Guttergeek Column: WEDNESDAY SHOP TALK

Posted by on March 24th, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Why Casting Cap Doesn’t Matter

Although Marvel Studios hasn’t yet made a formal announcement, all indications are that the company is close to signing Chris Evans to play Captain America in a multi-film deal. For many reasons, this isn’t a good idea. He’s already acted in several comics-related projects (Fantastic Four, The Losers, and the forthcoming Scott Pilgrim), and the shtick is getting a little old. Certainly there are other actors who are willing and able to play these roles. Evans doesn’t look the part—and hasn’t demonstrated that he can act the part—of Steve Rogers (Captain America’s alter ego). The casting decision just doesn’t make much sense. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it just doesn’t matter. Despite the rapid pollination of comics-related material in summertime cinema, comics are not films.

Chris Evans has already starred as Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) in Marvel’s two Fantastic Four films. While his performance as the Torch was probably the strongest parts of those films, the character traits that worked in that role (flippancy, immaturity, and a general lack of seriousness) are not well-suited to the role of Steve Rogers. Captain America is Marvel’s resident patriarch. He’s serious and conscientious to a fault (see Civil War), and it’s hard to imagine Evans pulling this off. Evans also doesn’t look right for the role. Captain America doesn’t just act like Marvel’s patriarch; he looks like it. Steve Rogers may have looked young during WWII, but by the time he’s thawed out in the modern day, he looks and acts like he’s from a different, more distinguished (and less chiseled hotbody) era. The First Avenger: Captain America is rumored to be a largely origin-based film, and Evans might work well in the WWII scenes. He does look like a young, newly-created super-soldier. But this will be difficult to carry over into the inevitable Avengers film, which will feature Robert Downy, Jr. (16 years Evans’ senior) as Iron Man. Are we to believe that the other Avengers will naturally fall in line behind a semi-nude heartthrob? I mean, come on—they’re not Massachusetts voters.

My criticisms of the casting choice (as well as many of those I’ve read and heard) rely on the belief that film should preserve the iconography of comics. But really, this is a fundamental misreading of the nature of both media. Many media critics have tied comics and film together in interesting ways—primarily because both are noticeably visual—but the distinctions between them are important. Both comics and film are sequential, in that they narrate stories via a sequence of images. In comics, these are spread out over entire pages. There are gaps between image panels (named the “gutter”) that manipulate time and space. These gaps are essentially missing in film. Though film is also made up of a series of images, these images are all projected into the same space in rapid succession. There is no noticeable space between the images, and the experience is ultimately a much more passive experience than that of reading comics.

This isn’t to say that comics are inherently more complex. It’s just that the “reading” experience is different; it’s more active and it asks more of the comic book reader. Comics ask their readers to fill in gaps—to help create the narrative in ways that traditional narrative films don’t. In order to make this experience easier and more consistent, it’s important to preserve the iconography of characters and places from storyline to storyline and from one creative team to the next. Consistency and continuity are important in comics because of the nature of the medium, and I don’t think this is true of film. It’s easier to watch and believe something that moves on its own. Even if it looks wrong at first, the viewer is more likely to allow herself to get pulled into the narrative experience because less is being asked of her. Because the experiences are different, it’s wrong to expect a relationship of continuity between the two media. The studio is creating an all-new experience for an audience that includes people who don’t know the iconography of comics, so there’s more room for play and alteration.

Another reason why superhero casting doesn’t matter is because superhero comics are the modern, secular, American form of mythology and folklore. New readers and people who didn’t grow up with these characters and stories often complain that it’s difficult to find entry points because there’s so much baggage involved, but this is true of any intricate mythology—Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Hebriac, etc. These mythologies contain many versions of the same characters, and some of these versions are contradictory. The behavior, words, and actions of characters like Odysseus, Zeus, Hercules, and Jesus can vary drastically from story to story. Their stories change slightly in each telling. But in each case, the fundamental center—the essential core—of the character remains consistent.

This is also true in superhero comics. Though value is placed on continuity in this genre, readers often find variations (and even, occasionally, growth) interesting. “Elseworlds” and “What If” stories aren’t canonical, but they are entertaining and often reveal the central essence (the values and characteristics) of characters in ways that canonical tales don’t. Superhero films shouldn’t be looked at much differently. Superhero characters and concepts are as malleable as those of traditional mythologies, and the film versions of comic book superheroes offer simply one more iteration of a familiar story. When done well (The Dark Knight, Iron Man), the subtle cosmetic variations don’t much matter. When done poorly (Superman Returns), cosmetic issues are pretty much the last concern. Mythology told well is good mythology, even if familiar characters look and act different than we think they should.

I still think Chris Evans is a cosmetically bad casting decision, but I don’t think it will affect the way I approach the Captain America film. What I expect from film is different than what I expect from comics, even if the former has elevated its game over the last few years. When superhero films are good, I’m pleasantly surprised. If Evans’ performance is bad, it won’t violate any sort of sacred trust I’ve placed in Marvel Studios. If what they produce is bad, it won’t be much different than when Rob Liefeld was drawing the character. The essence will endure, and someone will eventually come along and tell a better story.

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