'General America"? Too highfalutin. "Private America"? Nobody would listen to him. But "Captain America"? Now that sounds like a leader who's still one of the grunts on the ground -- part of the duality that permeates "Captain America: The First Avenger," opening Friday: neophyte and leader, weak man and strong, ordinary citizen and national symbol, all occupying the same body.
"We tried to write the Steve Rogers story," says co-screenwriter Stephen McFeely, referring to the civilian identity of Marvel Comics' star-spangled superhero -- who, in a World War II "super-soldier" experiment, is metamorphosed from a scrappy 98-pound weakling to the peak of human physicality. Yet despite such Charles Atlas wish fulfillment, "He still has to deal with all the issues he came with," says screenwriting partner Christopher Markus. "He still has to be the guy he was born as."
Unlike Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, who were often integral to Superman and Batman stories, Steve Rogers began as just a nominal secret identity. In late 1940, writer-artist Joe Simon (who later lived in Mineola and Woodbury) had simply wanted an iconic American -- one who could go after Hitler immediately while the United States wavered over entering the war -- when he sketched out the superhero he and artist Jack Kirby would together develop for "Captain America Comics" #1 (March 1941). It wasn't until the 1960s that Kirby and writer-editor Stan Lee put Rogers front and center with soap-operatic angst, and made the character grapple with exactly what a "Captain America" represented in modern times.
"I think a lot of what Steve Rogers is about is this kind of old-time, old way of thinking," star Chris Evans, 30, says by phone from Albuquerque, where he's reprising his Captain America role in the next Marvel movie, "The Avengers." "It was fun playing the Human Torch," he says, referring to his much different superhero in the "Fantastic Four" movies. "He's a bit of a jackass, but he's fun. Steve Rogers is more of a straight shooter. When you're breaking down the script and trying to find the purpose behind the words, it's nice to kind of live in the head space of a man who just does things for the right reason -- not for praise, not to show people that he's a good man, but just because it's the right thing to do."
Of course, that's not the hardest thing to do in a movie set during World War II (with present-day bookends, as in "Saving Private Ryan"). In this origin story, Cap earns his stars and stripes fighting the unambiguous good fight against the Nazis -- particularly grotesque mastermind the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) -- alongside a multiethnic group. Though unnamed, they're Marvel's "Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos," minus Nick Fury.
"They are commandos and at one point they do howl," Markus says with a chuckle. "They're called the Howling Commandos in the script, but no one says that out loud." Director Joe Johnston says at one point they were to be called the Invaders -- igniting off-base fan speculation that the same-name Marvel superhero team would appear in the movie.
Evans almost didn't appear, having turned down the role, he says, three times. "It was a nine-picture commitment," he explains, "and just thinking about the magnitude of that job and the lifestyle change if the movie were a success, it was just scary." Marvel Studios offered a more palatable six-movie deal he eventually accepted -- three Captain America and three Avengers films -- but initially he still said no.
Why insist on him? "We interviewed and screen-tested probably 12 to 15 guys," says Johnston, whose period drama "October Sky" (1999) and underrated comic-book adaptation "The Rocketeer" (1991) helped land him the directing job, "and we liked a lot of them. But we always came out of the meeting or the screen test saying, 'Oh, if only he were 4 inches taller, or if only his voice were a little clearer, or if he only didn't do that funny thing with his face.' "
It sounds as if the studio just simply wanted Evans. Casting does eventually come down to chemistry -- from both directions.
"I finally got this feeling," Evans says, "that if I'm not doing it just because I'm afraid of it, that's no way to make a decision. I thought, 'Maybe this is exactly what I need to face, and for better or worse it'll shape who I am.' And I ended up pulling the trigger, and looking back now, thank God. Thank God. I think I'd be miserable right now seeing the trailers and the press, and really upset with myself for being a coward."
Which seems, aptly enough, like exactly what Steve Rogers would say.
The man behind the shield of 'Captain America'
When a needed on-screen object doesn't exist, the prop master gets it made. And for "Captain America: The First Avenger," that meant that Barry Gibbs had to have four types of shields manufactured, plus a couple of variants.
Besides the triangular shield Captain America first uses, says Gibbs, 50, there were three models of the more familiar circular shield. "We had the 'hero shield,' which was made of aluminum, for our beauty shots," he explains. "It's too heavy for day-to-day use but fine for close-up work. We then created a lighter shield that was aluminum-faced with a fiberglass back, for use on a daily basis and which doesn't pull the costume down when strapped to it. And then we had a stunt shield made of polyurethane, which is sort of a synthetic rubber."
A softer version of that was employed for specific stunts, such as those involving hitting, "and we made an ultrasoft one we put on back, so that if there were an accident, it wouldn't hurt him."