Excited for America
If I had a time machine, I would go back and find 10-year-old me. I would be easy to find, probably in my bedroom reading comic books. I would tell myself that in the future, comic book movies have finally become cool. Of course, 10-year-old me wouldn’t believe me; I was always a glass-half-empty kid.
Now, when I say that 10-year-old me would be reading comic books, there is an 80% chance the comic in my hands would be “Captain America.” Cap was my favorite title. Especially in the early eighties, when Mike Zeck did the penciling. That guy was amazing. I liked that Cap didn’t technically have any super-powers, but he could kick some serious ass and he was a natural leader. And, I still think that shield is way cooler than anything on Batman’s utility belt. As you might be able to guess, I am very excited about the new movie opening this weekend. Captain America: The First Avenger stars Chris Evans as the titular hero and co-stars Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, and Hayley Atwell. Joe Johnston, who has a previous comic book adaptation on his reel, 1991’s The Rocketeer, directs the movie.
Johnston is not the only one involved with comic book movies in his past. Tommy Lee Jones played Two-Face in Batman Forever as well as Agent K in the Men In Black series, and Hugo Weaving was the mysterious V in V for Vendetta, but I think the winner in the roles based on comic books sweepstakes is the Captain himself. Before taking on Captain America, Chris Evans played Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in two disappointing Fantastic Four movies, he was Jenson in The Losers, Lucas Lee, one of the seven evil exes, in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and he was the voice of Casey Jones in the 2007 version of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Evans is playing Captain America again in The Avengers, currently in production, and I’m sure he’ll return again in a Captain America sequel. That is a lot of comic book movies. I wonder if he seeks them out?
I’ve got to give some props (do people still say that?) to my fellow Bostonian Chris Evans. He was probably the best part about the Fantastic Four movies, really nailing the bravado and ego of Johnny Storm; I thought his small part in Scott Pilgrim was very funny and The Losers is a really good action movie. So far, he hasn’t really leapt off the screen into movie stardom, but that may change with Captain America. If it is a hit, Ole’ Winghead may be that last comic book character Evans can play.
Many a director has said that by properly casting your movie, half the work is done. That credo is even more applicable when it comes to comic book movies. Many producers and studio people seem to think that they need a movie star in the lead, but I completely disagree when it comes to superhero movies. In fact, the last thing you want is a movie star in the lead role. You want the audience to look at the screen and think “That’s Batman,” not, “That’s George Clooney dressed up like Batman.” When making a superhero movie, you need a really good actor, someone who can wear the silly costume convincingly and say the outlandish dialogue with conviction. Directors such as Richard Donner, Bryan Singer, and Christopher Nolan understood that. I think the “movie star factor” was one (of many) reasons for the failures of Batman and Robin, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and Green Lantern. Conversely, I think having quality actors, not big-time stars, like Christopher Reeve, Tobey Maguire, and Patrick Stewart were huge contributions to the success of Superman, Spider-Man and X-Men. Of course, we need only look at Superman III & IV, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand to see that good casting will not hide bad writing and directing or inferior storytelling of any kind.
All successful comic book movies also have one other thing in common: complete respect for the original characters. There is a reason these characters have been popular for 10, 20, 30, or, in the case of Superman and Batman, over 70 years, and it takes a lot of chutzpah for a screenwriter or director to throw that history away and think, “No, I can make it better.” You can take any frame from 1978’s Superman or 2002’s Spider-Man and place it in the comic book and it would not look out of place. That doesn’t mean a filmmaker shouldn’t make any changes. Some things that work in the illustrated panels may not translate convincingly to a live action performance. Superman and Spider-Man were able to pull off the costumes, but Hugh Jackman would not have been nearly as cool if his Wolverine was garbed in the same vibrant yellow outfit from the comic book; and both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan knew that, at least on the silver screen, Batman wears black. Yet, all those movies were huge hits, because the writers, directors and actors respected the spirit and foundation of the original characters and only changed the things that might take the audience out of the movie.
Based on what I’ve seen so far from the new Captain America movie, I think Johnston and his team understand that as well. They did the right thing by keeping Cap’s beginnings during WWII. That is the way it happened in the comic books. His costume looks cool. Sure, they changed it some, but it seems to make sense for the story. As a long-time fan, I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve seen. There have been four previous live-action attempts to bring Captain America’s story to life. A cliffhanger movie serial was produced in 1944, two horrible made-for-TV movies in 1979, and a so-bad-it’s-funny feature film in 1990. They all stunk. Hopefully this new movie serves Cap well. He deserves it.