Captain America is another Marvel title that had been languishing in development hell since as far back as 1997 (although everyone tends to ignore the 1990 Captain America film, directed by Albert Pyun, as it never received an official American release). Not only could a script never get written, the development process was interrupted by Joe Simon's lawsuit over ownership of the Captain America copyrights. Things remained stalled after the lawsuit was settled in 2003, until Marvel Studios received their 2005 cash influx and began planning their own independent productions.
Even then, though, things looked bleak. Jon Favreau approached Avi Arad with the intention of making it a comedy, but luckily opted to make Iron Man instead. The Writers Guild of America strike put progress on hold again during 2007-2008, however Marvel negotiated an interim agreement with the Guild and writing began again on all of Marvel's projects. Then, Incredible Hulk director, Louis Leterrier, was shown concept art for Captain America and offered his services, but Marvel turned him down.
In November 2008, Joe Johnston, the director of October Sky (1999) and The Rocketeer (1991), signed to direct, hiring Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to rewrite the current script. But even with the director onboard it would be a year before Johnston was ready to announce when filming would begin. After aiming for an April 2010 start date, production finally began on June 28, 2010 with most of the principle filming being done in London, England.
And while there had been talk early in the development process that half the film would be set during World War II and half in the modern day, Markus and McFeely's script was set almost entirely during World War II, with modern day bookends.
In March it was announced that Chris Evans would be playing Captain America – after turning down the role three times (he was afraid of what playing Cap would do to his career if it failed or if it was a success!) – and Hugo Weaving signed on to play the Red Skull. In April, Sebastian Stan was cast as Bucky Barnes and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. Before everything was said and done, Toby Jones was cast as Arnim Zola, Dominic Cooper would be playing Tony Stark's father, Howard Stark (the third person to play the part in three appearances), Tommy Lee Jones was US Army colonel Chester Phillips, Neal McDonough was Dum Dum Dugan and Stanley Tucci signed on as Dr. Abraham Erskine.
Filming was completed in December, 2010, but reshoots were scheduled in the UK and Los Angeles for April, and then Avengers director Joss Whedon filmed a mysterious scene in Times Square on April 23, 2011 where Samuel Jackson once again reprised his role of Nick Fury. By the time the film was released on July 22, 2011, over 1,600 visual effects shots had been completed by thirteen different companies. The most impressive use of the special effects in the film was the transformation of buff Chris Evans into skinny, 98-pound Steve Rogers.
There were two central techniques used for achieving the look: the CGI grafting of Evans' head on another actor's body during scenes that required minimal physical acting, and a form of digital "plastic surgery." This was a complex process that involved filming each skinny Steve scene at least four times: A normal shot; one with Evans alone in front of a green screen; again with the rest of the cast, but no Evans; and finally one with a body double (in case the CGI head graft was needed). There were variations of these techniques used with each other throughout the first part of the film (not to mention traditional foreshortening techniques, standing on boxes, etc.), and at times the effect is mind-boggling.
You know that's Chris Evans, but do you really know that's Chris Evans?
Captain America: The First Avenger stands out from the rest of the Marvel Studios productions so far, not just because of its period setting, but for the first time, we have a hero who doesn't follow a narrative arc of personality change or growth. His arc is all about living up to the ideals that he already embodies before he's ever injected with the Super Soldier formula. As such, he's also matched up against an enemy with no real sympathetic side.
The Red Skull is all bastard, all the time. And in a very creative link to Thor, in the opening scenes, the Skull, in his disguised identity of Johann Schmidt, discovers an occult weapon, The Tesseract, that is actually a piece of Asgardian technology. With it, he is able to develop weaponry far in advance of what the Allies have, powered with the Tesseract's energies.
Once Steve Rogers convinces his superiors that he should be in the field, fighting the Red Skull and his Hydra army (the fringe science division of the Nazi Party), the film introduces the Howling Commandos – although without Sgt. Fury. In this version of the Marvel Universe, Cap plays the Fury role during World War II, and we get a whirlwind tour of the Howlers, and Bucky's, adventures alongside Cap's.
And in what is apparently the real link between all of the Marvel Studios productions, Cap is tragically separated from his true love once everything is said and done. This should give him, Thor, and Hulk something to commiserate over during their down time in The Avengers.
Captain America started strong and gave Thor a run for his money, but when the final box office tally was made, Thor came out ahead. But only just. Cap brought in $176 million domestic, but faltered overseas, racking up another $191 million, making it next to last in the total box office race among Marvel productions. However, with a fairly low $140 million budget, bringing in $368 million worldwide is impressive enough to ensure a sequel.
The critical reception was even better. While the overall Rotten Tomatoes score settled in at 79%, it was the best reviewed Marvel Studios film since the first Iron Man. At least until reviews started coming in for The Avengers.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.