‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ Solved Marvel’s Villain Problem Before There Was One

With Captain America: Civil War due in theaters tomorrow, audiences familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe will again be reminded that the comic book company-turned-movie studio is fantastic at just about everything it does — except villains. It is, after all, a film in which superheroes fight one another more often than not. And while German actor Daniel Brühl plays Helmut Zemo of Marvel Comics fame, his version pulls more strings than punches. So unlike most of the 12 movies that precede it, Civil War doesn’t boast an antagonist of the power-hungry variety.

After Kevin Feige announced the company’s Phase Three slate in October 2014, The Atlantic‘s David Sims opined that perhaps Marvel’s creative trust preferred “internal strife” to “[cooking] up one truly compelling villain.” Maybe they were taking critics’ oft-repeated clarion call about the “Marvel villain problem” to heart. Sure, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki stole the show in Thor and The Avengers, and David Tennant’s Kilgrave heightened the terror in Jessica Jones, but are all the rest really that horrible? For the most part, yes. (Remember Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith? Didn’t think so.) Yet Civil War‘s Phase One predecessor, Captain America: The First Avenger, gave viewers precisely what Sims and so many others have chastised Marvel for lacking — a proper bad guy, and a schematic for replicating his success.

Released in 2011, Marvel’s fifth film felt more like a “two-hour teaser” for The Avengers than its own, self-contained entity. In some respects, this introductory quip by The New York Times‘s A.O. Scott is accurate, but as he admits in the same review, The First Avenger is “enjoyably preposterous, occasionally touching and generally likable.” Many factors contribute to Scott’s favorable review, chief among them the “fine nemesis” played by the “reliably sinister Hugo Weaving,” Johann Schmidt — otherwise known as the Red Skull.

Aside from the “classic Hollywood ‘Chermann’ accent,” Scott thought Weaving’s transition from the Matrix trilogy’s Agent Smith to The First Avenger‘s Schmidt fit the film. So did Roger Ebert, who argued that Schmidt was a “really first-rate villain” who “demonstrates once again that, when it comes to movie villains, you can’t do better than Nazis.” Ebert thought this because, “as all good comic-book movies must,” a decent bad guy (or girl) is required to counteract the titular hero “as the rules of comic-book drama require.” Marvel couldn’t have picked a better first villain for Steve Rogers to square off against; the Red Skull was one of his most regular enemies in the comics.

Jokes about Nazis being the go-to-enemies notwithstanding, Scott and Ebert’s opinions of Weaving’s performance reflect the general appreciation it received at the time. Since then the press has hounded the actor about his possible return, despite the fact Schmidt was eradicated by the tesseract during his climactic battle with the Captain. Weaving hasn’t offered his questioners much in the way of real answers, and with what’s known about Phase Three, both he and the fans will probably never know what happened to the Red Skull. Which is unfortunate, for as compelling as Schmidt was in The First Avenger, the MCU has seemingly forgotten about the character despite the studio’s ongoing efforts to produce any worthwhile bad guys.

Two comments by Scott and Ebert might explain this forgetfulness. The first, from Ebert’s quote above, concerns the prerequisites for what makes “good comic-book movies” tick. These are films about superheroes, specifically, but their model is the genre action piece in which a protagonist answers the narrative’s call to action and takes up arms (or fists) against a designated, easy-to-identify antagonist. The MCU tries to follow this formula, but sometimes its adherence to these tenets proves disastrous. If a movie follows the blueprint too closely, then it has no wiggle room for both the heroes and the villains to grow. What results is a lopsided film that, more often than not, will emphasize the titular good guy and rest on its laurels. Besides, it wasn’t called Malekith: The Dark World.

The second comment comes from Scott, who notes that Captain America “fights Nazis in the shadow of not only his own earlier incarnations but also Indiana Jones.” Unlike what came before, The First Avenger didn’t take place during the modern day. Instead, its story and style were that of a period piece, and Feige had a particular one in mind when he name-dropped Raiders of the Lost Ark at a press conference in 2009. Director Joe Johnston, who worked on visual effects for Raiders, confirmed Feige’s comments when he called Raiders a “template” for The First Avenger in 2011. Johnston’s Captain America film wasn’t an adventure in the same sense as Dr. Jones’ first outing was, but the narrative similarities are undeniable. A patriotic hero, World War II, Nazis and their collaborators as evil treasure seekers, a MacGuffin imbued with inhuman powers, and a villain (or three) who ham it up for the audience’s pleasure.

Ask any regular moviegoer what three things they remember most about Raiders and the list will probably look like this: Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant, and villains Dr. René Belloq (Paul Freeman), Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) and Colonel Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) exploding in the penultimate scene. To his credit, Freeman turns in a fine performance as the nefarious Belloq, who gleefully reminds Jones that they “are very much alike.” (A sentiment similar to what Weaving’s Schmidt tells Captain America: “We have left humanity behind.”) Yet as this list and Ebert’s 1981 review of the film reveal, Raiders‘ bad guys weren’t the most memorable part. They primarily served the function of raising the stakes for Indiana Jones, just as the Red Skull did for Steve Rogers.

Thanks to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have remained on Marvel’s payroll for The Winter SoldierCivil War and the upcoming Infinity War films, Weaving had just the right amount (and type) of material with which to create an improved, Raiders-esque villain. Schmidt possessed a Machiavellian personality (Belloq) that, despite his Nazi affiliations (Dietrich), drove him to do whatever it took (Toht) to acquire whatever he needed. Unlike his cinematic predecessors, however, the Red Skull was actually able to break away from his overseers in order to create a truly global conflict that was all his own.

His was the first MCU baddie to present an agenda for world domination — if not utter annihilation — and it was all made possible by Weaving’s take on the classic character. Schmidt’s arc was nowhere near as complex as the ones developed for Loki and Kilgrave, and that’s perfectly fine. The latter two were serving entirely different purposes in altogether dissimilar stories. The half-brother of Thor was out for revenge, then control, whereas the Jessica Jones villain wanted to exert his will over a single person and not the entire planet. Captain America: The First Avenger required a source of absolute evil in order to counteract the hero’s absolute goodness, and Weaving’s Red Skull was precisely that.