Op/Ed: Forget Rumors, Will Smith SHOULD be Captain America

The Case for a Will Smith Cap
Credit: Marvel Comics

There doesn't seem to be anything that gets Internet fandom riled up quite like a good casting rumor, particularly when focused on genre movies based on iconic comic books and beloved literary properties. And this week saw the introduction of a doozy of a big screen comic book casting rumor – MTV's Splash Page reported earlier in the week that actor Derek Luke has heard (and subsequently said out loud) that Marvel Studios has offered the part of Captain America in their planned 2011 adventure The First Avenger: Captain America to superstar Will Smith.

Now there are a thousand and one ways to interpret the validity of what Luke reportedly heard. Will Smith – arguably the surest box office bet in movies today – probably gets serious consideration for just about every leading action/adventure/sci-fi role in pre-production, and if he doesn't, well … he should. Already at the top of the box office food chain domestically and probably even a stronger draw in the international market, in the last year alone Smith just turned hardly household-known properties "I Am Legend" and "Hancock" into well over a billion dollars combined worldwide.

Another simple explanation for the rumor is that Derek Luke might have just heard wrong, or he heard speculation or plain unreliable info. It happens. In fact, Harry Knowles of the infamous Ain't-it-Cool-News is reporting Wednesday that multiple sources at Marvel are telling him that Marvel never "offered the part, nor did they approach or entertain a conversation about Will Smith for Captain America ".

But this is a rare case in which the potential accuracy of the rumor is beside the point. Whether or not Will Smith has actually yet been offered and/or has even been considered for the role is less important than the notion that Will Smith should be offered the role of Captain America … and let's be perfectly clear, he should be offered the role of the Captain America.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves…

First and foremost, the case for Will Smith as Captain America has already been stated clearly – he's a box office golden god, and since Tom Cruise left the "sure-thing" element of his career on Oprah's couch a couple of years back, that sort of status is becoming more and more rare. And lately his knack for "opening" films has overcome even mediocre material.

Say what you want about this summer's original superhero entry Hancock, but a critical hit it was not. Buzz amongst the Internet faithful wasn't even that strong. So unless co-stars Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron have suddenly developed crazy box office mojo, Smith carried that vehicle on his super-powered shoulders alone.

And let's be frank for a second, Captain America is likely in need of a lead with very broad, and strong shoulders. Though arguably having one of the most iconic names and costumes in genre literature – graphic or otherwise – Captain America's simply isn't in the same league with Batman, Superman, or even Spider-Man in terms of the Joe Q. Public factor. Ask a garden variety moviegoer for the alter-ego and basic back-story of those A-list superhero characters and they'll probably hit close to the target.

"Steve Rogers" and "Super-Soldier Serum"?? Probably not so much.

Captain America also has another potential box office stumbling block in its way. If Marvel's current plans stay the course, the comic-book-publisher-now-movie-studio is planning on the film being at least partially (if not completely) a period piece, circa World War II of course. The A-lister Harrison Ford-driven Indiana Jones films notably excepted, period action/adventure is sometimes a tough sell with movie audiences.

Now of course in terms of built-in awareness, Marvel's Iron Man probably even had a lower profile than Captain America, and studio struck gold anyway despite the fact star Robert Downey Jr. had no box office track record to speak of. But despite its now "blue print" comic book movie status, the script-star chemistry that drove the surprise box office success of Iron Man is never easy to manufacture, and more importantly, probably even more difficult to reverse engineer.

The other thing that makes a Will Smith Captain America a fairly sure box office bet is the reason the rumor became such a sensation so quickly. As depicted in the comics for the last 60+ years, Captain America's physical description might be described in another era as "the all-American boy" – i.e. a blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed Caucasian. To take a moment to state the perfectly obvious, Will Smith doesn't match that description. He's about as close to the comic book Captain America in the looks department as Barack Obama is to (as he puts it), "the guys on the dollar bills."

Which is what makes the proposition all the more intriguing. In other, shorter words - in this case, black & white equals green.

Listen, we're not going to make the sociological or political argument that an African-American should be given the role of an iconic American symbol traditionally depicted as a white man based on that fact alone. That would be patronizing and condescending in of itself and so-called political correctness isn't the issue here.

But on the other hand, we'd equally argue there is nothing essential about the Steve Rogers character that requires him to be white, other than historical precedent. And that's not to say that's not important, but essential to success in the broad, international box office market?

Now, this argument will probably be a tough sell in realm of fandom, where fans – somewhat understandably – want big and small screen versions of their long-time heroes to closely match the images they're accustomed to. Look at how much consternation the choice of Daniel Craig stirred up in James Bond circles, simply because he didn't closely physically resemble the actors that came before him (though at this point you'll find little to no resistance left to Craig as 007). But there just isn't anything significant about the character of Steve Rogers – a patriot who wanted to serve his country but couldn't because of a physical disability – that requires him to be of one certain race.

The counter-argument that is already being made, however, is that in the 1940's it's unlikely that an African-American would be chosen by the United States military establishment to become a symbolic poster boy for its war efforts. And that's a legitimate argument. As much as we'd like to think such issues have been put to bed by 2008 (and we may get a partial answer to that question the evening of November 3rd), it would be intellectually disingenuous to turn a blind eye to our own history.

However, is textbook historical accuracy really the point of a comic book movie adaptation? For over 40 years Captain America's historical World War II roots has been at best an occasional and modest influence on the character's comic book adventures. Despite his ongoing status as a living anachronism, Steve Rogers has been depicted as a thoroughly contemporary character (for the uninitiated, he's a member of the "Greatest Generation" living in the modern world - he was thought to have died at the tail-end of WWII and re-emerged in the modern world perhaps 10-15 years ago in "comic book time").

His World War II origins provide fictional "flavor" to the mythos – the exact time period is no more essential to his essence than what year Uncle Ben or Bruce Wayne's parents were killed, or what year an infant from Krypton crash-landed in a Kansas cornfield.

Moreover, Marvel has already provided something of answer to the historically accurate argument. In 2003 the company published the controversial comic book limited series Truth: Red, White & Black, a stark "in-continuity" story that revealed that a secret government program began in the early days of World War II tried to recreate the "super-soldier" serum that gave Steve Rogers his Captain America abilities, using African-American soldiers as test subjects. The story depicts how 300 black servicemen were subjected to potentially lethal genetic experiments in the attempt to recreate the process, mirroring at least one ugly chapter in our nation's history.

Some comic book fans are already arguing that Will Smith could star in an adaptation of this story. Now as much credit as Marvel Comics should get for having the guts to publish this story and placing it their mainstream continuity, no one expects to see a big or small screen adaptation of the story anytime soon. So the for pro-historically-accurate camp, perhaps a subtle combination of elements from that story and Captain America's original origin would be appropriate and in order.

All the story minutia aside, however, the ideal would be for the role to be played by the actor who would bring the most positive qualities to the project, and it would be very hard to argue against Will Smith – from a pure talent or clout standpoint – if those are the terms the decision is based upon.

And while trying not to be cynical or suggest Marvel exploit the infamous "race card" for no other reason than to stir the so-called mixing pot, the dialogue that has in fact already begun would almost certainly intensify where the choice to be made official and would very likely be an ancillary benefit in the marketing of the film.

From comic shops to water coolers to the Op/Ed pages of venerable publications around the country (and perhaps the world), the choice of Smith would put the name and concept of a "Captain America" in the minds and on the lips of millions of people, all potential moviegoers, and we'd all be asking not only ourselves, but each other, what – if anything – the concept means. And while this sort of attention would likely be a tremendous boon to Marvel in the selling of the film, the question is at what cost would this fringe benefit come?

If it's at the cost of having Americans discuss, debate, and even argue questions that may or may not even have right or wrong answers, isn't that discussion alone worthy in of itself?

Would certain factions of fans be upset? Even irate? Almost certainly. But make no mistake; they'd still be first in line opening night. The more relevant question is would the anti-buzz they generate hinder the film's profile with the broader public?

Or to put it more succinctly, who has more formidable box office muscle – Will Smith or the Internet tastemakers?

Wouldn't finding out be half the fun?

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