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Captain America: Bob Hope With Better Abs…

I remember announcing last year that Captain America: The First Avenger was the movie in the Marvel canon I was most anticipating over the next few years. Well, it looks like the gods of movie-making are out to smite me for my doubts about Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh by giving me a taste of what exactly director Joe Johnston has in mind for the erstwhile superhero and super-patriot. I have to admit – after thinking about Iron Man 2 and reading all the casting and discussion on Thor – that this take on Captain America seems rather… mundane. To say the least.

He can punch Hitler in the face, but can he manage a chorus line?

I really wanted The Wolfman to be a good film. I was even anticipating it among the many promising films released this year. The reviews are less than kind. That’s bad for the rebirth of the Universal Monster Movie franchise, but it’s also bad news for Marvel, who have signed on Joe Johnston to direct the superhero period piece that will tie together the heroes before we brace ourselves for The Avengers. Johnston has had a below-average filmography, offering us Jurassic Park III (the one with the talking velociraptors) and Jumanji. The high point of his career – and the only reason I can see for Marvel offering him the job – is the superhero period piece The Rocketeer.

So I was cautious on that front. And, since his plans for the character have emerged, I’m starting to suspect that I may have been right to be suspicious:

The costume is a flag, but the way we’re getting around that is we have Steve Rogers forced into the USO circuit. After he’s made into this super-soldier, they decide they can’t send him into combat and risk him getting killed. He’s the only one and they can’t make more. So they say, ‘You’re going to be in this USO show’ and they give him a flag suit. He can’t wait to get out of it.

Yes, they are going to put the character on a rotating tour entertaining the troops – like some sort of superpowered Bob Hope. I sincerely hope he can handle a punchline as well as a punch.

Needless to say, the development has me highly skeptical. And it isn’t because I’m a nerd or because I believe that fidelity to source material is the primary objective of any adaptation. I couldn’t care less if this had been done in the comics – I don’t care who they cast for the role, or even the ethnicity. My problem with this proposed origin is that it just raises a whole host of head-scratching questions.

The whole ‘inventor of the super serum dies before he can write it down so there’s only one Captain America’ schtick is arguably the kind of thing you can get away with because it’s a time-honoured part of his origin and an example of the initial slack that audiences are willing to give you. Having Steve Rogers as a performing monkey raises all manner of plot holes: mainly, does anybody take him seriously? He’ll be in show business, which is the art of advanced fakery. How can you expect his own troops – let alone the Nazis – to believe he’s really a superhero when he’s in an industry so heavily reliant on staging spectacle? Even if the Germans believe he’s really a superhero, they’re hardly quaking in their little Nazi boots as he does a tour of Allied camps with cream pies and juggling acts.

I get the sense that the reason for this revision is a rather straight-forward one. The opening sequence of Wolverine demonstrated that Marvel aren’t afraid to put superheroes in the trenches (an effective montage of the title character and his brother fighting in virtually every American war since their birth), so it isn’t a sensitivity thing or some bizarre belief in historical fidelity.

I think it comes down to the character’s quite frankly ridiculous uniform. And it’s a fact alluded to by Johnston:

In comics, he puts on the costume and the reader just justifies because of the nature of the medium.

I can see where they are coming from. The entire trend of superhero movies of the last decade has been based upon toning down the ridiculous elements as much as practical. The X-Men wore leather. The Dark Knight gives a lot of careful thought and preparation to his wardrobe. The only really successful hero franchise to embrace the four-colour costume was Sam Raimi’s unashamedly proud Spider-Man series. For the most part the movies which embraced the camp costumes – like Superman Returns or Watchmen – didn’t become audience favourites.

Captain America’s four confirmed team mates in  The Avengers won’t have costumes per se. Samuel L. Jackson is bad ass enough to pull off Nick Fury in leather. The Hulk will wear pants (hopefully) and that’s about it. Tony Stark’s metallic suit isn’t so much as costume as it is his superpower – he can’t fly without it (plus it’s techno enough to be cool). And Thor will show up wearing whatever it is that Asguard wear. I wouldn’t be expecting to see his Viking hat, though.

I’m not sure that a ridiculous adjustment to the basic premise of the character is strictly necessary though. It might be worth looking to one of the sources which has heavily influenced the development of the on-screen Marvel universe, Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, a modern retelling of the origin of the team. The opening chapter gives us Steve Rogers on the front line, but with a very conscious redesign of his iconic uniform. Here’s some early concept art as an idea:

This redesign red, white & blue us all away...

There’s no reason that similar logic couldn’t work in the film. You want to give the character a variant of the standard uniform, because he is a very special soldier. You want the Allied troops to recognise that he’s there with them. It doesn’t need to be a big gawdy blue affair which screams “shoot at me!”, but works as an obviously recognisable homage to the original uniform. Just give him his traditional blue garb as an upgrade, or a dress uniform or something.

Or even have him wear it all the time. I doubt audiences paying to see Captain America will mind that much. It seems like Marvel and Johnston are going to a lot of both to fix a problem that never really existed.

My hesitance about the upcoming film doesn’t quite stop there. There’s this interesting nugget from Johnston as well about his stylistic approach to filming the movie:

What I’m trying to do is look at the comics – most of the new ones like the Brubaker series – and to interpret that sort of visual style into a film in a way that I think has been tried before…it always looks a little too on the nose it looks like oh they’re shooting a comic book movie.  I want to try something a little bit different.

What does that even mean? Comic book movies are like any other subgenre, they look and feel incredibly different to each other. Compare the bright colours of Spider-Man to the muted grit of Batman Begins to the stylistic flair of Sin City. I don’t think you can argue there’s a single unifying style across the board.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested to see a novel approach to the genre, but it seems like a very dismissive comment to make about the directors working in the same field, particularly those with much more experience and – arguably – skill behind them than Johnston. It feels like he’s only really serving to heighten expectations around his movie, which is always a very risky proposition. I’ve always believed that talk is cheap. Show us some footage and then we’ll discuss how you are revolutionising the genre.

Ah well, at least there’s one piece of news I am quite happy about. Apparently The Red Skull will be the central villain for the film. The character is intrinsically linked with the mythos and is the perfect arch-foe for the character, but – as Iron Man demonstrated – the studios don’t always pick the strongest or most obvious villain for the debut picture. While this can work to the strength of certain characters (think of the use of Ra’s Al Ghul or the Scarecrow, two second-stringers, in Batman Begins), I honestly don’t think that the character has a deep enough rogues gallery to risk postponing a face-off with the iconic (literally) red-headed Nazi.

Well we all have a couple of embarassing tattoos from when we were younger...

We know that the film will serve as both an origin in the 1940s and a link to the present day. Johnston admits that they only really have one shot at a World-War-II-era Captain America movie (at least until they reboot the franchise), so they really need to throw what they have against the wall here, since any sequels will undoubtedly have to be set in the present day. It seems like The Red Skull is the perfect villain for the character and certainly an interesting opponent for Johnston to bring to life. Even the most critical reviews of his movies acknowledge that he is great with effects.

I’ll be interested to see if the love affair between Mark Millar and Marvel’s movie adaptation continues. Millar recently crafted an origin for an alternative version of the character which involved him cutting off his own face. It seems like a very graphic origin for what looks to be a family-focused film, but it’s a wonderfully weird and twisted one – certainly much better than the idea that the character simply wears a goofy-looking red mask. The Ultimate line, being a reinvention for our times, has informed the way that these movies are made, and it will be interesting to see if these versions of the characters influence what we see on screen.

It’s also reassuring to hear him reference Ed Brubaker. At least he seems to know who he’s talking about – or has been properly briefed. Though it doesn’t quite compete with the enthusiasm that it seems Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh have brought to bare on their own source materials (apparently Branagh proved an inpromptu version of Thor to an incredibly impressed Marvel management – I really hope that’s some sort of extra somewhere). It’s hard not to get the sense that Johnston is name dropping, picking the biggest name linked to a character and throwing it casually in as if to say ‘I know what I’m doing’. Or maybe I’m being too harsh.

Still, this looks like one to watch, but my spider-sense is tingling. I guess I’ll just have to start hyping myself even more for Thor.

One Response

  1. I know exactly what you mean, I was more excited for Captain America over Thor. However over the past few months with great casting choices for Thor (Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, etc.) and with no announcements of any kind for Captain America. I understand Thor is planned to come out before Captain America, but even reading the reviews for Joe Johnston’s Wolf man has me really nervous for this potential amazing franchise.

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