The Avengers Adaptation continues!
Captain America first appeared in Captain America Comics, published in early 1941* by Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics. The character and the comic were intentionally patriotic, almost a given considering world events. Marvel brought back Cap in The Avengers #4, thawing him and bringing him to the “modern”** age. Cap started as Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man whose desire to enlist and fight the Nazis in Europe was thwarted by his own ill health. However, his persistence got him noticed and invited to the Super-Soldier project, where Steve was given the Super-Soldier Serum, transforming his body to perfect health and physique. Cap then fought through WWII with his sidekick, “Bucky” Barnes, battling the Third Reich.
Captain America: The First Avenger essentially retells Captain America’s origin. As you might have read last week, I went on for a few paragraphs about superhero origins. However, in Cap’s case, there are two elements to consider. One, Cap’s origins aren’t well known to the general audience. Comic book fans, especially those who follow the Avengers, are aware, but Cap isn’t the household name Superman is. Two, Captain America’s origins alone are an exciting story, especially in the context of modern Marvel stories (as opposed to the Timely comics). How Steve Rogers came to the modern world is well worth spending a movie on, if done well. The other key part to the origin is that Steve already had the right mindset to be a hero, even if his body wouldn’t let him. Falling on a grenade that he thought was live without a thought towards what would happen to him while everyone else dove for cover tends to show people what a hero is.
The First Avenger was done well. Once again, as in Iron Man and Thor, the right cast, the right crew, the right director were all involved. Joe Johnston, the director, had worked on pulp-like projects before, including The Rocketeer and Jumanji. The First Avenger definitely had a pulp feel, from time period to larger-than-life heroes and villains. Casting included bringing in Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Carter.
If you go back a bit in Lost in Translation, you’ll find my review of Flash Gordon. The two movies work together to show what’s needed to make a good adaptation. Both movies had great casting for supporting roles, excellent music, and a script that acknowledged the comic book feel of the original works. The big difference is that Captain America didn’t have executive meddling. Flash‘s execs interfered with casting, to the point where de Laurentiis’ wife picked out Sam J. Jones from the lead role from a game show. Everyone involved in the making of Captain America had the goal of making the film a success.
Casting wasn’t the only item that got attention. Little details about Cap appeared. The shield he used during the PR tour was based on the original one from Captain America Comics #1, which had to be changed because of a similarity to the one carried by Archie Comics’ The Shield. The First Avenger also had links to the previous movies in the Avengers Initiative, with Yggdrasil, a Norse artifact, and possibly the fate of the Red Skill calling back to Thor and Tony Stark’s grandfather Howard a supporting character. These connections may be the first time a comic book movie acknowledges the rest of the original comic’s universe. Usually, multiple studios have rights for the different characters in a setting. In Marvel’s case, Sony had the rights to Spider-Man while Twentieth Century Fox had the X-Men. With the Avengers Initiative, though, all the movies are being created by Marvel Studios and being released through Paramount. Just as important, many elements of the Marvel Universe were introduced. Hydra, a secret society out for world domination, with the Red Skull and Arnim Zola, could easily be the antagonists of a Captain America sequel set in the modern day.
Was the adaptation accurate? Not completely. Bucky Barnes became Steve’s childhood friend and a sergeant in the US Army instead of being a kid mascot. The Howling Commandos appeared, but without Sgt. Fury. Philips became a colonel instead of a general. Small details. However, the feel of the movie, aided by the direction, by the music, hit the right note.
Next week, on the nature of remakes.
* Prior to the US officially getting involved in World War II.
** As in, the day of publication.
Comic writers have created heroes based on myth and legend since the dawn of the superhero. Wonder Woman is an Amazon, blessed by the Greek gods. Fawcett’s (and, later, DC Comics’) Captain Marvel gained the powers of Greek and Roman gods and legends. Marvel Comics, though, tended to keep their heroes more grounded and human, with all the advantages and disadvantages of being mortal. Some, such as Doctor Strange, worked with forces far beyond the ken of ordinary men. However, even Marvel has dipped into the mythology pool. Instead of using the Greek and Roman myths, Marvel pulled a superhero out of Norse legend, the Mighty Thor.
Thor’s first appearance as a Marvel superhero came in 1962, in Journey into Mystery #83. His appearance in the comic would lead to it being renamed The Mighty Thor. A year after his first appearance, Thor was included in The Avengers as a founding member and mainstay of the team. When Marvel began its Ultimates line to try to prune fifty years of continuity without giving the original lines a hard reset, Thor carried over to the new universe.* In both lines, Thor wielded Mjolnir, a magic warhammer that grants the powers of flight, weather control, and shooting lightning bolts.
Marvel’s movie line, although with some rocky entries, has done well, with Marvel Studios having an excellent track record. The Avengers Initiative, starting with Iron Man, was done entirely within Marvel Studios, even after the Disney buy out. The idea behind the Avengers Initiative was to set up the origins of the major Avengers characters before releasing The Avengers itself. Thor was the third movie, following Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and shows how Thor came to Earth and to the attention of SHIELD. The movie shows, once again, what respecting the original material can do to help a movie succeed. In Thor‘s case, the movie paid attention not only to the comic book character but also to the original myths, pulling from both. Thor has a completely different feel to it compared to Iron Man. Part of the change comes from the director, Kenneth Branagh, best known for his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays to the silver screen. Thor feels like an epic myth in modern times as Thor must learn what it means to be the king of the gods.
Helping elevate Thor is the quality of the cast. As seen in Iron Man, having the right actor in a role goes a long way to making a movie a success. The same idea comes to play in Thor. With such actors as Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, and Tom Hiddleston, and a script by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, the movie had a sturdy base to build from. With Kenneth Branagh directing, the movie came together wonderfully.
Thor had a budget of about $150 million. The movie shows that it’s not just how much is spent, it’s also on how the money is spent. Special effects in a comic book movie have to look at least as good as those drawn in the comics. The costumes must be as close as possible to what the characters normally wear**. These touches can make or break a movie, and, in Thor, these considerations were met and exceeded.
Next time, sinking an adaptation.
* But not the New Universe.
** Or at least have a shout-out, as seen in X-Men.