Part 3: The First Avenger
2011 — “I Had Some Ideas About the Uniform.”
Twenty-one years later, the embarrassment of the Albert Pyun cheapie erased from the memories of all but the hardest core of comics fandom, Captain America finally got some respect. Following a years-long court battle between Joe Simon and Marvel Comics over ownership of the Captain America copyrights, producers were free once again to develop the character for a movie.
After outstanding business with Iron Man and Iron Man 2, as well as a strong showing by The Incredible Hulk, Marvel took what was, in retrospect, a significant risk by making a period piece infused with old-fashioned warmth and gentle comedy instead of the sarcastic humor that had become typical in action movies, including superhero films. The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, and the direction by Joe Johnston, demonstrate a fondness for the “simpler” time of World War II and the honest patriotism engendered by the conflict.
Chris Evans gives an impressive physical performance throughout, surprisingly so in the early sequences. The frail, skinny Steve is only sometimes a body double with Evans’s face pasted on. At other times, Evans’s impressive physique was reduced with green screen techniques, the actor looking up into the faces of his co-stars, controlling his movements so as not to overreach the smaller body he pretended to have.
His emotional work is equally good. With a history of portraying cocky jerks, Evans here plays against type as a quiet man who only wants to help end a horrible war and thinks that collecting scrap metal and plane spotting just aren’t enough. For Steve, it’s not about “killing Nazis,” as Dr. Erskine, the creator of the super-soldier process, suggests. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Steve tells the scientist. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” It’s a far cry from his flippant Johnny Storm. Evans oozes sincerity as Steve strives to be selected for the Super Soldier experiment. When the transformation finally comes, it’s hidden inside a sarcophagus infusing Steve with vita-rays, but Evans’s voice acting is impressive. Steve’s seeming surprise at his new physique and its possibilities is charming. Asked how he feels after stepping out of the treatment chamber, he says, “Taller.”
Forty-eight minutes into the picture, Steve finally becomes Captain America. Again, kind of. America’s only super soldier, considered too valuable to put into combat, is turned into a war bonds salesman. He struts before audiences and movie cameras, signs autographs, and kisses babies. Eventually, he’s sent overseas to entertain Allied troops. It’s a ridiculous life. While Steve is popular back home and even seems to enjoy his fame, seeing troops in the field makes him reconsider. He’s in a situation he now finds humiliating, comparing himself in a notebook sketch to a circus monkey atop a unicycle.
The show costume looks almost exactly like the original suit from the comic books, designed in 1940 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The classic elements are all present – white half-sleeves, buccaneer boots, gloves with flared gauntlets. It even has the tiny wings on the cowl. The cowl is separate from the rest of the costume and has large eye openings (which only makes sense), plus the stars on the front and rear of the shirt are raised,. Otherwise it’s classic Cap, down to the original, triangular shield.
The suit does look slightly ridiculous on a human in a realistic setting. In spite of that, it looks right. This is the Sentinel of Liberty, embodied in the form of Chris Evans. How could things get any better? By making a suit that functions in the real world.
When Steve goes AWOL to rescue his childhood friend Bucky Barnes from a Hydra research facility, he throws on some standard uniform pants and boots, tosses a leather jacket over his star-spangled shirt, and wisely dons a helmet borrowed from a member of his USO chorus line. Loaded down with a whole lot of ammo, he breaks into the Hydra base. There, he stalls The Red Skull and Arnim Zola long enough to bring home Bucky and 200 other Allied prisoners.
Later, when Bucky jokingly asks if Steve is going to keep the suit for combat, Steve admits that it’s growing on him. With Howard Stark’s assistance, Steve creates a uniform that says “soldier” instead of “circus monkey.”
It’s a departure from past movie Captains and from other superhero costumes. The normally white areas of the shield are left bare instead, polished metal catching the light. The trousers, a subdued blue, incorporate knee pads and some useful pockets. The boots and gloves are a dark red-brown. And Cap is loaded for bear, with an automatic on his hip and a shotgun holstered on his souped-up motorcycle.
The white shirt has some unnecessary faux muscles around the abdomen, goodness knows why. The blue half shirt also features some padding, but it makes sense to pad the shoulders. Red stripes on the shirt were questionable, according to director Johnston. They worried how to make them seem a reasonable part of the costume until it was decided that they would be straps.
The upper half of the uniform is covered with straps. Why so many? They were visually interesting, but I didn’t see the need for them. While they help attach the blue half shirt to the undershirt, and provide attachment points for some of the armor built into the shoulders, they seem rather superfluous.. The rest of the costume was very practical, so there had to be some thought behind the bloody straps!
I don’t have the best eye for detail while I’m in the middle of watching a movie, so it took me three years, several DVD viewings of The First Avenger, and a good look at The Winter Soldier for the obvious to penetrate my thick skull.
The good Captain is wearing something like suspenders. But they don’t hold his pants up. In addition to keeping his half-shirt and shoulder pads in place, they harness a star-shaped hunk of metal between Cap’s shoulders. That metallic star replaces the cloth star from the classic costume and is also the anchor point for his shield.
In the comics, when Cap puts the shield on his back, he slips his arms through the carrying straps. In the real world, that doesn’t work. Not only are the straps not spaced properly to fit both forearm and shoulders, but pulling the shield on and off would be a slow and complicated process. The anchor, on the other hand – whatever it’s made of and however it works — allows Cap to stow his shield on his back and pull it free for action with almost no effort.
In place of the cloth cowl from the performing-monkey costume, a molded helmet protects Cap’s head. It (and a couple of minor touches in the uniform) appears to have been – one might politely say, “borrowed” – from the helmet that artist Bryan Hitch designed for Marvel Comics’ miniseries The Ultimates 2.
A helmet makes a lot of sense for Captain America. Besides taking the knocking-about that otherwise would tear up his head, it connects with the military theme of the character. It’s also easier to handle than soft head wear; cloth or leather over a rigid base retains its shape without a lot of fuss. A helmet doesn’t need to be adjusted when the actor’s hair gets bunched up. It can be molded over the nose, to avoid the dreaded tenting effect that stretches eye holes out of line.
The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films used cast rubber headgear, and 2003’s Daredevil design may have inspired the helmet-cowls used in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. It all started in 1966, though. One has to wonder why it took 40 years of Batman reruns for costume designers to think, “That just might work.”
In the comics, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes ias Steve Rogers’s teen sidekick and faithful companion throughout WW II. He serves with the Captain until his (supposed) untimely death in 1945, in the same incident that leads to Cap’s decades of suspended animation. However, until 2011, no version of Bucky ever appears in a Captain America movie. Rather than make Bucky a camp follower who becomes Steve’s kid partner, the creators of The First Avenger take a different road with the character. This Bucky is Steve’s childhood friend and protector, who spends the early scenes of the movie encouraging the frail Steve, but also urging him to be realistic about his chances of joining the military.
Following Steve’s rescue of the Hydra POWs, a small group of hand-picked soldiers becomes the Howling Commandos, Steve’s field team. Bucky takes on the role of Steve’s second in the field. Rather than wear fatigues, he adopts an outfit not unlike the superhero tights worn by Bucky in the 1940s comics.
Next: “I had a little design input.”