When the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born in 2008 with Iron Man, we knew that a series of films starring Marvel’s eventual Avengers would soon follow. Among them, Captain America was believed to be the most difficult to adapt with many thinking Steve Rogers’ old school optimism would be rejected by a modern, cynical audience. The same audience that loved the sarcastic Tony Stark could never fall in love with the wholesome Steve Rogers and yet, that’s exactly what happened.
At the press junket for Captain America: Civil War, I sat down with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to discuss their approach to Cap through the three solo films they’ve written for the character. With edgy antiheroes being so popular, McFeely said their was a brief flirtation with darkening the character to suit modern tastes, “We toyed early on, in 2009, when we were starting to write the first movie, with roughing him up a little bit in the beginning. Maybe he’s a little scrappier before he [becomes a super soldier], and it was just tone deaf. We were disabused of it real quickly.”
Markus quipped, “But it was really cool when he was skateboarding and smoking cigarettes.”
Captain America never came close to being the bully who turned out okay in a 1980s teen drama. Said McFeely, “That was about a week and then after that we realized we are writing the Gary Cooper.” That realization led the writers to an even greater conclusion that Cap’s ability to inspire an audience meant far more than the audience’s ability to directly relate to Cap. As McFeely elaborated, “The audience wants somebody to be better than they are, right? To put the person they want to be right on him and say, ‘Make those choices that I am too weak to make.’”
One could argue that Captain America: The First Avenger caught a break since Steve’s 1940s sensibilities were showcased in a movie actually set during Word War II, but the character has only become more popular with audiences since emerging in our modern world at the end of that film and carrying forward in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now, Team Cap generally outpaces Team Iron Man whenever votes are held on social media to promote Captain America: Civil War.
Markus sees the proliferation of darker superheroes on the big screen as something that’s helped Cap much more than it’s done him harm. He explained, “Well the rarity has made it fun again. I’m sure in 1955 if yet another noble hero came out in a white hat, you’d be like ‘[Oh come on.]’ That’s why the antihero became so popular is that it was such a relief.”
More than that, Markus credited the man underneath the super soldier as one of the character’s most endearing elements. Markus said, “He’s always noble, but he is not invulnerable, he’s not immortal. If he had been born 200 pounds and amazing he would be annoying. But there is always the 90-pound kid with TB inside him who’s like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.'” McFeely agreed, pointing out the “good man” speech Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine gave Steve Rogers on the eve of the latter’s super heroic transformation in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Even though the audience can plainly see that Steve Rogers is special, they can’t help but be charmed upon seeing Rogers genuinely believe that he isn’t. He’s till just a kid from Brooklyn. Said Markus, “There is a gratitude for what he’s been given, but also there is no ego there. It’s just, you know, ‘I’m doing this because no one else has stepped up to do it.’ If someone stepped up to do it, I think he would be like, ‘All right, we’ll both do it. Great!’”
There are more secret weapons in Captain America’s arsenal that have been able to disarm even the most cynical of audience members, which Markus and McFeely were too modest to mention. It starts with a pair of writers who clearly care about the character and understand what makes him work. It also helps that they are supported by outstanding filmmakers like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo along with Marvel Studios President and producer Kevin Feige and his entire team.
The process of getting an audience to like and care about characters in a film begins with the storytellers understanding what exactly is likable and worth caring about within those characters. Markus and McFeely have that understanding and they have been able to communicate it to moviegoers around the world through their stories. As a result, audiences worry less about relating to Cap right now and more about their own aspirations to perhaps be good enough to relate to him one day in their future.
Captain America does not have to be like us when he can inspire us to be more like him.
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War is in theaters May 6.