Since it became clear that the cinematic Cap would be taking on the Red Skull and his terrorist organization HYDRA, people have asked why he isn't just fighting the Nazis themselves. The creative team have the answer to that question.
This past weekend, we had a chance to chat with the filmmakers behind Captain America: The First Avenger, including writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, director Joe Johnston, and producers Kevin Feige and Louis D'esposito. They had assembled to explain some of the key decisions behind their new film. The short answer? This movie isn't just about Captain America in World War II - it's about seeing World War II through the prism of the wider Marvel universe. They also explained how Captain America sets Steve Rogers up for his role in The Avengers.
The creative team emphasized that they didn't push the Nazis to one side because they were afraid of using them - as Joe Johnston put it, they're a universal villain and can be killed with impunity, so they didn't leave them out for fear of somehow offending people. And, indeed, they pointed out that there are still plenty of Nazis in the movie, they just aren't the primary antagonists for Cap.
As Kevin Feige explained, the reason they made HYDRA the main villains was because this is a film set in the Marvel universe, and they wanted to be true to as many aspects of the comics as they could. So while the Nazis would be the obvious villains in pretty much any other World War II film (at least any set in the European theater, I guess), only Captain America could feature a bad guy like the Red Skull.
The idea that this was very consciously set in the wider Marvel universe was of great use in writing the script, according to Christopher Markus, and it adds an extra layer for people who are familiar with the comics or even have just seen Iron Man and Thor. Since the movie needed an all-powerful Macguffin anyway, he said it made perfect sense to just use the Cosmic Cube, which had already been set up in Thor, while the presence of a young Howard Stark as a key ally for Cap brings in what Markus could only describe as "that Tony Starkness."
That said, Feige acknowledged that Cap very much does fight Nazis as well as supervillains in the original comics, and he alluded to the iconic cover of Captain America #1, in which Steve Rogers punches out Hitler. The problem, he explained, is that it's very difficult to come up with any logical scenario that could get Cap to that moment.
Instead, he said that they decided to just tip their hats to that cover by incorporating that imagery into the USO show in which Cap is forced to participate. And "forced" is the right word - Joe Johnston said it's his favorite sequence of the movie, but they made sure Steve seemed out of place and uncomfortable amid this silliness. As a bonus, Feige explained that the USO show actually inspires the creation of the in-universe version of Marvel Comics, which is an homage to the comic book universe's longstanding contention that Marvel Comics exists as a not always accurate chronicle of the superheroes' various adventures.
The other challenge, according to the writers, was that they couldn't just tell a straight-up origin story in which we saw, say, Captain America's first mission. Instead, the movie had to be baggy enough to cover the final three years of the war and get Steve to the present day in time for The Avengers. To some extent, that's to leave room for unseen, 1940s-set adventures that could form part of later sequels.
But, as Christopher Markus explained, that approach was also a necessity for The Avengers to make any sense. After all, in keeping with the comics version of the team, Steve has to be the most seasoned and experienced soldier imaginable, and somebody whose past experiences in World War II make him a natural leader and someone who can command the respect of all these other ridiculously powerful superheroes. The only way to do that, Markus said, was to "bloat in" all that extra backstory.
Captain America: The First Avenger opens this week.