Captain America: The First Avenger is probably the best of Marvel’s Phase One films. I say “probably” to allow for nostalgia for Iron Man and the abundance of fun that is The Avengers, but re-watches have shown The First Avenger to be the least problematic and most affecting of the bunch. Its high entertainment value doesn’t hurt either.
The sequel, The Winter Soldier, hits theaters this Friday, and according to at least one very reputable source, it may just be the best Marvel film yet. We’re spending the week exploring all things Captain America so there’s no better time than now to take a listen to director Joe Johnston’s commentary for The First Avenger. He’s joined by the film’s editor and director of photography, and together they discuss the production, the cast and crew, and the moments they love as film fans.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2001)
Commentator: Joe Johnston (director), Shelly Johnson (director of photography), Jeffrey Ford (editor)
1. They added a flopping sound to the opening comic pages, but the folks at Marvel said they had their own sound and intentionally chose not to use it.
2. The opening scene in a blizzard was filmed on a sound stage.
3. The first costume design for actor David Bradley looked far too much like his Harry Potter character, Argus Filch. They made some changes.
4. After searching London for a suitable alley to double for NYC they ended up having to film the scene at Pinewood Studios in the UK.
5. All three men are continually impressed with the “skinny Steve” effect, and rightfully so as it’s still an amazing achievement. Most of the shots are accomplished via a digitally shrunken Evans, and they often required a layered effect meaning Evans is green-screened into a scene. An example is the early one featuring Steve and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) conversing in the US Army hallway at the World’s Fair.
6. The field training scene is filmed in Black Park which is part of Pinewood Studios. Johnston mentions a scene from Goldfinger was filmed there as well.
7. The flagpole scene was filmed and added after the fact when they realized they needed a scene to show that Steve Rogers was clever.
8. Regarding the pod design, they wanted to avoid the idea of torture sequences like the one where Wolverine is poked with dozens of painful needles. The pod brought to mind a space launch which fit the themes they were going for.
9. The reveal of the new and improved Steve Rogers was preceded by Chris Evans dropping and doing fifty push-ups. “In what seemed like about nine seconds,” says Johnston. “It was amazing to watch.”
10. They recall that Evans was a very fast runner, and more than that he had a unique run. “It’s almost a dancer’s run,” says Johnston, “and when we tried to double him for running there was nobody who could run like him. They just didn’t have that same dynamic to the way he moves.”
11. The three Nazis who get zapped by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) were named Roeder, Hutter, and Schneider “after the members of Kraftwerk.”
12. The sequence where Rogers participates in wartime propaganda to sell war bonds was included as a way to show the original Captain America costume. The song was written by Alan Menken.
13. Johnston had actors do scenes and fight scenes for their screen tests. It was something he learned from his experiences on The Rocketeer where some actors became idiots when they were asked to wear the jetpack and walk around.
14. The big rescue scene where Rogers attacks Hydra’s factory and frees hundreds of Allied soldiers features more than a few hints of what’s to come with the characters. Johnston points out a very brief shot with Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and an illustration showing what Zola looks like in the comics ‐ essentially a head in a television tube. He also draws attention to the fact that Bucky was clearly being experimented on by Zola, something that leads to him surviving the fall from the train trestle. Apparently that’s what happens in the comics…
15. The bartender in the scene where Rogers recruits the recently rescued Allies to go back into action is the body double for the “skinny Steve” scenes.
16. Johnston wanted fans to think he was going to give Captain America a “hokey shield” that fired machine guns and such, so the scene where he gets his proper shield included a table filled with alternatives.
17. The train interiors were added in re-shoots as the original sequence involved a thinner train and a less suspenseful execution.
18. Johnston’s favorite scene in the movie is the figurative chess game between Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Zola. He loves the back and forth between the two Joneses.
19. The motorcycles used were Honda 250s “because there were so many of them used that we got them for nothing.”
20. Johnston was concerned about relying on the “throwing the shield” gag too frequently as he felt it would lose impact if overused. He limited it to 3 to 4 shots of it being tossed.
21. Hayley Atwell’s screen test included the sequence where Peggy is on the radio with Steve as the plane is going down. She had the people in the room in tears, and when it came time to to film the actual scene Johnston’s only direction was to “do what you did in the screen test.”
22. The end credits images were culled from authentic propaganda posters.
Best in Commentary
- Johnston: “This is day one and day two. We were young and energetic and had the whole world in our hands. It was downhill from there.”
- Johnston: “Alan [Silvestri] really provided the glue that holds all of this together.”
- Johnston: “Ah, the dreaded montage.”
- Johnston: “There’s always time to kiss Hayley Atwell.”
The First Avenger remains a great watch even with the commentary track playing, and while Johnston and friends aren’t the most energetic speakers they have more than a few entertaining anecdotes to share about the production. They touch upon some interesting technical details as well including comments about various special effects, locations, and other choices, and they also have a fair amount of enthusiasm each other’s work. It’s a solid commentary and well worth the listen. Also, go see The Winter Soldier. It’s the best of the Marvel films.