COMIC-CON 2010: ‘Captain America’ director has different spin on hero: ‘He’s not a flag-waver’


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The director of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger,’ the 2011 summer blockbuster that will coincide with the character’s 70th anniversary, says the screen version of the hero will be true to his roots -- up to a certain point.

‘We’re sort of putting a slightly different spin on Steve Rogers,’ said Joe Johnston, whose past directing credits include Jurassic Park III and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.’ He’s a guy that wants to serve his country, but he’s not a flag-waver. We’re reinterpreting, sort of, what the comic book version of Steve Rogers was.’ None of that is surprising, of course -- Christopher Nolan pared away significant parts of the Batman mythology (such as Robin the Boy Wonder and any super-powered villains) that didn’t fit his grim take on Gotham City, while Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. manufactured a version of Iron Man that is hard-wired for far more humor than the old-school Marvel Comics character.

Still, Captain America, with his name and history, is a sensitive case. A red-white-and-blue character that dates back to the Franklin Roosevelt era stirs up plenty of civic emotion -- just take a look at the dust-up over the recent change to Wonder Woman’s costume. ‘Wonder Woman’ comics are hardly a publishing-world sensation these days but still, for a day or two, the whole world seemed to notice that she put on some pants.


Johnston has been hard at work on the London set of the film but Saturday he’ll be making a whirlwind visit to Comic-Con International in San Diego to promote the film. He’ll be joined by cast members too, including his charismatic, young title star, Chris Evans, who has shown a sly, wiseguy wit in many of his previous roles. Does that make him an odd fit to play the earnest and somewhat square superhero with the Betsy Ross fashion sensibility? Johnston answered that in his film -- which is set in World War II -- the character will fight the enemies of America but he won’t be a stiff, slogan-spouting guy.

‘He wants to serve his country, but he’s not this sort of jingoistic American flag-waver,’ Johnston said. ‘He’s just a good person. We make a point of that in the script: Don’t change who you are once you go from Steve Rogers to this super-soldier; you have to stay who you are inside, that’s really what’s important more than your strength and everything. It’ll be interesting and fun to put a different spin on the character and one that the fans are really going to appreciate.’
Some pundits will pounce on all of this as another desecration of an American touchstone, but how many of them have ever read the books? The character, created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, was certainly unconflicted about his country and its mission during the clear-cut days of the 1940s, but it didn’t always stay that way. In late 1974, for instance, in the months after President Nixon’s resignation, Steve Rogers chucked the star-spangled costume and changed his hero name to Nomad (although, by 1976, Cap and original artist Kirby had the hero in bicentennial mode).
In recent years, Marvel star writer Ed Brubaker’s work on the character has been exceptional and never two-dimensional. Brubaker (the son of a Navy intelligence officer who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) came to recognize that Cap is a vessel that can contain whatever any generation or reader wants to put in it. In 2007, Brubaker told the New York Daily News: ‘What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on -- and giving speeches on -- the street corner against the George W. Bush administration, and all the really right-wing fans want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam Hussein.’

Those sort of geopolitical vagaries and fan projections will take on much higher stakes with a $150-million-to-$200-million film. Marvel Studios put itself on the map with two ‘Iron Man’ films that racked up a combined $1.19 billion in box office and almost half of that business ($571 million) was beyond the U.S. and Canada. For Johnston, the imperative is an artistic one, not a commercial one. He wants a character that’s more complicated than a flag, and a movie that entertains without borders.

‘Yeah, and it’s also the idea that this is not about America so much as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing,’ the director said. ‘It’s an international cast and an international story. It’s about what makes America great and what make the rest of the world great too.’
-- Geoff Boucher
Boucher will be moderating the ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ panel at Comic-Con International on Saturday.

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Top, Captain America from the pages of Marvel Comics. Second, a portrait of director Joe Johnston (Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times). Third, Captain America, circa 1976. Fourth, the image from the ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ one-sheet that Marvel will hand out at Comic-Con International. Bottom, Captain America and friends in today’s comics.

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