biggest problem with these encounters is that there simply aren't enough of them. March of the Living is quite a difficult game, and when you die you have to go back to the beginning. I've seen the same encounters repeatedly, and very rarely see new ones. That wouldn't be so bad if there were more options, but sometimes there is only one way to respond to an encounter; often a second option is greyed-out and unclickable unless you have a particular item that you might have arbitrarily found earlier in the game. As such, a game of March of the Living can easily become repetitive and monotonous, especially if you recognise the encounters you've seen before. Maybe I haven't made enough progress yet but personally I think a game with emergent storytelling like this needs a good deal more content, and perhaps some procedurally-generated content so that certain encounters themselves have randomly-allocated variants to keep things fresh.
What a glorious feeling.
This would also be a little more tolerable if the art was a bit more varied. March of the Living has a few "travelling between marks on the map" backgrounds and a few "in cities" backgrounds but little else in the way of dressing. Sometimes you'll come across a unique location like a lake or a log cabin, but these are rare. When moving between markers you watch the character sprite walking in front of a background, and it would be nice if these had more variety. For instance, if moving between a normal marker and a city it would be good if buildings started to appear, or the reverse if walking away from a city. Similarly, in some of the encounters it would be nice if you could see your character and a few other sprites to give you a sense of the scene. This wouldn't work for all of them, like the mysterious axe-wielding girl, but at other times it would; a campfire with a few people sitting around it, perhaps, or a couple of guys arguing by the side of the road. Judicious use of additional artwork would enhance the atmosphere where appropriate. If it was possible to have encounters in cities it would also enhance the variety. Furthermore, I think it would be more visually appealing if the map screen looked like an actual map rather than just a bunch of lines criss-crossing on a grey space, sort of like the star map in FTL.
Move the glow.
Speaking of cities, the other major element of March of the Living is the survival and combat. Your player characters need food and rest, and if attacked by zombies or, rarely, other people, they have to fight, so you also need to keep hold of weapons, bullets and medical supplies. Each character has different abilities and combat proficiencies with the game's four kinds of weapons: close combat weapons, pistols, rifles and shotguns. Much like FTL you can pause during combat to pick targets and weapons have a timed bar which fills up before they are ready to fire. It's straightforward but at times feels simplistic and lacking in nuance, as battles take place in empty rectangles with the player characters, the zombies or human enemies and no obstacles or environmental depth. In FTL this made sense as the game was set in space, but March of the Living is not, and at times it feels overly reductive and lacking the flexibility and customisable nature of a game like FTL.
Sure is flat in this part of the USA.
The survival aspect is a little better but still lacks nuance. There are different health items that allow you to heal to different degrees, but only generic food rations which always restore your hunger to full. There's an encounter featuring nicking a bunch of cooked rabbits from an unsupervised campfire which always makes me think that my guy is going to get malnutrition from eating them (digesting rabbit uses more vitamins and so on than it restores), but that isn't part of the game, although you can get the zombie disease from eating an infected deer. When you character is fully fatigued you suffer combat penalties so it's good to rest, but for some reason it's only completely safe do so in city areas. If you do it in the countryside between encounters you risk getting attacked by zombies while you sleep. This makes no sense to me; surely there would be far more zombies in the cities than out in the countryside where the population is so much lower. It's possible to get attacked by zombies in both the country and city, but in the country it seems fairly random. There is a "growls" meter at the top of the screen that fluctuates, I think telling you how many zombies you can hear nearby, suggesting that if you get attacked there will be more, but as far as I can tell you can't do anything about it, so I'm not sure what the point is. If there is a point, the game doesn't explain it; I don't recall it being explained in the tutorial.
I bet there are loads of broken umbrellas in the zombie apocalypse.
Getting attacked by zombies in the city is what can happen when you scavenge, which you can only do in cities. You can select a certain amount of time to scavenge for in various locations, and the longer you scavenge the more likely you are to get attacked; you are informed of the percentage likelihood of being attacked. If you are attacked, you need to fight the zombies before you can get any supplies (and you don't always even get supplies) but there are usually so many that it's unlikely to be worth it. You can also flee from the zombies but you lose time, can't loot that location and risk losing items. Anything can be lost as well, no matter how unlikely it might be. If you flee in the country you go back to your last visited location. In the city, the places you can loot offer different items. The police station tends to provide ammunition, the hospital might have medical supplies, the grocery store may have food, the drug store seems to have fairly random things and the apartments often have items that are only useful in encounters. Sometimes this can work in your favour and sometimes it doesn't, and unlike, say, Organ Trail, you don't have too much control over it.
Somewhere in this picture, Greg is sleeping.
There are four storylines in the game but you have to finish each one to unlock the next. I'm still going on the first, so maybe I haven't seen all the game has to offer, but so far it feels a tad limited. Aspects of it feel like a stripped-down FTL and aspects feel like a stripped-down Organ Trail. I don't mean to be too harsh, but I always feel a little surprised when I remember that the game isn't Steam Early Access; it's a full release. The problem, I would argue, is that the game's got a solid foundation, with decent writing, nice art and functional gameplay, but it needs a little more. A touch more artwork and story/encounter content would keep the rogue-lite nature engaging and somewhat more complexity to combat and survival would make the gameplay more exciting. If I was to give some unsolicited advice to the developer I would say that he should develop this game a little further in an update or (preferably free) downloadable content, or build on the experience of this game to develop a more complex title in future. When a solid foundation exists, which this game undoubtedly has, it is an opportunity to be seized, like the horrible cadaverous hands of a pixelly zombie on a victim's reluctant neck.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Hindsight: A 2015 Cinematic Retrospective

It appears that I saw more Hollywood films in 2015 than I did in 2014. Damn. You win this time, culture industry. As usual, let's begin with some films I didn't see.

Six 2015 Films You Might Have Expected Me To See, But I Didn't:
The Bad Education Movie
It's not exactly top-notch sitcom material, but I quite like Bad Education. It has some funny moments; it's better to watch while a bit drunk. Anyway, the film looked pretty uninspiring: the cringe factor of the show cranked up to a million, and the contrast between the "crazy" comedy characters and the scoffing, eye-rolling "straight man" characters exaggerated to an even greater degree. I don't think it would have ever been shown in cinemas over here.

Ex Machina
Apparently this is quite good. I just haven't seen it. Why haven't I seen this?

Update in 2017: I've seen this now. It was good, and rather challenging to my beliefs. It's odd to think about when apparently the director saw the robot, Ava, as the protagonist, while I viewed Caleb, who ends up trapped in the facility, in this role. Ava ends up becoming a murderer, but in a sense so was Nathan, and Caleb was his inadvertent stooge with a controlling saviour complex. At the same time, I wonder if the film's focus on punishing Caleb for his patriarchal decision-making overlooks the extent to which our actions are influenced by historical and social forces beyond our control. Also, we are left wondering how to view Ava; does she have emotions, but behaves selfishly, or is only following a routine? Is she justified in killing Nathan, who murdered several of her own kind (in a sense) and abandoning Caleb, who tried to save her for arguably selfish, patriarchal reasons of his own, because she was essentially created as a tool to manipulate men rather than as a person with her own identity and individuality? One to think on further, I suspect, and in any modern film that has to be a good thing.

The Hateful Eight
I don't mind a bit of Tarantino and I heard this was pretty decent. I just haven't seen it yet.

Update in 2017: I've seen this now. It was all right.

The Lobster
I understand that this weird dystopian satire is quite good too and I want to see it. It's supposedly a society where if you don't couple up with someone romantically and/or sexually, you turn into an animal. I'd be buggered, then.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
More like the Man from C.U.... etc, am I right? I didn't really want to see this; I can't believe they're still trying to make films by rehashing old twentieth century spy and crime TV shows. Henry Cavill should play James Bond, probably.

Victor Frankenstein
Another horror film featuring Daniel Radcliffe? Can I expect more Woman in Black style quality? Probably not; I understand that this film is quite shit. I still want to see it, but it sounds like Universal is completely fumbling their attempts to bring their classic Horror franchises back to life.

Moving on...

Ten 2015 Films I Did Actually See:
Ant-Man
This was basically the definition of a generic superhero flick. Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd, but underutilising his comedy potential) is an "honour among" style thief with a heart of (stolen) gold who just wants to be back in his young daughter's life. Thus he is hired to become the new Ant-Man, succeeding his new employer Hank Pym as a superhero who can become tiny and run inside people's ears and so on. The plot is incredibly derivative of Iron Man and Iron Man 2: the villain is an evil Ant-Man with his own, more powerful suit, who is going to cause terrible evil by flogging the suits to the military and/or Hydra. He and Ant-Man have a big punch up; Ant-Man wins. There are some good moments where normal things become tiny or huge, although it doesn't really make sense because the technology is said to just increase the space between atoms; if you turned a little Thomas the Tank Engine toy gigantic, for instance, it wouldn't smash through the side of the house, because it's still the same flimsy plastic, just stretched out further; the toy would still be the thing that broke. Also, if it just changes distance between atoms, how can Ant-Man shrink into subatomic size and risk disappearing into some weird microscopic dimension? Anyway, I believe this started off under the direction of Edgar Wright of British comedy fame but he quit part way through because Marvel kept interfering, and the film was finished by another bloke who played it safe. It shows. Rudd's Ant-Man is more interesting and funny in Captain America: Civil War than in this, his own film.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ugh. This sucked. You can read my review of it here. At the time I didn't think it sucked that much, but in hindsight (which is the whole point of these annual articles) I'm pretty sure it did. The Avengers run around and have a fight with a big robot. A city gets smashed up in the process. Everything is basically Iron Man's fault, as usual. It feels like a piece of pointless filler padding out the cinematic universe.

Back in Time
I wouldn't have thought of this as a 2015 film but Wikipedia said it was, so let's say it was. This was a documentary about Back to the Future, because 2015 was when Marty came to the future in the second film. The bits in this where they were interviewing the actual cast and crew of the films was quite interesting, but loads of it was padded out with pointless bullshit like: fans at conventions who build their own DeLoreans (who cares?); some company trying to build a real life hoverboard (who cares?); the bloke who made that cartoon show "Rick and Morty" banging on about "Rick and Morty" (what does this really have to do with Back to the Future?) They should have made this just about the making of the films and reflecting back on it 30 years later, and relegated all the stuff about the tedious fans and the Rick and Morty guy patting himself on the back to a separate "fan" documentary that no one would have to watch.

Cinderella
I thought this was okay, to be honest; nothing special, but a pleasant enough way to pass the time. It's just a live-action remake of the classic Disney cartoon, which might seem like sacrilege to some but I'm just not nostalgic enough about those old Disney fairytale cartoons. It just felt a bit generic, kind of like that Gaiman adaptation Stardust. If they wanted to update the film, they could have provided a more realistic motivation for why the evil stepmother is so horrible. By contrast, if they wanted to keep it a bit absurd (as it still was at points, like when the fairy godmother appeared), they could have had the mice talk and stuff as well. Bonus points for having Hayley Atwell as the mum, but then negative bonus points because she gets killed off five minutes in.

Fantastic Four
Jesus. This was really terrible, and I'm honestly not saying that to go along with the crowd or something. I consider myself more of a Fantastic Four fan than your average punter (I have a medium-sized collection encompassing parts of the Lee/Kirby, Byrne and Hickman eras and, for whatever reason, the whole Waid era)  and this somehow was even worse than I expected. In some ways it tries to be its own thing too much, sort of like a B movie about teleportation rather than a superhero film, but it's also way too similar to the equally derided 2005 adaptation, with Doom having superpowers and the thin characterisation. I reckon this was done on the cheap, too, because huge amounts of it takes place in a single lab set. If you want more of my thoughts, see here, or listen to this podcast for thoughts which suspiciously coincide with mine. This probably gets my "worst film of 2015" award.

It Follows
This premiered in 2014 but come on, it's a 2015 film. Everyone saw it in 2015 (I actually only saw it this year). This was an interesting premise: a murderous "thing" is following a person; the only way they can fob it off onto someone else is by having "sex" with another person, and then the thing will start hunting them instead. They too must copulate furiously with someone to pass the curse or whatever off again. In contrast to The Lobster mentioned above, this wasn't too scary for me because I'd be completely safe from it wahey. Anyway, the idea is engaging and ominous, although the film isn't that scary in general. What it benefits from the most is an unsettling electronic soundtrack (by the same composer as that of the very pleasant soundtrack of the indie game Fez) and a curious dreamlike atmosphere in which the decade and time of year is very hard to pin down; it's sort of the past and the future at once, and the seasons seem to change between scenes. It's a film worth watching even if the premise is rather contrived.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
Much like The Farked Ones last year, I, uh, didn't see this at the cinema. I only saw it the other day, in fact. It concludes the franchise, supposedly, and in a sense it does a decent job in wrapping up the plot: apparently everything that happened was in service of giving the demon a body... in 1992, despite this being set in 2013. As such, the time travel used in The Marked Ones continues here, and permits some unsettling moments. It also follows up the plot of the third film, giving a reasonable sense of closure. My main issue with the film was that there was way too much CGI; a special camera is introduced that allows us to see the invisible supernatural things, and it turns out that Toby the Demon just looks like a mass of CGI smoky shadows with a Voldemort face in the middle. A bunch of big CGI tentacles are used to kill some of the characters, and little girl du jour is abducted to the past through a big CGI time tunnel. That wasn't my cup of tea. It's no better or worse than the last two, really, and more or less gets the job done, but its use of CGI hampers the suspension of disbelief a bit. There are also two secondary protagonists, the main male character's brother and the main female character's friend, who exist purely for comic relief and fan service respectively, which makes this instalment feel perhaps the most "generic horror" in terms of the scenario of all the films.

Spectre
It's a crappy James Bond film starring Daniel Craig with a completely misconceived attempt to reintroduce Blofeld and the eponymous evil organisation. Read my full review of it here and some further thoughts here. The plot and the climax are a complete rip-off of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's not worth discussing any further. First Craig was leaving, then he wasn't, and now he is again. Who knows anymore. I don't have high hopes for the next one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Am I still talking about this? See my initial thoughts here and my full review and recap here. It's a mediocre film with a few memorable moments. I rewatched it recently and found it quite dull, especially the middle act on the planet Takodana. The performances and screenplay are all tolerable but the story is cynical and lazy and it doesn't really tell much in the way of a complete story, making it feel far too much like a piece of product designed to keep consumers on the hook (which of course it is) rather than a logical and necessary continuation of the narrative of the original films (which it isn't). Is it better than the Prequels? It's directed in a more interesting way, but feels "off" - it feels like a J.J. Abrams film that happens to be "Star Wars", rather than a Star Wars film that happens to be directed by Abrams. The screenplay is probably less clunky than those of the Prequels, but again, a good deal of that is to do with the direction. In many respects it feels far less original because it relies so heavily on call backs to the original film and The Empire Strikes Back. Its use of practical effects also makes the use of CGI, when it does appear, more noticeable and very irritating. I want Episode VIII to be better than this.

By a process of elimination, because the above films were all mediocre to bad (except for It Follows, which is decent), my top film of 2015 is:

The Witch
This is a weird, disturbing horror film about colonial settlers in North America succumbing to their own isolation, paranoia and religious fundamentalism. It's atmospheric and creepy, exhibiting clearly the traumatic consequences of severe puritanical practices and the repression of human nature. A family of seven are exiled from their colonial town because of the father's heresy and they try to eke out a poor living in the woods, but accusations of witchcraft begin flying around among the family members when the youngest child, a baby, disappears. The characters speak in an early modern idiom appropriate to the time period, night scenes are really dark, and everything feels eminently realistic and believable, even as apparently supernatural things happen. In keeping with some of the best horror narratives, it's never completely clear whether the supernatural events are real or just paranoid hallucinations. Overlaid with this are traditional themes of spiritual terror about the theological complexities of salvation and damnation. It's good.

That's twice now I've given a horror film my "film of the year" award. Do the "good" horror films somehow get more exposure than the "good" films of other genres, like sci-fi, for some reason? Are other genres too saturated with Hollywood action hybrids, so we don't notice when the more cerebral stuff comes out? I guess so. I need to see Ex Machina. (Seen it now, but I think I still preferred The Witch)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Captain America, Hydra and Red Skull: How "Fans" Mix Up Media

"METAPHORICALLY!
I'M ACTUALLY GOING TO START
WEARING DISCO CLOTHES AND
CALLING MYSELF 'NOMAD'!"
(Captain America #176)
As far as I know, there was a bit of a teacup storm recently in the comic book world about a "plot twist" in a recent Captain America comic which claimed that Cap is, and always has been, an undercover Hydra agent. Now I don't read any of the current Captain America comics (I believe this was in a series that is specifically about Steve Rogers in particular because Falcon is currently the "Captain America" in the main comic series) and I don't read them for two reasons:

Reason 1 (Stronger Reason): I don't think modern superhero comics are very good. I stopped reading shortly before the end of the extremely pointless "Avengers vs X-Men" and thus shortly before the start of the "Marvel Now" 2012 "soft reboot".

Reason 2 (Very Weak Reason): I don't like the way they changed Cap's costume. Sure, wings on his head, scale armour and swashbuckler boots are a bit silly, but he's a superhero for goodness' sake. Putting him in a "realistic" or practical costume (ie lots of straps and segmented padding, apparently) while retaining the big "A" on the forehead, the chest star and the red, white and blue scheme seems ridiculous; you may as well just put him in camo.

As such, I haven't actually read this comic, but I have read a synopsis of it, and I've seen the relevant panels online. It didn't sound very interesting, but that's not the point. I understand that some people found this objectionable for two reasons:

Reason 1: It's a cliché lazy plot twist: "The hero is secretly a bad guy! Please be shocked!"
Reason 2: It means Captain America is a "Nazi".
Eight issues (less than a year) later...
(Captain America #184)
Now I don't really have a problem with either of these complaints, and I'll explain why.

Reason 1 (lazy plot twist): This is just fair enough, isn't it? The superhero comic book industry is in its protracted death throes. Maybe they could try to save it by writing comics that had value in themselves and weren't essentially just pieces of merchandise for more successful film properties, but that would require more effort than is necessary to take a little profit from the noisy and critical, but ultimately addicted, fanbase. There's no incentive to do anything else, because comic books these days are mostly just read by hardcore fans, and no matter how much hardcore fans complain, generally they still buy the comics. As such, an attention-grabbing twist like "Cap's a Hydra agent" is sure to provide that thin trickle of interest the small comic-buying market needs to continue to die with indignity.

Reason 2 (Cap is a Nazi): At first I was dubious about this claim; aren't Hydra different to the Nazis in both the original comics books (the continuity of which I believe current Marvel comic books still generally follow, despite the soft reboot of 2012) and the cinematic universe? Then I looked into it in a bit more depth and found out that, as a general rule, Hydra have been pretty closely associated with the Nazis in the comics despite some stories trying to embellish Hydra by claiming that they have existed since ancient times (a sort of "Dan Brown effect" I don't really like). Similarly, for a long time I thought that Red Skull was, in the comics, not a member of Hydra (although he was definitely a Nazi); I thought he was just someone who used Hydra connections (as well as AIM) for his own purposes from time to time. Turns out I was wrong; Red Skull has, on occasion, operated as a member of Hydra and led divisions of Hydra, although as far as I know he was never really in charge of the whole organisation. In the films, of course, HYDRA (as opposed to "Hydra" of the comics) broke away from the Nazis, but they were sponsored by them, and film-universe Red Skull, even if he didn't really believe in the message compared to his own weird philosophy, seems to have still been a high-ranking member of the SS. So if people want to say "Hydra are basically the Nazis", that's broadly reasonable.

Similarly, if people find it objectionable that Cap is, in this storyline, basically a "Nazi" when his creators were Jewish and the character himself is meant to stand for all that's "not Nazi", then fair play to you I suppose. I mean obviously some of the reactions have been completely over-the-top and ridiculous (like death threats and things) but if people find a legitimate grievance with it then that's their prerogative. I was more annoyed to discover the 2012-onwards retcon that Cap's father was an abusive alcoholic. Really? Even Cap needs to have had a bad childhood now? His parents already died young, what more do you need?
Proper supervillain behaviour.
(Captain America #184)
I read an article recently that claimed that fans complaining about this twist and similar franchises were pressuring the current makers too much and treating the properties like they owned them. I can see the point of view, but that's the nature of franchises; the owners are the ones who want things to stay the same, so someone who writes a superhero comic book for Marvel or DC would have to be pretty deluded if they thought that their employers were going to let them make major changes to the characters they were hired to write; the fans in that sense are irrelevant. They're just hired to produce pieces of product to turn a profit, not to be game-changing works of art. I'm not saying that superhero comics shouldn't be game-changing works of art, just that it's the people with the money who aren't interested in them being that way. Possessive, status-quo-obsessed fans are annoying, but blaming them is blaming the wrong people; the ones with the money and power should be blamed.

Anyway, none of this is want I really meant to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was how people were using the history of Captain America to try to make arguments for and against this change; here's my chance to seem like a possessive Captain America weirdo.

The odd thing I noticed in the arguments I read was this: an argument would often follow in this fashion:
Affirmative: Captain America being in Hydra doesn't mean he's a Nazi.
Negative: But Hydra are basically the Nazis.
Affirmative: Please provide evidence for this statement.
Negative: Well, in the film Captain America: The First Avengers/episode X of Agents of SHIELD/whatever...

Or from the other side:
Affirmative: Captain America being in Hydra means he's a Nazi.
Negative: But remember the bit in Captain America: The First Avenger when Red Skull disses the Nazis in the following fashion...?

See the problem here? The "Captain America in Hydra" twist is in the comic book, yet a lot of people were trying to prove that Hydra were or were not basically Nazis by using the films and TV shows as evidence. Now remember, I'm not saying that Hydra aren't basically Nazis in the comic books, just that people were using evidence from the films and TV shows, which follow their own independent storyline, to prove something about the comics.

I'm being pedantic, but shouldn't I expected a little more pedantry from the nerds of the internet? I thought nerds were meant to be pedantic. This happens when people discuss things like The Lord of the Rings as well; people sometimes quote things from the films as evidence of something in the book, but that doesn't work, because even if something is true in both the book and the film adaptations, they aren't the same thing, and one can't be used as evidence for the other.
I beg your pardon?
(Captain America #185)
As far as Captain America is concerned it's particularly dodgy, because when it comes to Hydra and the Nazis, the films and the comic books tend to disagree. Let's see...

Comic books: Hydra was founded after the war by former Axis types (with the head honcho ultimately being Baron Strucker) and developed goals of world domination.

Films and TV: HYDRA was founded during the war by the Red Skull and went rogue from the Nazis, with goals of world domination.

Okay, so both versions want world domination, but their history and association with various Nazi supervillains is a bit different. Let's check out the different versions of Red Skull while we're at it:

Comic books: Red Skull is a very high-ranking Nazi officer whose work involved trying to win the war for the German Reich using terrorism and crazy superweapons (to an even more ridiculous extent than the real Nazis did this anyway). When he was revived after the war he at times worked as a Hydra operative and led parts of Hydra but his motives were mostly his own Nazi ones. Check out the comics from the 60s and 70s. Red Skull cares way more about Nazism than he does Hydra. He only appears to support Hydra's ideology insofar as it corroborates with his own agenda.

Films and TV: Red Skull was a high-ranking Nazi officer who founded Hydra during the war and led it away from the Nazis towards its own independent Hydra-ish goals of world domination. He says 'Hail Hydra' a lot, talks about Hydra as if it's his favourite thing in the world, and thinks the Nazis are actually a bit shit. He accidentally disintegrated himself using the Tesseract in 1945 and hasn't been seen or heard from since.
What are they standing in front of? The sun?
(Captain America #185)
Incidentally, if you're wondering about the fate of the comic book Red Skull, he died in Captain America #600 in 2009; I believe the current iteration is his clone. He'll come back to life eventually. That's another good reason not to read current comics; either kill Red Skull permanently or bring the real one back. Half-arseing it with a clone is another example of cliché comic book laziness.

In any event, trying to argue something about comic book Hydra using film Red Skull doesn't really work because you're using a character from a completely different text with completely different motivations. I also see people saying "Well film Red Skull isn't a Nazi" and then people respond "Oh yeah? Let me show you my evidence from a comic book." And not a film tie-in comic book, a normal Marvel mainstream universe comic book - which therefore is totally irrelevant to the characterisation in the films.

Has the calibre of nerd-dom sunk so low that nerds can't tell their comic book universes apart from their film universes, or think they're interchangeable? Or are people just desperate to appear correct on the internet and will use whatever evidence they can muster, however shaky? Let's face it, it's the latter. On the plus side, I have seen people actually using evidence from the comic books to argue that Hydra are or are not Nazis in the comics, so not everyone is making this inexplicable error, but it's still too prevalent for my comfort.
Red Skull: King of the Comeback
(Captain America #186)
The situation also bothers me because it suggests people think that the films are basically just straight-up representations of the comic books, when actually the films shuffle ideas from the comics around a lot. People risk missing out on a lot of potentially interesting ideas if they just follow the films, and it's worth looking into old comics to see how these ideas first manifested and get away from this film-dominated view of these stories.

For instance, here's what I would have done with Red Skull in the films: For whatever reason, in the films HYDRA basically replace the "Germans" as the enemy about halfway through. I'm not sure why this is; it can't be to avoid European censorship, because they show swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia earlier. It's possibly to avoid seeming like they were making a statement like "We needed a superman to win the war; our own soldiers were a bit shit." They could have avoided this by having Cap fight Axis supervillains (like Red Skull himself, who had superpowers in the film that he generally hasn't had in the comics), but they didn't. I actually think there must have been some behind the scenes production issue because the film seems to switch from being a World War Two film with some sci-fi in the first half (with semi-realistic settings, uniforms, weapons etc.) to being a sci-fi film with a bit of World War Two flavour in the second half (laser guns everywhere, over-the-top tanks and bases, HYDRA soldiers look like video game enemies).

Anyway, this is what I would have done, and all this confusion could have been avoided years later (although obviously it still would be meaningless as evidence in the "Cap is in Hydra" debate; it would have just been more interesting): Hydra, or HYDRA, should still have been this oddball "science division" in Nazi Germany, but no one sees them as important; they're just pissing away money and resources, as many of the Nazis' poorly-organised duplicate agencies did (if you think the Nazis were models of efficiency, the opposite is true; they were exemplars of wasteful redundancy, because often when an organisation fell out of Hitler's favour, instead of revamping it to try to meet his demands, however unreasonable, they would just make a new one with the same duties, only using more "in favour" people, and expect the two to compete with each other for favouritism; the regular Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS are a similar, if not identical, case).
"Captain! Stop doing power squats and listen to how
I'm still very much a Nazi even though it's the Seventies!"
(Captain America #184)
So let's say the Eastern Front is starting to look a bit wobbly and they've rather recklessly declared war on the United States and the Nazi leadership are having a big argument about what to do to ensure they win the war. They can't agree on anything; then who should come in but Schmidt, a high-ranking Party "enforcer". He might even throw down his Skull mask on the table as he's literally just come back from a mission, but we possibly don't see his face. We can tell, however, that he's serious business. Even hard-bitten horrible Nazi bastards with monocles and scars on their faces don't want to meet his eye. Red Skull has a solution: those oddballs might be onto something; he says it's time to bring HYDRA into line.

The film then goes more or less as planned, but instead of being the founder and leader of HYDRA, Red Skull is the Nazi enforcer who shows up with his own men and starts bossing around the regular HYDRA leadership (who have been having a jolly good war wasting time and money on weapons prototypes that never get finished, let alone used). Every time HYDRA tries to do anything too independent, Red Skull reigns them in and directs their efforts towards the Nazi war machine. Then we can still have Zola betraying HYDRA (the others all kill themselves because they're scared of Red Skull) and Cap's confrontation with Skull is more thematic to the actual war. In fact the whole conflict feels more like the actual war, without suggesting that the regular armed forces couldn't handle it; we now have Allied superhero versus Axis supervillain, not "Allied superhero versus random HYDRA diversion". Furthermore, it means that when HYDRA reappear in the sequel with their own agenda, it has more impact; before, they were just the Nazis' slaves. In the sequel (perhaps unpleasantly inspired by Red Skull whipping them into shape during the war) they've developed serious ambitions of their own.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Remember these lessons:

1. You can't use something from one "universe" to try to explain what happens in a completely different "universe".

2. Nerds aren't as stereotypically pedantic as it might appear, and that might actually be a bad thing.

3. With hindsight, it's very easy to think of simple ways the Marvel films could have been dramatically improved.
I don't have a smart arse caption for this. This is what genuinely good comic book writing looks like,
and this was an issue that the bosses actually did muck around with because it was too challenging.
Check out http://www.jmdematteis.com/2012/03/mysterious-michael-ellis.html for more details.
(Captain America #300 by J.M. DeMatteis.)
Auf wiedersehen!