80 years ago, long before there was even a Marvel Comics, let alone a Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve Rogers – the brainchild of writer Joe Simon, and brought to life by artist Jack Kirby – was throwing his mighty shield, fighting Nazi hordes and punching Hitler, under his patriotic alter ego of Captain America.
The star of Timely Comics made his debut as a part of what came to be known as the MCU some seven decades later, in Captain America: The First Avenger; however, this was not to be Cap’s first appearance on the big screen – he starred in his own serial for Republic Pictures in 1944, although Steve Rogers was nowhere in sight; instead, it was a new character altogether – District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) – donning the mantle.
After Timely Comics became Atlas Comics, and then finally Marvel Comics, former Atlas and Timely employee Stanley Lieber – A.K.A. Stan Lee – revived Captain America, as part of his new superhero team, The Avengers. However, it was rather an unorthodox – not to mention unauthorised – film which saw Cap returning to the flicks, in the form of 1973’s 3 Dev Adam (also known as Captain America And Santo Vs. Spider-Man), a Turkish movie which sees him teaming up with a Mexican Luchador wrestler, to take on an evil Spider-Man.
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Steve Rogers had his first live-action turn in 1979, with Reb Brown taking on the dual role in the CBS TV movie Captain America, which ended up having a theatrical release in 1981; Brown had another television outing in late ‘79, as Cap went toe to toe against Christopher Lee’s General Miguel, in sequel Captain America II: Death Too Soon. This was not to be the only time Brown crossed paths with the Star Spangled Man, as he made a cameo alongside Stan Lee in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Matt Salinger was next to wield the shield in 1990’s Captain America. This latest iteration of the character went through a difficult gestation, after Cannon Group’s Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus picked up the theatrical rights in 1984; it was their intention to have Michael Winner direct the movie, but after going through a number of scripts, he dropped out in 1987. When Golan left Cannon in 1989, he took the rights with him to 21st Century Film Corporation, but the finished product skipped cinemas and went direct to video.
However, no matter how tumultuous the production of the 1990 film may have seemed at the time, it was nothing like the torturous, protracted path which was trodden by what eventually ended up becoming the concluding movie of the MCU’s Phase 1. In early 1997, Marvel had negotiations with producers Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn, with a view to making a new Captain America feature film; May 2000 saw Artisan Entertainment joining forces with Marvel to finance the movie.
Artisan and Marvel were working jointly on turning some 15 Marvel superhero properties into theatrical and straight-to-video films, as well as TV shows, and online projects. One of the characters in their sights was Captain America; however, all work was then halted by a lawsuit raised by Joe Simon, as he wanted to assert ownership of the copyright to Captain America – similar motions had been filed by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, co-creators of Superman, and several attempts were made over the decades against DC Comics.
In Simon’s case, Marvel came to a financial settlement with him in September 2003, to retain the ownership of Captain America, which freed them up to get the movie plans back in active development again. The following year, David Maisel was hired as Marvel Studios’ Chief Operating Officer, and he realised there was value in Marvel having a shared cinematic universe, in which characters could interact, rather than the rights being sold off, and all their properties scattered across a number of different studios.
Maisel blocked Marvel’s plans to licence Warner Brothers to make a Captain America adaptation, and entered a financial arrangement with Merrill Lynch, whereby Marvel would get $525 million in funding, to make a maximum of ten movies based on properties to which they still retained the rights to make cinematic adaptations. Efforts were then made to find a distributor for Marvel Studios’ own productions; Universal were first to be approached, as they had film rights to Hulk and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Paramount Pictures entered the fray, and were ultimately successful.
Writer David Self (who had adapted Road To Perdition from a graphic novel, and had also worked on Universal’s mooted Namor film) was initially hired for scripting duties in 2006; work was temporarily halted, however, all due to the Writers Guild of America’s strike action in 2007 and 2008. After work resumed, Zak Penn was attached to the project, in place of Self. At this stage, the plan had been to split up the story, so that 50% of the action took place in the 1940s, and the other half was set in the present day.
Finding a director was the next big challenge Marvel Studios faced. Jon Favreau had previously expressed interest, with a view to making it a light-hearted take, seeing it as a comedic buddy picture; however, he was ultimately picked to head up Iron Man, which launched the MCU in 2008. Nick Cassavetes – who had been signed to direct an Iron Man feature back in 2004 for New Line Cinema, before they lost the movie rights the following year – was linked to the director’s role in 2007, and Louis Leterrier – who went on to head up The Incredible Hulk – threw his hat in the ring.
However, Marvel Studios’ head Kevin Feige had somebody else in mind for the task – Joe Johnston. Having started out in visual effects, working on Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Johnston moved into the director’s chair, and it was making ‘40s and ‘50s-set pieces like The Rocketeer and October Sky which made him seem like the perfect fit. Johnston – who had been due to direct a Hulk adaptation for Universal back in 1997 – was signed up by Marvel in November 2008.
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He hired writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a reworking of the script, and a number of changes were made by the time it reached the screen. The majority of the finished movie was set during World War II, with only a brief coda bringing Steve Rogers to the present day. Although it was originally conceived as a standalone film, Joss Whedon subsequently polished the script, in order to enable it to tie into his movie version of The Avengers. Earlier script drafts also had cameo appearances by Logan (A.K.A. Wolverine) as a WWII soldier, and Erik Lensherr (A.K.A. Magneto), but they were dropped due to 20th Century Fox having the film rights to the X-Men.
The next big hurdle was casting our hero, and all manner of names were linked with the role. Early talks apparently took place with Sam Worthington and Will Smith; one debunked rumour even linked Leonardo DiCaprio with taking the part. Dwayne Johnson voiced his interest in playing Cap during an interview, and when doing press for The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart said he would like to portray either Captain America or Green Lantern.
A range of actors went up for the part, either getting as far as an audition, or merely expressing their interest, such as – in the latter case – musician brothers Kevin & Joe Jonas. Some names that were reputedly under consideration for the lead were Chad Michael Murray, Ryan McPartlin, and Chris Pine. The list of people who tried out for Cap included Kellan Lutz (who also went up for Thor), Alexander Skarsgård (who was similarly an unsuccessful Thor auditionee), Dane Cook, and Derek Theler, as well as Chris Pratt.
Amongst those who auditioned were a couple of actors who would fail to land the part, but go on to have an association with Captain America nonetheless. Sebastian Stan was felt not to be right for Steve Rogers, but was instead offered the part of Steve’s pal, Bucky Barnes. Wyatt Russell’s first ever audition happened to be for the lead in Captain America: The First Avenger, but he was unsuccessful; a shade under a decade later, however, he won the role of John Walker, the next Captain America, in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier on Disney+.
When it came to putting together a shortlist, the names in contention included Jensen Ackles, Ryan Phillippe, Scott Porter, Channing Tatum, Garrett Hedlund, Wilson Bethel, Chace Crawford, Michael Cassidy, Mike Vogel, Chris Evans, and John Krasinski. In fact, Krasinski’s wife – Emily Blunt – had previously been cast as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; she was offered the part of Agent Peggy Carter, but turned it down. Others in the running were Alice Eve and Keira Knightley, before Agent Carter finally went to Hayley Atwell.
Chris Evans had not even been under consideration initially, due to his association with the part of Johnny Storm in 20th Century Fox’s 2005 Fantastic Four film and its 2007 sequel. However, later on in the casting process. Kevin Feige was to realise Patrick Stewart had been both Jean-Luc Picard and Professor Xavier, and Harrison Ford was both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, without it being an issue for audiences that an actor had played two prominent roles. As a result, Evans was invited to audition for Steve Rogers / Captain America, and he eventually landed the lead.
On opening weekend in its home market, Captain America: The First Avenger took $65 million, which measured up to Thor’s first three days. However, it failed to meet the overall box office of Thor, topping out at $370.5 million worldwide; this places it as being the second-lowest grossing MCU film, beaten only by The Incredible Hulk. To measure it, however, merely on box office receipts alone is to actually sell Captain America: The First Avenger short on its significance to the MCU as a whole, as characters and concepts introduced here have played a significant part across the last 13 years.
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HYDRA gets its introduction, as does the organisation which goes on to become SHIELD, both of which recur throughout future Marvel TV and film projects. We also get the first ever mention of Vibranium, which takes on greater significance with the introduction of Black Panther. The Tesseract – last seen in Thor – helps to reinforce the importance of Infinity Stones across the MCU’s Phases 1 to 3, and references made here to Norse mythology connect the movie to the world of the Asgardians. Peggy Carter and Bucky end up getting their own series, and we get to see Tony Stark’s father – Howard – as a young man.
Johnston also does a wonderful job in making this a piece of delightful retro-futurism, which avoids being jingoistic, as well as having a wonderfully innocent charm which matches that seen in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, with its drive to offer verisimilitude. It also inadvertently acts as a perfect companion piece to Johnston’s overlooked film The Rocketeer, which has a great many similarities, including an ‘everyman’ hero taking on Nazis, with the help of a scientific development the Third Reich is seeking to steal and misuse for its own ends.
With Captain America: The First Avenger, the last of the key players in Marvel Studios’ plan to establish themselves as a credible cinematic presence was now in place. Even though a new Captain America has been established in the MCU in the form of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Steve Rogers’ role in setting up the early success of Marvel’s venture can never be overstated, and will no doubt continue to have an influence over what is yet to come.
Captain America: The First Avenger was released in the UK on 29th July 2011.