Tuesday, June 21, 2016

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

(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!

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