The Last Stand of Steve Rogers

Captain America: The First Avenger pissed me off.

I have nothing against the character or the comics, both of which are some of my favorites. Hell, the Silver Age retelling of the character’s origins by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was one of the first comics I ever read, and I’ve been a big fan of the character ever since. First Avenger excited me for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the promise of a proper Cap movie, a classic adventure film in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film should’ve been the best Marvel Studios movie to date.

Except it wasn’t, and rarely have I felt so cheated out of a great movie as I did with First Avenger. This was of course in no small part due to the half-assed script from Chronicles of Narnia screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, as well as the equally sub-par direction from Rocketeer director Joe Johnston. So the recent report of a new shortlist of directors being courted to direct the inevitable First Avenger sequel, none of them Johnston, comes as something of a pleasant surprise.

I’ll get into the problems I had with the first film, but let’s be honest…Johnston is a technician, he’s never been cut out for big-league direction. Even his best films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids are entirely based on special effects. It’s his calling, it’s why his work shines so brightly when he’s only a part of films like Star Wars and the aforementioned Raiders. On his own, he simply tries to ape the work of people like Steven Spielberg whom he’s worked under, but without investing nearly a fraction of the heart and soul the latter director does in his films.

At this point it’s unclear why Johnston wasn’t sought out for the sequel, as interviews at the time of First Avenger’s release suggested he’d be open to it. Perhaps Marvel plans to save his reported two-picture deal for a future Winter Soldier film featuring Cap’s sidekick Bucky Barnes. More likely, I think, is that First Avenger did not live up to the expectations of certain higher-up Marvel executives and, though the film may have adequately set the character up for Joss Whedon’s upcoming Avengers, Johnston’s by-the-numbers direction didn’t impress. Indeed, First Avenger’s IMDB rating has been slowly tumbling to it’s current 6.8/10 standing since its release, a telling sign that people aren’t quite throwing their full support behind generic, edgeless superheroics as much as they may have used to.

In my eyes, Marvel Studios has yet to make a compelling case for why Steve Rogers is such a great character in the first place on the silver screen.

Failure to Launch

First Avenger, for me, squandered a great deal of its potential. A period-piece Cap movie could’ve easily been one of the best of its subgenre, and while First Avenger isn’t an altogether incompetent film, it’s not nearly the film it could be either. A complete, outright failure would’ve been far easier for me to swallow, which is why I’m not writing long-winded posts lamenting the missed opportunities of, say, Green Lantern.

Let me start from the beginning. I look at a lot of things when I look at narrative films, and chief among those things are story and character. Both serve as the heart of the film – the story is what holds the film together, and the characters make it all interesting, give it weight, and make the experience meaningful. In films like First Avenger that closely adhere to the Hero’s Journey (in this case to a fault), I fully expect to see some of myself in the character in order to be properly invested. That just didn’t happen with First Avenger.

Again, it’s not really a bad movie. I did like some of the scenes featuring Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, and the makeup on Weaving looks fantastic, very animate and well-designed. Alan Silvestri’s score is also quite good, sounding appropriately iconic and old-school. I liked the design of the costumes and some of the WWII set pieces. I liked Tommy Lee Jones being Tommy Lee Jones. I liked the idea of treating the Cosmic Cube like a lost artifact straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, and how it was tied into the mythology of Marvel’s Thor. I even warmed up to the half-baked CGI behind skinny Steve Rogers pre-super soldier serum. These elements could’ve easily been part of a Cap movie on par with Thor or Iron Man.

But I hated the darkened, dulled color tone that made the experience so colorless and drab. I hated the unengaging, by-the-numbers character arcs. I hated the rushed pacing and inattention to vitally important characters like Bucky. I hated how all the advanced technology – flying cars, laser guns and all – yanked me right out of the WWII setting. I hated the lazy writing, laden with blatant clichés and often painful dialogue. I hated the overall lack of emotional weight, the bland, disposable nature of the whole affair that negated everything the film could’ve hoped to accomplish.

Most of all, though, I hated how the film severely butchered Steve Rogers’ character. The Cap of First Avenger is a hollow, uninteresting character and a far cry from his personality in the comics. Oh sure, the movie literally never stops hammering in reasons why Steve Rogers is a good man, a hero, and just an all-around swell guy, but it never bothers to actually show us why. We see him doing heroic things sometimes, but mostly we’re just assaulted with endless dialogue about how great he is just for doing the right thing. Lesson one of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell. And on top of all that, why? What’s driving Steve to do the right thing? What led him to want to take on this awesome responsibility? The film just shrugs and says, “Er…he just wants to do the right thing” without bothering to really explore those questions.

Which brings me to my next point – the Rogers of First Avenger is no leader. If the character even has a personality amidst the poor writing and muddled motivations, it’s that of a meek, naïve boy, an emasculated wimp and an awkward chump. This Steve Rogers frowns a lot, mopes around about not being able to attract women, and in one of the film’s more painful running jokes, believes “fondue” to be slang for “fuck”. Where, I wondered as I watched, were Steve’s balls?

The character’s bland, lazily-written dialogue doesn’t help, lending Rogers even less dimension. Cap spouts clichés and other generally lifeless lines like, “I don’t like bullies.” “Then how come you’re running?!” he awkwardly calls out to Red Skull as the villain makes his escape from a burning factory. And in the category of worst one-liners ever, the Skull takes a moment to yell to Steve in their final battle, “You never give up, do you?”, to which Steve replies, “NOPE!”

I don’t blame Chris Evans for all this. I’ve seen enough of his work to know that he’s a highly capable actor and could’ve easily made the role his own with more time and some better rewrites. He just had nothing to work with for First Avenger; no character definition from the script, and certainly no help from director Johnston, who was probably too busy dicking around with the effects. Squandering Evans’ skillset entirely, one wonders why the creative team didn’t cast Channing Tatum in the role, as the change to the less talented actor wouldn’t have had much difference in the final film.

Evans was cast rather late in the game as well, following a lengthy search for the right candidate (Tatum was also considered) and after the actor declined the role three times. It’s likely the rushed production schedule didn’t give Evans sufficient time to really add much of his own touch to the character. It shows – the actor looks rather lost most of the time, longing for purpose in a film that had been largely built around him, not with him.

Regardless of who’s responsible, the comics portray Cap as a born leader, an accomplished, bold, unwavering personality with a passionate sense of justice, not a weakling kid. Like Superman, Cap conveys heroism and maturity well beyond his years, acting as an absolute force for good. He’s an icon of unfaltering idealism and determination; sure, he can doubt himself and be moody when the situation calls for it, but not to the point where he completely loses his pride, his fighting spirit. The film misses this entirely in a misguided attempt to give Steve more flaws. And despite what First Avenger constantly spoon-feeds us, Steve was a strong man before taking the super soldier serum, not a weak man with similarly weak demeanor.

I could go all day, but the point is that there is so much more to this character’s strength than his muscles, and First Avenger simply glossed over it entirely in settling for “good enough”.

Joss Whedon and The Avengers

With all that in mind, I’ve been turning my sights towards Joss Whedon’s The Avengers for a better-written, better-directed Cap experience. While some may contest that Whedon had a hand in the script for First Avenger, Whedon’s rewrites, by his own admission, weren’t all that extensive; little more than a “dialogue polish.” Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely chalk it up to even less – “a read through and continuity pass.”

Thus, I’d like to think Whedon was too knee-deep in Avengers scripting that he didn’t have the time to really delve into First Avenger’s script too extensively, and that he’s saving his own character-defining Cap experience for Avengers. Anything less would mean Cap will be just as poorly written in Avengers as he was in First Avenger, which is admittedly reason for concern. There’s no way Steve Rogers as he is in First Avenger would be able to believably stand toe-to-toe with the pitch-perfect, well-written characters/performances of say, Tony Stark and Thor. What’s even more worrisome is the fact that Whedon once called Cap the centerpiece of the film. As such, one could surmise that The Avengers will live and die solely based on how well-defined Cap is as a character.

Above: Will Joss Whedon’s The Avengers give us a glimpse at well-written WWII Cap?

But again, I see no reason to worry for the time being. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Avengers won’t be a rush-job like First Avenger, including comments from Evans himself. The actor has openly admitted in interviews to having a much better experience on The Avengers than on First Avenger. He also seemed apprehensive of the latter film’s reception beforehand, something he doesn’t appear too concerned about on Avengers. Possibly the greatest bit of evidence comes from this interview with Moviefone, where he talks at length about not enjoying filming First Avenger, finding the writing of the character to be lacking sufficient obstacles, and even groaning at the idea of Cap 2 villain details. It’s very telling, and again asserts the idea that he really didn’t have much to do on First Avenger besides show up and put on the suit. His positive remarks towards Avengers are thus all the more promising of a considerable improvement in quality this time around.

The Future

Following The Avengers, the as-yet untitled Captain America 2 will likely be starting up production by the end of the year, with a set release date of April 4, 2014. The writers of First Avenger have already long been drafting the sequel, and Chris Evans will of course be returning as per his six-film contractual obligation. Marvel’s aforementioned shortlist for the director’s chair has been narrowed down to three choices – Anthony and Joseph Russo (TV’s “Community”), George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), and F. Gary Gray (The Italian Jobremake).

Naturally, the directors of Community being considered has inspired some skepticism. While I’d prefer a more established, big-name director as fitting as Sam Raimi and Kenneth Branagh were to their respective Spider-Man and Thor films (Oliver Stone, perhaps?), I’m honestly open to anyone over Joe Johnston. All I would ask for the eventual choice to have the talent required for such a production, to make sure he/she knows what he/she is doing, and to have reverence and respect for the character/mythology and all its subtleties. As it stands, I haven’t actually seen any of these directors’ previous works, so for the time being, I have no reason not to trust Marvel’s judgment.

One more thing: the director needs to get someone else to rewrite the current draft of the script. A better screenwriter is absolutely essential to rewrite whatever lifeless garbage the Narnia writers turned in and deliver a better script for shooting. I just can’t see myself taking part otherwise.

Cap is undoubtedly one of the greatest Marvel superheroes of all time, but I cannot and will not get behind lazy adaptations that fail to do him justice. Chris Evans is a talented young actor with plenty of potential to do something great with the role, he just needs better writing and direction to show him the way. I have high hopes he’ll find it in Joss Whedon and the eventual Cap 2 director. I couldn’t stand to see Cap get the same treatment as he did in First Avenger yet again, and if that’s going to be the case, go ahead and count me out of any and all future onscreen adaptations of the character. It’s Steve Rogers’ last stand, Marvel. Make it count.

Oh, and call the movie “Captain America: (Insert Subtitle Here)”. Slapping a 2 on the movie and acknowledging First Avenger’s existence will just piss me off.

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