Mark’s Remarks – Marvel Age #88 (May 1990)

Usually I think up a topic for my monthly musings all by myself, but this time my MARVEL AGE editors actually had the temerity to suggest one. “Write something about the Captain America movie, Mark – we’re highlighting it this issue,” said Slim Jim Salicrup and Wary Barry Dutter, in near unison. Ever mindful of those people who sign my pay vouchers, I timidly protested, “But, fellas, how can I write about something I haven’t even seen?” They pooh-poohed my objection (Jim poohing first, as befits his station), telling me I’m bound to think of something.

So, like the seasoned pro I am, I didn’t give it another thought until late that night when I sat down to actually write the piece. (Hey, I can’t let my conscious mind do all the work, can I? Sheesh!) They want me to write about a movie I haven’t seen, I’ll do it. After all, when has not knowing anything about what I’m writing about ever stopped me before?

But before we get into the specific, Captain America making the leap from the four-color page to the silver screen, let me say a bit about the process of translating comic characters from one medium to another in general. I’ve often heard fan complain that a really good movie-based-on-a-comic-book has never been done because those Movie Guys always lost something in the translation. Well, you won’t get too loud an argument from me. I can think of far more examples of where the source material was betrayed in some way in the celluloid transformation than of where it wasn’t. But that being said, changes do have to be made when adapting something from one medium to another. If one takes certain elements that appear natural and appropriate in the still, silent comics medium too literally, the cinematic result may look stilted and awkward. (You must admit that the POWs and BAMs of the oft-maligned Batman television show are a literal translation of the comic, right?) But if one changes too much, the end product bears too little resemblance to the source material. (Can Dolph Lundgren really be recognized as the Punisher without the distinctive uniform?)

Ignoring for the moment the conceptual alterations that occur when Movie Guys adapt comic book characters for the screen, let’s just focus a bit on the difficulty of translating static comic images into live action – in other words, realizing those images using human actors and making those still images move. Comics, by virtue of being comprised of a sequence of non-moving hand-illustrated pictures, have certain innate pecularities. Because the pictures are literally smaller than life, efforts are generally made by artists to make the action and the characters larger than life. The movements are exaggerated, even as the characters’ musculatures generally are. In real life, no matter how good someone’s muscle definition is, you just can’t see half the rippling sinew beneath a skintight bodysuit that is routinely depicted on the comic page. Life just doesn’t look that way. Furthermore, few actors are as handsome and perfectly proportioned as even one of our “average built” super heroes. But assuming a reasonable facsimile thereof is cast, the next concern is the actual costume. What does it literally look like? Shiny spandex or something more non-reflective? How wrinkle-less can it feasibly be made? Should it have molded in muscles? Then there are the near-impossibilities of certain costume designs and materials. Has anyone ever seen a red-black material like Daredevil’s costume is made out of?

But it is possible to get the “look” of a comic character real, real close, so that when you see it you nod your head and say “Yeah, if that character came to life, that’s exactly what he’d look like.” For my money, every single character in the underrated Popeye movie by Robert Altman looked astoundingly like his/her counterparts in the E.C. Segar comic strip, and Lynda Carter made a picture-perfect Wonder Woman, by way of examples.

Okay, so say you have the “look” as right as humanly possible. The next problem is movement. If the characters don’t move “right,” it spoils the illusion and the best-made costume in the world won’t help. (High marks again for Altman’s Popeye cast.) The Movie Guys have to figure out a whole system of body language for each character that no comic artist has ever had to fully render, and in the case of our action-oriented heroes, a fighting style unique to the character. As something of a connoisseur of movie fight scenes, I must report that it’s rare to see a specific fighting style worked out for a screen hero. Okay, Bruce Lee definitely had one, and you used to be able to count on Chuck Norris’s spinning back kick a couple of times in every one of his flicks. But who’s had a distinctive fighting style lately? The closest I can think of is Mel Gibson’s incorporation of Three Stooges moves in Lethal Weapon 2. As for costumed guys, ahem, in my opinion, Daredevil, in the Hulk TV-movie of last year, moved somewhat generically – not specifically Daredevilish enough for my tastes.

Okay, I’ve managed to avoid him this long, but how about that mega-hitting Batman fellow? I think the basic “look” to him was impressive – that all-black molded-muscle suit managed to both be recognizable as a Batman costume and look like a pretty scary guy you wouldn’t want to mess with. But, even with all the quick cutting, the outfit didn’t exactly move shall we say, convincingly. And it was difficult to discern what the guy’s fighting abilities were – sometimes he had lightning-fast reflexes, other times he slipped and fell on his duff. And did anyone think for a moment that a hand to hand battle between a man in bulletproof body armor and a man in a purple zoot suit was any real contest? But I’d have to give the Bat-movie pretty high marks when it came to the dramatic lighting and other atmospherics employed when the hero came on screen. Batman seemed well integrated with the environment he was in (nice to have a big budget, huh?), his costume worked well in the contexts in which we were allowed to see it. Direct natural lighting in normal looking environs would have made the bat-clad Michael Keaton look as ludicrous as the bat-clad Adam West did parking the Batmobile and trotting into police headquarters in broad daylight.

Okay, enough about the other guy. What about Captain America? How should Cap look and move in “real life?” Well, he’s got to be over six feet tall and be well built. Broad-shouldered, good biceps, lats, and abs, but he should not be musclebound like a weight lifter. I see his body as a cross between a gymnast’s and a karate fighter’s. To do what he does, that’s how it would have to look. His uniform I’d make dark blue like the blue on the American flag rather than the lighter blue of the printed comic. I see it made of a non-reflective material, although maybe the white star on his chest could be shiny for contrast. And despite the fact that he’s anything but a mysterious creature of the night, I can’t see any costumed guy looking good parading around in natural lighting. I’d give him dramatic lighting all the time.

How would he move? Extremely gracefully despite his size. Light on his feet like Bruce Lee or even Mikhail Baryshnikov. Cap is not a vicious fighter, taking pleasure out of hurting bad people. He makes the minimum necessary moves to handle a situation. He should move like he’s very comfortable with his body’s abilities, always knows just the right amount of force to apply and to where. Tall order for an actor, huh?

Okay, enough already on how it should look. A movie can look good and still be a major disappointment in the story department. If I were the screen writer of the ideal Captain America movie, what would the story be about? Well, ahem, I’ve never really thought that much about it since I concentrate my efforts on projects likely to see fruition. But…I know it would have a very major opponent for Cap to fight, most likely the Red Skull. And I’d have the action take place today.

–Mark Gruenwald