If Captain America is going to be a box-office hero, he'll have to transcend his patriotic namesake.
Like most big-budget summer event films, "Captain America: The First Avenger" must rake in a significant amount of money around the world to turn a profit. Financier Marvel Entertainment, owned by Walt Disney Co., and the movie's distributor, Paramount Pictures, collectively have about $300 million in production and advertising costs on the line.
But a big screen adaptation of a comic created in 1941 about a sickly young man blocked from enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II who takes an experimental serum and is turned into a super soldier is not an obvious sell to foreign ticket buyers. Most of the studios' big global blockbusters like "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows — Part 2" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" aren't rooted in American culture.
"There's no question that our gut reaction was that this movie would play better in the U.S.," said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore.
But after differentiating the film's marketing campaign for domestic and international audiences, and with the growing worldwide appeal of Marvel's superhero brand, the studio's expectations have changed.
Pre-release polling indicates that "Captain America" could perform about as well as Paramount's May release of the Marvel superhero movie "Thor," which has grossed $180 million in the U.S. and Canada and $265 million overseas.
The total results won't be in until the end of summer. "Captain America" opens Friday domestically and in Italy. It will roll out in the rest of the world over the next month.
"There are differences in the marketing…I'm OK with that if it will get more people in to see the movie," said director Joe Johnston. "The film itself is exactly the same."
Paramount, which is handling the film's worldwide marketing, has pushed the patriotism angle in the U.S. Commercials carry taglines including "Heroes are made in America" and "America's first Avenger." Early screenings to build buzz were held on military bases, including Camp Pendleton in California and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
At the Hollywood premiere Tuesday night at Disney's El Capitan Theatre, the traditional red carpet was colored red, white and blue.
But foreign moviegoers watching trailers and advertisements will have to pay closer attention to pick up on which war star Chris Evans' title character is fighting in and for what side. The marketing instead centers on the superhero's inspirational story, as well as his battle against Red Skull, a former Nazi officer who has gone rogue with his plan for world domination.
"Overseas we focus on an evil element trying to rule the world that's not World War II-specific, while in the U.S. it's the flip and much more patriotic," said Moore. "However what's consistent in both is the universal, relatable concept of a guy with a great heart but physical limitations who is able to become a hero."
Paramount has experience selling movies based on gung-ho American characters. In 2009 the Viacom Inc. owned studio made a concerted effort to turn "G.I Joe" into a global action property. The movie ended up grossing about $150 million both domestically and internationally.
The studio has higher hopes for "Captain America." Moore noted that Marvel-produced movies have been growing in popularity overseas, with "Thor" the first to take in more internationally than domestically.
As with "G.I. Joe," Paramount conducted research around the world to determine what the name Captain America meant to foreign moviegoers. It concluded that Marvel's comics had established a base level of awareness in many countries and either positive or neutral feelings about the character.
The exceptions were Russia, South Korea and Ukraine, where research indicated awareness of Captain America was practically nonexistent. As a result, the movie's main character isn't named in the title in those nations. It's known simply as "The First Avenger."
In part to boost the movie's foreign appeal, it's known in the rest of the world as "Captain America: The First Avenger." That title is meant to connect the movie to previous hits "Thor" and "Iron Man" and build on budding excitement for next year's "Avengers" film that teams them all together.
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.