Most superheroes are only as good as their villains are bad. In this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Chris Evans plays a scrawny, sickly wannabe soldier during World War II who gets an injection that turns him into a super-warrior. A similar experiment was also established by the Nazis, but turned their test subject — the weapons developer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) — into the ghastly Red Skull. EW has the exclusive first look at the full, nefarious character. Check it out below:
The premise of the movie, out July 22, is that the serum only brings out the subject’s inner strength. Good guys, like Steve Rogers, remain good guys — only much tougher. Bad guys, like Schmidt, turn into living horrors. Director Joe Johnston (October Sky, The Wolfman) talked with EW about how Captain America may be the most human of the superheroes, and certainly the most humble — a little guy who remembers what it was like to be pushed around.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The strength of heroes is often found in their weaknesses. What vulnerabilities does Captain America have that make him interesting and relatable?
JOE JOHNSTON: What I like is he’s not a superhero in the true sense of the word. He becomes a superhero but doesn’t have any super powers. He is just the best possible, human specimen. Imagine the fastest, strongest Olympian athlete. Add 30 percent. That’s Steve Rogers.
The movie is set during World War II, when there was great pressure on men to fight, but Steve is physically frail at the beginning and the military doesn’t even want him.
The thing that appeals to me is he is everyman. He’s a 98-pound weakling. All he really wants to do is the right thing and serve his country and [at first] nobody wants him because he’s too weak. He’s been picked on all his life. But he’s a guy who never gives up. That’s his trademark.
After he gets the super-soldier injection, that’s when he becomes the only hope of stopping the Nazis’ Red Skull. Is part of what makes him a hero that he remembers what it was like to be pushed around?
Yeah, for Steve Rogers it’s a very personal thing. At one point he says, “I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from.” He makes a complete physical transformation to a perfect human specimen. But inside he doesn’t change at all. It must be tempting to go back and say “I’m going to get that guy who beat me up in high school.” He does get revenge in the film, but on the Nazis — not on people who maybe picked on him. Before he gets the injection, the doctor tells him: “Whatever happens, stay who you are.”
The first issue of Captain America in the Marvel Comics featured him punching Hitler in the jaw. That was March 1941, well before the U.S. even entered the war. Is there still a political side to Cap?
He was created as propaganda tool, but he soon became much more than that. There are all these incarnations over the decades, but the film is not a flag waver. It’s about a guy who wants to do the right thing, and that transcends all nationalities and borders. He’s going to do the right thing no matter what flag is on his chest.
How do you feel about the title being changed to The First Avenger for release internationally?
There was some concern [the name] Captain America will not play in certain countries. If it were up to me I wouldn’t thread the needle so carefully. I’d call it Captain America, since that’s what it is.
Chris Evans was also in Marvel’s Fantastic Four movies as human flame Johnny Storm. Did that work for or against him in casting, since Cap is much more of a noble, upstanding good-guy?
The character is bigger than any actor. I always saw it as an advantage that Chris Evans wasn’t a household name. When you pick someone not so well known, he’s not bringing a lot of baggage to the role. I cast him in what I seen him do in other projects. He brought a whole other layer to what was on the page, and it’s been great watching him become that character.
Did you have to think much about the upcoming Avengers movie when working on Captain America?
I really didn’t. Because this was a period film, because this was the origin story, I didn’t have to worry about the Avengers which was a present day story. We have present-day bookends and bring Cap back at the end and then I basically hand him off. And The Avengers is its own thing.
As a fan, and someone who is creating a critical ingredient, what do you expect from this clash of characters in The Avengers?
The fact that they are all so different is what will make it exciting. You bring these elements together and they all have different outlooks and come from different worlds. I think there is an opportunity for conflict within the group. There’s gotta be. It’s not the Boy Scouts. [Laughs] There’s going to be rivalry and certain amount of infighting and conflict. Like I say I’m going to be there as an audience member like anybody else.
Does working on a superhero movie deplete your interest in superheroes?
I’ve had other offers for movies like this and usually turned them down. To me there’s something less interesting about a guy who can fly, and throw tanks around, and stuff like that. The reason I wanted to do this one is he is so relatable. I can relate to him. Maybe it’s every kid’s dream to go into a pod and come out looking like Captain America. [Laughs] And you don’t even have to exercise or lift weights! It’s great!
How do you relate to someone who can fly, and is bulletproof, and can throw tanks around?
Movies like that are a lot harder to do, because how you make someone like that vulnerable? Someone like Superman. I don’t know if that’s the best example, but it’s certainly the one that comes to mind. How do you make a guy who is invincible seem real? Kryptonite, that is his one weakness, but I don’t know. It’s much easier with a guy like Steve Rogers who has all kinds of built in weaknesses, because of who he was and how he grew up.
There was a previous Captain America movie in 1990, starring Matt Salinger [coincidentally, the son of author J.D. Salinger]. Not many people have seen it, but did you take a look…?
No, no … It’s something they chose to not make a big deal about. The guys at Marvel said,”Nah don’t even bother. It’s so unlike anything we’re doing with the character now.”
Was it worth watching if only to see what not to do?
No, we’re perfectly capable of making our own mistakes!
For more film news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican.