On a hot Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, Golden Apple Comics threw open its doors for Capfest, a Captain America-themed day of fun sponsored by Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures in honor of their upcoming film “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Boasting complimentary franks from Pink’s Hot Dogs, a Red Skull Frisbee toss and music spun by local DJs, the obvious highlight for attendees wasn’t the games or food, but the chance to get autographs from two of the film’s creators: “Captain America” screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
“One week every four years, people want to talk to us,” joked Markus as he passed an autographed Frisbee to a fan. “The rest of the time…” Markus shrugged as he and McFeely shared a laugh.
Taking a break from their hectic signing schedule, the two writers sat with Comic Book Resources to discuss the film, starting with the scene they had the most fun bringing to life: the film’s USO tour musical number scored by renowned Disney composer Alan Menken.
“It was completely exhausting by the end of it because they played ‘Star Spangled Man’ [Menken’s contribution] about 45,000 times,” laughed Markus.
“That song will burn a hole in your head!” added McFeely.
Since the two screenwriters were on set for most of the film, Markus also admitted they were subject to the hardships of shooting the musical number. “We were in a really old, beautiful theatre in London with 50 dancing girls,” Markus jokingly complained. “It was like, I am dying here!”
Dancing girls aside, McFeely and Markus confided that the modern Marvel Comics “Captain America” series by Ed Brubaker heavily influenced their take on Steve Rogers. The scribe behind the “Winter Soldier” and “Death of Captain America” storylines, Brubaker seemed an odd fit for the film’s wide-eyed tone since his modern take has very little in common with the classic World War II Captain America the movie portrays. However, setting aside the “Cap got shot with a time bullet thing,” as Markus dubbed it, the writers said Brubaker’s handling of both the modern day and World War II elements of Cap was something they studied closely for the film.
“[Brubaker] really somehow managed to give the modern-day guy weight by connecting him to the WWII guy and moving fairly frequently between the two, making you always conscious of what the man inside Captain America has been through,” said Markus.
“And Brubaker reinvented Bucky — that’s another reason we point to that stuff,” added McFeely, highlighting the film’s adult version of Bucky Barnes, played by actor Sebastian Stan. “Bucky wouldn’t be in the movie without Brubaker.”
However, Markus confessed he had one big problem with the modern version of “Captain America,” and most contemporary comics in general: decompressed storytelling.
“That’s my one complaint with comic books today — they’re much too short,” said Markus. “There’s nothing in there! I really am much happier when I get the run in a trade paperback.”
The “nothing in there” syndrome is something “Captain America: The First Avenger” certainly doesn’t suffer from, as every minute of screen time is stuffed with comic characters and references from the Howling Commandos to the Cosmic Cube. In a departure from the comics, Markus and McFeely present the Cube as an Asgardian artifact, a nod to the real-world Nazi obsession with Norse mythology as well as an attempt to streamline the Marvel Studios movie continuity.
“We don’t want to fill the Marvel [film] universe with supernaturalism,” said Markus. “In the comics, they have the alien races from different dimensions; in the movie universe, they have a god world [Asgard]. It keeps things tightly contained if your magic object comes from that one.”
“And just think of the alternative — what would you do?” added McFeely, hinting at an origin that would quickly become confusing. “You’d have to introduce AIM and AIM would have to make it, or it’s a Skrull thing.”
Markus agreed, adding, “Not to malign anybody else’s superhero movie, but it’s like when Venom just happens to fall from the sky onto Peter Parker’s motorcycle. When you try to fit too much in, it becomes random.”
According to the longtime writing partners, picking which elements of the Captain America mythos to include in the script was ironically made easier by the constraints the comic story placed on them.
“We know he has to go from 98 pounds to 200 pounds — and then we know we have to get to ‘Avengers,'” said McFeely. “The beginning and the end we know, and our biggest job is, what’s that journey in the second act that will make him the legend that he has to become?” The writers had to also pull double duty as they not only had to establish Captain America as a hero in his own time, but set him up as a legend worthy to join 2012’s “Avengers” film lineup.
“You only get one shot at the origin story, and like we said before, he has to become a legend by the end of this,” said McFeely. “You have to spend two hours showing the struggle and showing the accomplishments and showing people reacting to him and appreciating him and respecting him. You can’t just be told that happens.” With a wave at the “Captain America” movie posters behind him, he added, “To Marvel’s credit, they were cool with doing a pretty expensive period piece!”
This brings the writers back to the 50-strong showgirl USO tour, which also serves to introduce Steve Rogers’ classic blue, white and red superhero costume.
“The USO thing came out of the desire to have a good, solid explanation why you would name yourself Captain America and put on that suit, as opposed to putting on an Army uniform,” explained Markus. “We wanted to give birth to the icon in a believable way.”
Comics were not the only fictional media to influence the writing pair. While “Captain America” director Joe Johnston has been vocal about the decision to frame the movie similarly to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Markus and McFeely said that they started to structure the movie on “Raiders” even before their development talks with Johnston.
“That movie does such a great job of being period but not being dusty,” said Markus, adding that “Superman: The Movie” also played a large role in developing Steve Rogers’ scripted personality.
“The ones I remember thinking about were [‘Raiders’] and the first ‘Superman’ because he has that kind of straight-arrow innocence without being intolerable,” said Markus. “It’s a guy you actually kind of love because he’s genuine.”
When it came to writing the script, Markus and McFeely also had to slot their characters and events into the historical WWII context, tying Hydra to the Nazis as the Third Reich’s super-science division. Trying to balance how much they showed of the real-world Nazis versus how much they could make Hydra its own evil organization apart from the realities of war was another challenge for the duo.
“Hydra is really important to the Cap story and the Marvel Universe, so we certainly weren’t afraid of the Nazis, we just wanted to make sure we were fighting the Marvel WWII, and that meant Hydra,” said McFeely. As for including Red Skull as the main villain, McFeely added, “You want your bad guy to be Red Skull. You don’t want it to be Hitler, because otherwise you’re making some sort of comparison.”
“And there were real, actual people who defeated the Nazis, so you don’t want to imply, ‘Naw, you didn’t!'” laughed Markus.
The writers also had to take the Marvel film universe’s realism into account when adapting the Howling Commandos — the film’s “Dirty Dozen” group, as McFeely dubbed them. Markus quickly pointed out that the Commandos’ cartoony comic book aspects mainly stemmed from their dialogue and not from an inherent silliness.
“Part of it is voice — they were cartoony in the comic because they all had such broad accents,” said Markus. “[For the film] they just look like soldiers except for the bowler hat, and at least [Dum Dum Dugan] had to have a bowler hat! But I think it’s a matter of attitude, in a way. They want to go home just like everybody else.”
The Howling Commandos also helped establish Steve Rogers as a leader of men as well as a solider — an important distinction for the writers.
“We wanted Cap to lead,” said McFeely. “Part of it is he’s a charismatic leader — guys follow him. We needed guys, so the Marvel Universe had a group of guys [the Commandos] that were tailor-made for us.”
The two also confirmed they were beginning work on the “Captain America” sequel, though Markus laughingly admitted that they were still in the “generating many, many contradictory ideas phase!” A perk of their work, however, was it gave them the chance to read Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” script.
“We had to read it because when we were first coming up with ideas, we would say to ourselves, ‘Well, this would be a great scene –assuming it hasn’t already happened in the Avengers,'” said McFeely. “So it was only after reading ‘Avengers’ were we able to say, ‘OK, that’s already been taken care of, but that hasn’t been covered yet.'”
Markus and McFeely also looked forward to finally being able to write Steve Rogers as a “man out of time,” the way he is in modern comics.
“Primarily, everyone knows him from 1964 when Stan Lee and Kirby unthawed him,” said McFeely. “So his personality is incredibly influenced by this ‘man out of timeness’: all my friends are dead, I’m back from war and don’t know anybody, and now we have all these inventions and different values and morals. So we are looking forward to — and I’m sure Joss is, too — the Captain we know, the one with all the juicy character work to do. The one who asks, what do I do now?”
Though the frozen Captain America may be the most widely known version, McFeely said the reason they were drawn to the first movie was the idea of setting “Cap in his right time, doing his right thing” in World War II.
“Doing a period superhero movie appealed to us even outside of ‘Captain America,'” said McFeely. “I think you could reinvent the few superheroes that need to be reinvented simply by putting them in the ’40s and ’50s for a couple of reasons: One, it allows you to be genuine and earnest — particularly for heroes who were created at that time.” It also solves the problem of coming up with a villain, McFeely pointed out with a laugh. “You tell me it’s Nazis, I believe them!”
“I kind of love Cap, and it’s the only way to do him,” added Markus. “You can’t have a guy decide to be Captain America in 2011. There’s just too much baggage. You want him to move in the modern day so he can be out of place, but you don’t want him to be born a guy with an out-of-place mentality.”
“I kind of love Cap” seems like an understatement for two men who spent hours standing in the L.A. heat signing posters, action figures and plastic shields while enthusiastically chatting up fans about Steve Rogers — not to mention the years they spent developing and writing the actual film. Markus smiled as he described their script as a chance to “play in the Captain America sandbox,” waving his hands around the action-figure stocked shelves of Golden Apple to underscore his point.
“You grow past a certain age and toys begin to be frowned upon, so you go, how can I get the experience of toys without toys?” pondered Markus, as McFeely answered seconds behind him, “So we make movies!”
In the end, both thought “Captain America” would stand out from this summer’s glut of superheroes as Steve Rogers is one of the few characters who does not turn into a hero, but starts out one.
“The thing that makes [Rogers] Captain America is his willingness to do the right thing, even when he may not succeed, even when he gets the crap kicked out of him,” said McFeely. “He does the same thing at 98 pounds that he does at 200 pounds. I don’t want to say he doesn’t change, but his journey is not making mistakes to succeeding, it’s ‘How do I get everyone to catch up to me?’ The world sort of changes around him.”
“Captain America: The First Avenger” opens nationwide July 22.