While Marvel Studios clearly had ideas about heading towards The Avengers when they set about making their own films starting with Iron Man, it wasn’t until their fifth film—Captain America: The First Avenger—that they were making a movie while The Avengers was rocking and rolling and getting geared up to start production. Not only that, but the 1940s-set Captain America would serve as the audience’s lead-in to the experimental The Avengers, and thus needed to tee up major plot points while also introducing a major new superhero. And while the end result works wonderfully, getting there was sometimes a tricky path.
Captain America was one of the first films announced when Marvel Studios forged ahead with its plan to make its own superhero movies, and at that time David Self (Road to Perdition) was hired to pen the screenplay. At the time, that screenplay didn’t spend near as much time in the 1940s, as Self said in a statement the story would focus on Captain America coming to terms with who America is today:
“He’s a Norman Rockwell character who is faced with today’s America and is forced to look at his own past, things in the ’40s that weren’t necessarily what they were cracked up to be, and also how today’s country may be different than it looks.”’
Nearly two years later, after Marvel had released Iron Man to smashing success, veteran filmmaker Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky) was hired to direct Captain America, although curiously at the time it was reported that a script didn’t yet exist. Another point of interest: the title of the film, initially, was The First Avenger: Captain America until it was changed to Captain America: The First Avenger in April 2010.
Eventually, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hired to write the screenplay, although it appears it was still in flux as to how much of the film would take place in the 1940s and how much would take place in present day. Markus and McFeely would, of course, go on to write the next two Captain America movies as well as Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, so The First Avenger was ground zero for two of the most important figures in MCU filmmaking.
Casting the title character, however, proved incredibly difficult. By this time—spring 2010—Marvel Studios was becoming a bona fide brand, and every young actor in town was vying for the opportunity to play Captain America. Ryan Phillippe auditioned, as did Garrett Hedlund, Jensen Ackles, and Chace Crawford. Most notably, John Krasinski was one of the finalists for the role, but he hilariously recalled feeling body shamed by seeing Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor during his screen test:
In addition to Krasinski, Sebastian Stan was also a serious finalist for the Steve Rogers role, and he so impressed Marvel execs that they cast him as Bucky Barnes instead.
But casting Chris Evans in the now iconic part wasn’t so simple. This was a character every actor in town wanted to play—everyone but Evans. Having previously played a superhero in two Fantastic Four films to disappointing results, Evans wasn’t sure he wanted to tie himself down like that again:
Reflecting on landing the role even more recently, Evans said he felt fine passing on it:
“Getting the [Captain America] offer felt to me like the epitome of temptation. The ultimate job offer, on the biggest scale. I’m supposed to say no to this thing. It felt like the right thing to do. You see the pictures, and you see the costumes, and it’s cool. But I’d now woken up the day after saying no and felt good, twice.”
But a phone call from Robert Downey Jr. himself set Evans straight, and he eventually relented and signed on in March 2010—with a caveat. While most of the MCU actors at that point signed contracts that had options for nine appearances (including cameos), Evans talked Marvel into bringing his total number of appearances down to six.
That didn’t completely ease Evans’ concerns—indeed he admitted years later that he was still nervous about his decision to play Captain America until he saw The First Avenger:
“Well, I wasn’t happy in the first Cap because — well, not that I wasn’t happy. I was just nervous, you know what I mean? I had taken a role that I was just nervous about. And it was a lifestyle change, and there were a lot of factors on the first Cap. I was just nervous, man. It was a big lifestyle, whatever… And now it’s like, ‘I got it.’ I got it. It’s OK. No one’s fucking kicking down my fucking door. I can still walk around. I can still go to a movie. I think I was just so scared that, like, ‘This is it. I just signed my death warrant; my life’s over. I can’t believe I did this. This isn’t the career I wanted.’ That didn’t happen. None of that shit happened. I’m fine, fine.”
Indeed, Evans said in the same interview he was simply worried about being tied down to making six bad movies:
“I’m fine. You know, I didn’t have a meltdown and I didn’t lose my fucking mind. And the movies were good. And the biggest thing I worried about was making shitty fucking movies. I don’t want to make shitty movies and be contractually obligated to make garbage.”
Evans wasn’t the only actor who had mixed feelings about Captain America. Hugo Weaving was cast as the villainous Red Skull, but subsequently revealed in 2012 that although Marvel had an option to bring him back in future movies, he wasn’t exactly itching to return:
“I [signed a multi-picture deal] for Captain America. I think the tendency, with those films, would be to probably not bring a villain back. They might for The Avengers, but I didn’t think I’d be in Captain America 2 or 3. I don’t think Red Skull will be there. And it’s not something I would want to do again. I’m glad I did it. I did sign up for a number of pictures and I suppose, contractually, I would be obliged to, if they forced me to, but they wouldn’t want to force someone to do it, if they didn’t want to. I think I’ve done my dash with that sort of film. It was good to do it and try it out, but to be honest, it’s not the sort of film I seek out and really am excited by. As an actor, to do all sorts of different films is great. It stretches you in different ways. But, I increasingly like to go back to what I used to always do, which is to get involved with projects that I really have a personal affiliation with.”