Making Captain America, who has been fighting for his country in the pages of Marvel Comics since before World War II, into a cinematic hero for the 21st century is no mean feat, even for the movie veterans at Marvel Studios.
But Kevin Feige, producer of Captain America: The First Avenger and president of Marvel Studios, says he always had faith that the star-spangled hero could fight his own battle in World War II and leap into a role in next summer’s Avengers movie.
“We had talked early on about wanting to bring the Avengers to the screen the way they were brought to the comics, which was those characters had existed in their own comic books before being put together into a single comic,” said Feige. “And Captain America is clearly one of the most famous characters we have, and most important characters we have. … He’s got one of the best origin stories, he’s got one of the best rogues galleries, so we knew that he could hold his own movie easily and always sort of planned on introducing him in his own movie first.”
To direct Cap’s Marvel Studios debut, Feige turned to director Joe Johnston, who reached into his own past filmmaking experience as a visual-effects artist at ILM during the original Star Wars trilogy and found a touchstones for the tone and style of Captain America in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“We used it as a template for a lot of reasons,” says Johnston, who was an art director for ILM’s visual effects on the 1981 classic. “It was made 30 years ago, and it still feels absolutely fresh. And I wanted Captain America to feel like that. Like it wasn’t a film made in the ’40s, it was a film about the ’40s made today.”
Johnston says his other directorial entry in the comic-book movie canon, 1991’s The Rocketeer, was far less of an influence than the many obvious parallels between it and Captain America would suggest.
“I will say that it was not in my mind at all in making this film, but I went to see the 20h anniversary screening of The Rocketeer and I was really surprised at how many very specific similarities there were in the picture that I had totally forgotten about,” Johnston says.
“As far as the tone, the character of Steve Rogers has an innocence about him, and a determination that is probably the most American thing about him,” says Johnston. “It’s not a propaganda tool, it’s just about a guy who wants to do the right thing and I think that sort of runs throughout the tone of the picture.”
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely said they were particularly influenced by writer Ed Brubaker’s run on the comic book series Captain America and the kinetic energy that the character had when drawn by Jack Kirby. Another influential comic book was the Sentinel of Liberty series, which stretched out the details of Cap’s origin.
“It’s a biopic in a way,” says Markus. “In some ways you’re telling the Steve Rogers story, so we had to learn his entire life story, which encompasses 70 years of comics. It may not all get in there, but it’s part of the iceberg underneath it.”
Opposing Captain America is the Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving, who heads up the Nazi’s secret science division, HYDRA. Most of the henchmen Cap fights in the film wear the many-headed HYDRA symbol on their uniforms, rather than the swastika symbol of the Nazis.
Johnson says there was no concern about putting Nazis into the film. “Nazis are the universal villain,” he said. “You can kill Nazis with impunity.” Instead, the goal was to focus on the traditional Cap villain, the Red Skull.
“HYDRA is, of course, right out of the Marvel comics, and we said this is a Marvel movie, this is the history of the Marvel version of World War II,” says Johnston. “It wasn’t anything we hid from, and, as you’ve seen the movie, there are Nazis in the film. But we wanted HYDRA and the origin of the Red Skull to be the primary antagonists.”
Much has been made in various reports about the title, how the title of the film may be altered in international markets where a patriotic American hero may not be as marketable as it is at home. Feige says The First Avenger subtitle was added to allow that option, but he’s glad to learn that most markets are sticking with the full title.
Casting was, as always, key for the film. Johnston says Chris Evans, who has starred in numerous comic-book movies including two turns as Johnny Storm in Fox’s Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, was at first reluctant to play another superhero.
Screen tests were shot for 12 to 15 candidates for the lead part of Captain America, though none came together with all the qualities of the filmmakers were looking for.
“We kept saying, ‘Gee, I wish we could combine these two guys,’ because we like one guy’s face, we like the other guy’s acting,” Johnston said. Their thoughts kept returning to Evans as the actor with all the right qualities. “We just kept after him. One day, we just said, ’Get him in to look at the artwork’ that was on the walls in the art department. And I think it was that, and the fact that he liked us, that he eventually said yes to.”
Captain America posed a number of technical challenges for Johnston, who had to find a way to make Steve Rogers look at the start of the movie like a skinny, 5-foot-7-inch, 98-pound weakling while retaining Evans’ performance.
“We didn’t know how we were going to do it,” he says. “We shot a lot of tests and we experimented with a lot of different things, but we found the most effective way was basically to photograph Chris himself and to shrink him down using digital effects. … There are a couple of shots where it is a head replacement, where he’s on a table or sitting in a chair where it doesn’t require any physical acting, but it’s mostly Chris.”
Developing the combat costume for Captain America was vitally important to the film, as it is to all superhero movies, and Johnston says it was a long process. “His combat suit, we spent months and months developing that, and we then took it apart and threw away and started over,” he says. “Working from the Brubaker series of comics, we wanted it to have that flavor, but it also needed to be something that he could run in and move in. … Anna Sheppard came in and designed and built by hand this amazing suit that we then continued to modify until Chris was happy with it. I think it looks great.”
Johnston says working with visual effects is much easier now than it was in the days of the original Star Wars trilogy. “My time at ILM was a long time ago and the technology was completely different. We had to build models and photograph them in front of a blue screen and there was no digital technology at all,” he says. “Since then, I have learned that if CG has gotten so advanced and so great that anything you can think of, as long as you can communicate that to the guy at the keyboard – which is sort of the hard part — you can put it on the screen.”
Many if not most moviegoers will see the movie in stereoscopic 3D, even though the film was not shot using 3D cameras. Johnston says the plan was always to release the film in 3D, and the production aided the conversion process by adding a separate pass on each shot. “We call it the left-eye pass, which made it a lot easier to convert to 3D,” says the director.
With a character as beloved by comics fans and featuring a complicated 70-year back-story, the filmmakers tried to get as many iconic moments and elements from that history into the movie as they could. Among the most iconic images in the Captain America history is the cover to 1941’s Captain America Comics #1, in which the hero delivers a strong right cross to the jaw of Adolf Hitler himself. Feige says that turned out to be a difficult moment to fit into the story given the focus on the Red Skull and Hydra as the main villains, leading to an unusual solution involving a musical number written by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Mencken.
“We did have this idea early on to incorporate that punching into the movie and being able to tip our hat to that cover,” says Feige.
Making Captain America: The First Avenger easily lead into and match up with next summer’s Avengers movie was one of the big challenges for Markus and McFeely. One reason the film is mostly set during the World War II era was to help establish Captain America as the kind of fighter and he needs to be in Avengers.
“If you only show him have one adventure in the preceding movie, you’re not going to buy that guys like Iron Man are saying, ‘Yeah, he’s the guy who should lead us — a 22-year-old who fought one battle,’” says McFeely. “So you have to load into our movie this sense that he’s an incredibly seasoned veteran by the end of the movie.”
That approach has the added benefit of leaving time gaps large enough for future films to revisit the World War II era, Feige said.
Joss Whedon, who’s directing Avengers from a script by Zak Penn, did consult with the writers on some minor tweaks to make the films better match up. “He came in and did a couple of things he knew he wanted to deploy later,” says McFeely.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!