“Captain America: The First Avenger” had a heroic opening weekend and overcame all the skepticism about period-piece patriotism in a contemporary movie marketplace. The film was directed by Joe Johnston, and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige played a major role in stitching the film into the widening Marvel Universe on the silver screen, but the story began with a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the duo who also wrote the “Chronicles of Narnia” screenplays. Our Geoff Boucher sat down with them to talk about the film’s success, the choices made and a bit about their daydreams for Cap’s film future (Peter Dinklage as MODOK? Sign us up now…)
GB: You have a character with a name, a costume and a sensibility that are very much of another time. This is a Roosevelt superhero. Going in with all of that, what choices needed to be made to make this a film that would appeal to — and connect with — moviegoers in summer 2011, both in America and beyond?
CM: It really makes you want to do it as a period story. A guy deciding to be Captain America in 1942 and a guy deciding to be Captain America in 2011 are two radically different guys and will be received in different ways. The context is everything. The lines were very clear. in 1942, it almost made sense to dress up in a flag and go fight Nazis. It was a metaphor for what everyone was doing. Today, if you go into your backyard shed and come out as Captain America, you’re on a watch list. Or holding up the federal budget.
GB: This is the 70th anniversary of the Captain America character, and his published adventures are into the thousands. How does the challenge of bringing him to the screen compare and contrast with adapting the “Narnia” bookshelf?
SM: The danger of both is you can lose the character in the spectacle. You can say to yourself, “I’m making X big movie and it’s about the amazing things that happen, and the person in the center of the movie isn’t as important.” We couldn’t lose sight of Steve Rogers, the man that becomes Captain America, nor could we lose sight of the Pevensie kids — and they had to be distinct kids and not a little football to move along the story.
CM: You never want to lose their reaction to the non-realistic stuff that is happening around them. In “Narnia,” you don’t want to have them freak out every time about the talking beaver, but you can’t let it pass by like it happens every day either. You want to keep reality around. And in “Captain America,” it’s a wartime film and a lot of people are dying. We didn’t want the movie to become too big and flag-waving or triumphant because there are a lot of people getting killed.
GB: How were they different from a process standpoint?
SM: “Narnia” was a 180-page book with a beginning, a middle and an end. So in some ways you’re trying to make a movie of your imagination but also you know the whole deal. With Cap, we had a general sense of beginning and a general sense of the ending because we knew where he had to be [to fit into the Marvel team-up plot of the 2012 film] ‘The Avengers.’ So Act 2 is the question — what is this story? It had to be baggy enough, too, to indicate that he had a lot of World War II adventures and this is not the only one he had. There’s a lot of invention there, pulling on a number of different sources.
GB: In the comics, there were the early Captain America adventures by Joe Simon and the late Jack Kirby and the 1960s “man-out-of-time” stories by Kirby and Stan Lee. There’s also the memorable espionage art and design of Jim Steranko and, much more recently, the mythology-reshaping work by writer Ed Brubaker. Are those the places you started?
CM: There’s cool stuff to mine in the unappreciated eras, too, and going back to them you kind of get why they aren’t iconic. But even in wasteland issues, Cap was always dealing with some pretty heavy issues. Even while Batroc the Leaper is jumping around, there’s still this element to the story where the characters are questioning the United States government.
GB: One of the great elements in the film that never appeared in the comics was the awkward time that Steve Rogers spends as a USO performer, a new wrinkle to the mythology that explains why he’s wearing a costume and a clever bridge between isolated outsider and national symbol. Talk a bit about that sequence.
SM: We went toward “Flags of our Fathers.” So it was slightly mined territory and very realistic. The government took these [troubled U.S. servicemen who were involved in the iconic photograph of raising the flag atop Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima] and took them around to make public-relations heroes out of these guys and manufactured a persona and story to sell bonds…. There was a kerfuffle when word first got out that we were going to put him in the USO. “You’re going to make him sing and dance?” People weren’t in love with the idea. The thing that people didn’t know until they saw it is that we weren’t trying to take the piss out of him, we just trying to justify the reason someone would put that costume on. And, if I may say, this theme of Cap or his name or his image being used for the wrong reasons has been a theme in the comics for decades. This was our way of showing how he chafes we he is used as a superficial symbol or the misuse of his abilities. He wants to go save people, he doesn’t want to be a symbol.
GB: For six or seven years now, Brubaker has been writing Captain America comics. How valuable was his work to you, especially his retooling James “Bucky” Barnes and adding a layered, dark backstory that made him more than an old-school sidekick?
SM: Without Brubaker we don’t use Bucky. Our Bucky is different than his in some way but very much related to and informed by the work that Brubaker did.
CM: We never entertained the idea that teen Bucky might come up [as a viable character]. We made him older than he was in the comics but this whole idea that Bucky was the guy with no powers who the government sent in ahead of Cap to just murder people and handle the stuff that was too dirty for Cap — that was kind of great.
GB: The difference between a good superhero movie and a great superhero movie is often the villain, which is one of the reasons Spider-Man and Batman are so alluring to Hollywood. What did you think about when you sized up Cap’s enemies?
CM: It’s very exciting when you look at his villains but it’s also daunting because some of the best ones do take you out of reality.
SM: There were a lot fights to get to that. There were a lot of versions. There were some that were too messed up and therefore I have sympathy for him.
GB: I want to ask you about the shield. After all the meetings about story and character and tone, you get down to the conversations about what would simply look great on a movie screen. Give us some insight into that conversation as far as the shield as an object of fascination.
SM: There were arguments. To his credit, Chris said that you have to throw the shield and you have to throw it often. The rest of us weren’t sure how it would translate.
CM: I came in with the idea that the shield is equivalent of Indiana Jones’ whip. You don’t know at the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that you want Indy to use a whip but you damn sure know at the end that you loved it. It’s cool and you don’t know why. I can’t tell you why. You just feel it. In some way it’s the only “super” thing about Cap.
GB: It’s interesting you say that. In some of the comics through the years, Captain America was portrayed as the equivalent of Batman — a man who represents the best fighting machine a human be. In other versions he’s more than human, capable of feats of strength that go beyond real-world possibility. What are the limits of your Cap?
SM: We basically approached it as an Olympian in every category. He would win every Olympic medal by a tenth of a second. He could beat Usain Bolt just at the line and he could beat Michael Phelps to the wall by a hand. Could he pick up a car? Maybe under stress. He can’t throw a car. He can’t survive a fall from the Empire State Building but he would have the presence of mind to save himself on the way down.
CM: This is not to say that continued exposure to super-soldier serum and being frozen for 70 years might not change some things. Eventually I think he might be better than he is at the start. Steve Rogers the man is the same, that’s his strength, but Captain America might just be getting started.
GB: This movie has the best romance of any Marvel Studios film, unless you count Tony Stark and Tony Stark. That must please you.
CM: A lot of that was the chemistry of Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell. We also get a surprising amount of mileage out of the final act in the movie when you think Cap is about the die or dead or whatever is happening there. You wouldn’t think it would be romantic, but it sort of seals the deal. “Oh my God they can never be together,” that sort of thing.
SM: The thing about Steve Rogers again and again is sacrifice. We didn’t come to any conclusion about what kind of life Steve would have if he came back home from the war because we didn’t have to. But if he did, what kind of life was waiting for him? If the war is over, what does this new Steve do? He didn’t have much of a life to go to. Before, he couldn’t have a relationship with woman because they wouldn’t look at him. Now he’s attractive to women but he’s 40 miles behind enemy lines. He’s a character about sacrifice. He sets aside his personal life again and again. He’s a hero.
— Geoff Boucher
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