There were plenty of famous faces and Hollywood heavy hitters at the red-carpet premiere of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but director Joe Johnston’s face lighted up in a special way when he was introduced to one guest who had flown in from the Pacific Northwest for the glitzy event — Ed Brubaker, the writer whose award-winning, seven-year run on the Marvel Comics adventures of Captain America became a key template for the big-screen adaptation. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, ” Johnston said to Brubaker as Robert Downey Jr. passed by on his way to a seat inside the El Capitan Theatre.
Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also met Brubaker at the movie palace on premiere night) have cited the comic book writer’s work as an influence on the mythology, tone and characters in the film that grossed $65 million domestically in its opening weekend, the best total among the superhero films released this year. Brubaker, for the record, loved the film.
“That scene with Bucky and the rifle? That was all me,” he said after the credits rolled. Earlier in the night, I had sat down with him for dinner and an in-depth chat about Steve Rogers, James “Bucky’ Barnes, the Winter Soldier and other matters of the red, white and blue chronicles, both on the page and on the screen. A central theme: the salvation of Bucky, Marvel’s most famous martyr, and the Winter Soldier who just might enjoy his own season in the sun in Hollywood.
GB: The creative team behind “Captain America: The First Avenger” not only used your take on Bucky, they made it clear that without the benefit of your mythology the character probably gets ejected from the adaptation. What goes through your head when you hear that?
EB: To bring Bucky back as Winter Soldier and have him become the most popular Marvel character since Deadpool and Wolverine is insane. I mean, that’s insane. You remember in “Captain America” No. 6 when the bad guy was [revealed to be] Bucky? We were terrified. People were angry — “I’m never reading comics again” — and then somehow we won all those people over, to the point that recently when we brought Steve Rogers back we heard, “Well Steve better not become Captain America again because I like Bucky better.” These are the same people that got mad that we brought Bucky back. The whole thing is insane and great.
GB: Bucky died and Captain America survived. That was the shorthand history of the character for decades. He also wasn’t especially interesting for many years, he was more mascot than character. Would you disagree about any of that?
EB: I had always liked his character because I had read those “Tales of Suspense” issues — the ones that were Iron Man story and half Captain America wartime story — and Bucky was always running around with a machine gun. He didn’t look like a little kid like he did in the comics in the 1940s. The funny things is in the [pre-code era] comics of the 1940s he was actually more [of a bad guy] running around with a flamethrower and dropping atom bombs on people. [Marvel executive editor] Tom Brevoort told me that every third cover in the ’40s it was Cap and Bucky parachuting into enemy territory and Cap is holding his shield while Bucky is the one unloading with multiple machine guns on anybody below. Bucky was more of the [bad guy] of the two. I started looking at it that way as I built his character.
GB: What did you like about Bucky when you were a young reader?
EB: He was my favorite character as a kid. The Captain America series [of the Silver Age] started with issue No. 100 and when I was 8 or 9 years old I went to my first comic-book convention [and] I looked [at] the ones that came . I had issue No. 100 [from 1968] all the way through whatever and I assumed that issue No. 99 must have been the one that came in 1945 where Bucky got blown up. I totally believed there was a comic book where Baron Zemo captured Captain America; I thought that this story that they were always referencing in Marvel stories was in an actual comic book. When I found out that wasn’t the case at all and that they had made Captain America and Bucky comics into the 1950s. The whole “Bucky died in 1945” story that was so huge in the mind of fans was something that they came up with in the 1960s when Stan [Lee, the famed Marvel editor and writer,] said “New era, no sidekicks.” At age 9 or 10 I was saying, “If I ever write Captain America I’m un-doing this mistake.” It didn’t even happen in the comic and it made me mad.
GB: Um, that’s not the response most youngsters would articulate. Most would shrug.
EB: I also drew a distinction at age 10 between Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy [who each were killed off in the pages of “The Amazing Spider-Man” in the 1970s] and Bucky Barnes. Most readers grouped them together because they were the three that always stayed dead but they weren’t the same to me. Uncle Ben actually dies in the comic and Gwen Stacy, I actually witnessed her death. You didn’t see Uncle Ben die but you saw Gwen die and you weren’t 100% sure that Spider-Man didn’t cause her death when he tried to save her. But Bucky was the first ret-conned death. My reaction was “It doesn’t count. I can fix it somehow.”
GB: When you hatched a plan that would actually follow through with that youthful aspiration, what were the roadblocks?
EB: Tom and I argued about it a lot and in the end decided it would work as long we didn’t invalidate what Stan and Jack [Kirby, the co-creator of “Captain America” in the 1940s and Lee’s collaborator on the 1960s revival]. That’s why we made it that he did blow up and he did die in that water but then he was brought back to life. And then it became this crazy sort of “Bourne Identity” thing. I did a bunch of research into things the Russians were actually trying to do in real life to create super-soldiers. I stumbled upon Department X and it’s funny because Marvel had done all this stuff with the Red Room and Black Widow and all the various Russian mutants but they had never used Department X as a reference point. I made Department X the thing that oversaw everything because in real life they were really trying to build cyber-men and all this crazy stuff.
GB: So Bucky lost an arm; was that a nod to the old story — a gesture of sacrifice? It also adds a bit “Six Million Dollar Man” to it.
EB: Yeah, you had to show he was really blown up. He had to lose an arm or something. And I was thinking of “Six Million Dollar Man” more than anything. I wasn’t thinking about Deathlok or Cable or Bishop or any of these Marvel characters that have that arm with the [metallic] ridges. We could make a team of all these guys someday.
GB: Brothers in Arm…
EB: Brothers in Arm, that’s good actually. “They are the Metal Arm Force…”
GB: It’s got to be strange for you to consider that, in an hour or two, you’re going to see Bucky on the big screen for the first time.
EB: It’s amazing to think what Bucky has become and what he was. For years the only thing that was important about Bucky was the fact that he was the thing that Captain America lost. And that remains important — in fact it’s the reason the Winter Soldier story worked. Cap still lost. If I was going to take away the tragedy of Bucky being killed in action, I had to replace it with something worse. Cap couldn’t save Bucky and because he couldn’t, Bucky became his own worst nightmare. And then in trying to save Bucky again — by giving him his memories back — Cap tortures Bucky by making him realize everything he did as the Winter Soldier too. Bucky is such a great tragic character and that tragedy has different sides to it now.
GB: This new film introduces the early beats of that tragedy to the screen and there’s a lot of talk in Marvel circles about a Winter Soldier standalone film. That would be a staggering concept for 9-year-old Ed Brubaker.
EB: For me, when I watch the movie tonight I’ll be judging the Bucky a lot more than the Cap. A lot of people asked me what I thought when Chris Evans got cast as Cap what I thought. “Is this the right guy?” I had seen him in things that were serious, like this movie called “London,” and he had serious chops…. Steve Rogers was a hard role cast. Everyone that I heard suggested he seemed too old, like Mark Valley, how was he going to play the young Steve who wants to enlist?
GB: The amazing accomplishment of this movie was the CG work that delivered the young Steve Rogers. It’s pretty great. I think the romance is the most successful one that Marvel Studios has put on a screen, unless you count Tony Stark and Tony Stark.
EB: I was so happy they cast [Hayley Atwell] as Peggy Carter. I read the script for the film and if you read the new Captain America No. 1 that’s just been released, I wrote it to be open to people who are coming off the movie. I mean, if you walked out of the movie and wanted to see what a Captain America comic book was like and you picked up this one it would make sense to you. Dum Dum Dugan is in it and we actually open at Peggy Carter’s funeral in Paris — she fought in the French resistance — and the set-up was a way to emotionally connect with people. Peggy Carter was like 98 years old the last time they showed her [in the comics] and she had Alzheimer’s. So the idea was let’s get rid of the Peggy Carter problem in the comics. You know the funny thing? I’m actually starting to get nervous. I’ve been to premieres before with Marvel and they were fine but now, talking about all this, I’m starting to get really excited to see this movie. And I just hope they don’t blow it with Bucky.
— Geoff Boucher
UPDATE: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this post quoted Ed Brubaker as saying that Hayley Atwell portrays Sharon Carter. She plays Peggy Carter.
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— Geoff Boucher