9 Years Into The Past
Today in Nerd History, we take a look at a more recent film release that featured the comic book superhero Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger.
In Nerd History, we celebrate the past by revisiting significant dates that gave birth to some of geek culture’s finest productions of story, imagination, adventure, and overall impact and influence.
For The First Avenger, Marvel Studios was close to premiering the highly anticipated superhero team-up flick The Avengers, which was set to feature Captain America as one of the individuals who become a part of the titular group. With Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor having their own films to introduce characters and ideas, it was up to director Joe Johnston and his team to assemble the final piece of the cinematic puzzle to make Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ready and complete.
Before The Big Show
Way back in 2008, the world was introduced to the MCU in the form of a film that starred Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man. The genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist had transitioned into a superhero encased in a suit of armor to save the good from the wicked, bringing the idea of one Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. An Avengers Initiative was merely an idea that continued to grow and expand as each superhero film from Marvel Studios was both answering questions and proposing new ones. One of them ringed on: How will they put 1940s Captain America alongside a modern-day intelligent Tony Stark, God of Thunder Thor, and the actor-swapping madness of the Incredible Hulk?
The answer was simple yet complex. The Captain was to be awaken from a cold slumber in the ice after being discovered amid wreckage in a frozen wasteland. “The man out of the time,” he would be called, for the world remembers Captain America and his heroic actions, but Steven Grant Rogers woke up to be lost and behind on the universe has it moved on. It wasn’t a ridiculous notion to have the Captain fight beside a Norse god, a green beast, and a man in a suit of flying armor, but it had to be believable enough for the audience to register and gleefully accept.
For years, Marvel had tried to get an appropriate adaptation of the character to appear on the big screen. Negotiations started back in 1997, but no solid efforts were made at this time. The struggle to have the Captain on-screen was a tedious one, as a lawsuit was pitted against Marvel Comics from Joe Simon, co-creator of the character, over copyright ownership. It wouldn’t be settled until 2003, but the troubles didn’t end there.
Assembly Of The Writers Dissembling
As Marvel continued to push movie plans for their first slate of screen adventures, they still needed decent financing to get things going. An investment from Merrill Lynch of $525 million would eventually be reached for the studio to produce up to 10 initial films. Distribution of the films would be handled by Paramount Pictures.
Creators were being hired to put things in motion, with a writer set to compose a script and casting auditions that searched for the right people to fill the shoes of the iconic character and his war mates. The welcoming development would be put on hold, unfortunately. The Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-08 halted all the major writing opportunities in the entertainment business when the creatives couldn’t reach an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over a contract called the Minimum Basic Agreement that dealt with compensation for their work.
Before the strike would reach a conclusion, however, Marvel signed interim deals with the guild so that they could work under the company’s development on multiple projects with fair conditions for their efforts.
Rogers, On The Way
After the company’s deal with the guild, the mission to bring Captain America to the big screen was back on track. Later that year in 2008, long after the guild would reach an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Marvel hired director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji) to lead the project. His work on the Star Wars original trilogy as a visual effects artist and director (for Return of the Jedi) proved to be fruitful since the film would feature heavy CG work. The Academy Award-winning visual director would then hire writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to compose the final script, as a release date for May 6, 2011, was already set in stone to fall in line with the releases of the other superhero entries in Phase One.
The film tells the origin story of Steve Rogers, who transforms into Super Solider Captain America during a risky experiment that gives him the physical strength to combat the Nazi friends across seas in World War II. Captain America and his film were being released around the time former President Barack Obama was being elected, and the shouts of “Hope!” and “Change!” vibrated throughout the country. In many ways, Steve Rogers is a symbol of hope and change that falls in line with his actions of justice and liberty – and not just for the U.S. itself either. He fights for the good, and he doesn’t like bullies, no matter where they come from. Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige commented on an EW article about the political transition by saying, “The idea of change and hope has permeated the country, regardless of politics, and that includes Hollywood. Discussions in all our development meetings include the zeitgeist and how it’s changed in the last two weeks. Things are being adjusted.”
Evans and Co.
The search was on for Marvel to find an actor to fill the role of the titular hero. Initially, actor Chris Evans wasn’t on Marvel’s list since he had played the Human Torch in two previous Fantastic Four films. Instead, eyes were set on the potential candidates that consisted of John Krasinski, Ryan Phillippe, Chace Crawford, Garrett Hedlund, and a few other recognizable names.
The idea of bringing Evans on-board came into fruition when the company realized that they could do it with Evans, and that no one would really care. The offers were made, but Evans declined. Due to an issue with his panic attacks that was sorely mixed with temptation of taking on such a huge role, Evans continued to say no the more Marvel persisted with him, even by making shorter movie deals with him. It wasn’t until it took some deep talking with his close friends, a former teacher, and Robert Downey Jr. that Evans would change his mind. Upon accepting the role, he started to go to therapy to work on his anxiety.
As Evans was ready to play Rogers, the rest of the casting fell into place. Around the time when the film’s title was shifted from “The First Avenger: Captain America” to “Captain America: The First Avenger”, Hayley Atwell was cast as British Agent Peggy Carter, the romantic interest of the Captain; Sebastian Stan joined the cast as Bucky Barnes, Steve’s closest friend, and war ally; Hugo Weaving was brought on to portray the villainous Red Skull of Hydra; Toby Jones would play the right-hand man to the Red Skull as Arnim Zola; Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci were cast as Colonel Chester Phillips and Dr. Abraham Erskine, respectively, to portray the essential characters responsible for the super-soldier procedure that ultimately alters Steve Rogers from a skinny lad from Brooklyn to the buff and heroic Captain America – along with the help from a young Howard Stark, played by Dominic Cooper. And it’s hard to forget Samuel L Jackson‘s cameo in the film’s final shot where Steve finds himself in modern-day Times Square in New York City.
The First Avenger, codename ‘Frostbite’
On June 28, 2010, it was time for shooting to commence in the United Kingdom, the Welsh village of Caerwent, and parts of Liverpool and Manchester, all under the working title of “Frostbite.” The principal photography would then be followed by reshoots for Los Angeles and again in the United Kingdom, along with an additional scene that was shot in Times Square for the concluding sequence.
While filming itself was being handled by a respective team of creatives, there was a whole other layer to the film’s development that was imperative in making Captain America a cinematic reality: the visual effects team. Or more so, rather multiple teams instead of just one. According to the IMDB company credits page for the film, there is a total of 13 different visual effects companies that contributed work for Cap’s solo adventure. By adding in more teams to work on specific shots and scenes to eventually blend them all together in editing for The First Avenger, Marvel was able to give the companies enough time and resources for sufficient creation and polishing.
This impressive synergy of visual effects would continue on as many of the companies would be hired more than once to work on future projects that were lined up for theatrical releases. There are some you might have even heard of.
Framestore was in charge of creating the Red Skull; Luma Pictures worked on creating backgrounds; Whiskytree helmed the project of making New York within the 1940s era; Look Effects worked on floating a car; RISE Visual Effects handled simulations; DNEG (formerly known as Double Negative) was in charge of about 700 out of the 1,600 collected shots for VFX work, including shots of The Crypt, the Hydra Factory, Schmidt’s office, the Bomber and Podfighter Aerials, and the Arctic crash; The Senate focused on the Kruger Chase sequence; Method Studios worked on Captain’s parachute jump and the main titles, which was made possible thanks to the help from design and animation studio Rok!t – the two companies also contributed their talents for the film’s marketing with trailers and TV spots; Trixter created Red Skull’s flashback sequence where Schmidt transforms into the aforesaid foe of Steve Rogers; Fuel VFX took up the projects of creating work for the Submarine chase scene, the Frozen Wasteland, the motorcycle action sequence, and Radio City Music Hall; companies Evil Eye Pictures and Marlen Studios provided additional green screen effects.
The 13th company, Lola Visual Effects, worked on the most important visual effect that would really sell the movie: making Chris Evans small. In the film, Steve Rogers is less than 100 pounds before being given the super serum to make him big. They wanted to make it believable that it was still Evans playing the same role all the way through, so consistency was key. Utilizing a method known as “Digital Plastic Surgery”, Lola basically reshaped and meshed Evans into a smaller human being by using as many reference shots to get all the angles and adjustments just right. Evans’ body double for “Skinny Steve”, played by actor Leander Deeny, would be on-set to give the filmmakers a better idea of Steve should look on-screen before the transformation. Below is a YouTube video I found whilst researching that shows what had to be achieved in order for the idea to work.
The Star-Spangled Man who was the First Avenger
With filming wrapped up, Marvel was just about ready to present to the world their version of Captain America. Although a few attempts to bring an authentic Steve Rogers portrayal to the silver screen are not remembered too fondly, this modern-day film was set to exceed expectations. The 1944 serial was made ages ago, the 1973 Turkish movie 3 Dev Adam is a representation of poor character management that has the Cap without his shield and Spider-Man as the villain, and the 1990 critically panned feature-length film simply titled Captain America all settled the fact that Steve Rogers wasn’t ready for the movie scene just yet.
But as the success of Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Thor grew with positive reviews and fans, the anticipation in-turn was high for Captain America’s cinematic entry. People were gearing up for a solid superhero team-up flick in the form of The Avengers, and it was up to The First Avenger to seal the deal before Joss Whedon could pilot the conclusion to Phase One.
Captain America: The First Avenger premiered at the El Capitan Theatre on July 19, with worldwide distribution occurring on the 22nd. It received $370.6 million at the box office worldwide with a budget of $140 million, with praise going toward the action, the film’s storytelling and respect to the character, and Evans’ performance as Captain Rogers. The film would spawn two extremely successful sequels, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, with many fans regarding Captain’s movie trilogy to be the best within the MCU.
The entire filmmaking journey to get the Captain to be realistic was a long one in order for the pieces of the puzzle to interlock with one another. Even after production delays, Marvel was persistent in providing a genuine experience for admirers of the hero from Brooklyn. They made certain that their desired vision of the character came true.
For a character who happened to be the First Avenger that was composed and drawn during the World War II epoch of chaos, it seemed unlikely that a promising adaptation would take place. But Marvel had managed to do it, along with the other science fiction projects that many thought were impossible to bring to screen. The First Avenger created a movie legacy for Chris Evans and company, as many of the studios working under the film would come back for more Marvel projects with their universe expanding by the year. Due to the accomplishment of Phase One, we were given two additional Phases that would include Steve Rogers going against close enemies alongside his trustworthy Avengers.
It was like a dream coming true for comic book fans, to see their heroes battle out power-hungry foes, aliens, and Nazis while remaining true to the source material. The First Avenger showed the ever-growing development of Steve Rogers with recognizable uniforms and allies, such as Bucky and Cap’s team of Commandos. His famous shield had a story of its own, from just starting as a door to a taxi cab to the reliable Vibranium one that we all know and adore. Every aspect of the film had something from Steve Rogers’ comic book history, and seeing him at the end talking to Nick Fury in modern-day America made us feel more related to him than ever before as he expresses his disappointment on missing a dance with Peggy.
Now, Evans’ run with Captain America seems to be over, as experienced through the final shots of Avengers: Endgame where we see a time-traveling Steve swaying away his love to the soft tune of “It’s Been A Long, Long Time”. From the introduction of Skinny Steve in line for army recruitment, the confrontation against the Winter Soldier, the time heist amid the madness of Thanos, to him and Peggy finally getting that dance, we’ve seen an entire cinematic evolution of a well-known comic book character in less than a decade.
The character, and the First Avenger is still being quoted and celebrated, now more than ever. With comic book tales adding more adventures for Steve Rogers, a statue in Brooklyn in honor of his 75th anniversary after first appearing in the 1940s, and an upcoming Avengers video game, Captain America refuses to back down from the entertainment spotlight, and we’re certainly ready for more to come.
Source: C. Anthony Rivera