Let me preface this piece by stating that I like Chris Evans, and I think he'll make a fine Captain America. Out of all the names they were tossing around, he's by far the best. But I can't help but wonder what might have been, and why Marvel suddenly decided to play it so safe. And yes, Evans is a safe pick. He's a name, though not a big one. He's talented and charismatic, but one could say (and I don't mean this to be critical at all) that he's inoffensively so. We know we're not going to get a wooden performance, and we know he's not going to veer into weird Nicolas Cage territory. It's safe.
And I have no problem with caution. I would rather have Marvel go with something "obvious" if it makes for a good movie instead of casting the latest teen sensation, or trying so hard to be edgy that they lose sight of who the character is. To me, John Krasinski was that Michael Keaton kind of pick, and I'm glad they sidestepped it. Nevertheless, I wish they had been a little braver, and a little more patient, and truly done a hunt for An Unknown Actor as they hinted they would for the past year or more.
We live in weird times. Every three months (six if you're generous) an entertainment journalist writes a post lamenting the loss of the leading man or marveling over the fact that audiences can't or won't bank on star power any longer. (Hey, that's no knock on those pieces. I love writing those pieces too!) Gone are the days when you'd go see the new Harrison Ford movie because oh my gosh, it was the new Harrison Ford movie and you knew your money would be well spent. But now! Now is the day of the nobody, and 300 and The Hangover are proof of it, and look at all the actors who can't open a movie any more, and so on.
There's definitely a lot of number-crunching evidence to that trend, but Hollywood still seems uncertain as to whether they can rely on a character or a movie to sell itself even as they become more feverishly fond of Marketability. For some reason, you can sell a movie based around a board game or an action figure because people have a vague childhood memory of enjoying it, but there's no way in hell you can sell a superhero franchise without a name and face that people know. At least, you can't sell The First Avenger: Captain America without some vague connection.
Surely, you don't put Evans, Channing Tatum, Ryan Phillippe, and Krasinski on the short list if you're confident you can move without a name? Tatum and Krasinski are names, although they're not enormous ones. (I try to judge these things by how my "mainstream" friends and family react when I namedrop them -- and surprisingly everyone knew those two guys, though not Evans. NBC and Nicholas Sparks is the way to Marketability. Note that down, CAA.) Marvel tried to play both sides, and it's interesting. They could have just cast Matt Damon and been done with it -- and I think he's still baby-faced enough to have pulled it off -- but they were determined to cast young and unknown ... but not too unknown. Not Ryan "Captain Awesome" McPartlin unknown.
The need for a hook is surprising in light of Thor. I find Thor to be a much harder sell than Captain America. Again, those mainstreamers I know immediately had an opinion on Cap, whereas Thor just creates a lot of "Really? Like Adventures in Babysitting Thor?" By May 2011, they'll be experts on Asgard, and I can roll my eyes and pretend to be exasperated. But Marvel didn't go for the big, blonde and obvious picks like Brad Pitt, or a well-highlighted Gerard Butler. They didn't even go for the rising star of Alexander Skarsgard, who is popular enough that he now has one of those annoying Internet nicknames. (It's A-Skars and I hate myself for knowing it.) Nope. Chris Hemsworth, who you have to describe to ordinary folk as "Ok, you remember that opening scene of Star Trek? You know that guy? No, not Captain Kirk. Kirk's dad. No, no it wasn't the same actor. It's a different one, and he's Thor. No, not Chris Pine. Oh, just Google it." Think how much easier it would be to say "Alexander Skarsgard. You know, True Blood. Yep, that's the one." But they didn't do that, and you have to admire them for it.
And that's what I wish had happened with Captain America, except that it would have been cool to have someone completely out of nowhere. Brand new. Christopher Reeve in Superman new. Reeve's casting has gone into legend, and rightfully so. Only Hugh Jackman can claim something similar, though he was a bit of a name in Australia and on Broadway. Reeve came out of nowhere. I think a lot of people were hoping that something similar would happen with Cap. Some blonde, square-jawed, ready-to-be-molded guy would be plucked out of some off-Broadway play and thrust into 9 films, only to watch him take our breath away. Again, I'm not saying Evans won't do that. I'm willing to admit he may shatter even our biggest expectations and give us that "Where has this guy been?" moment. But it would have been fun to see another Reeve or Jackman story arise from First Avenger, especially given its weighty title. It feels like we don't make a lot of new stars that way.
I think, perhaps, that's where some of the "I don't want a guy who played a superhero already!" comments came from. They were much mocked on forums and on Twitter, and perhaps rightfully so. Devin Faraci made the apt observation that it was like hating on John Wayne for always playing cowboys. But a rebuttal to that might be that when John Ford cast Wayne in Stagecoach, people literally had their breath taken away by his first closeup. It is, perhaps, the most famous "Who is that guy?" star-making moment in cinema. Even the camera can't believe it's luck:
Geeks wanted that with First Avenger: Captain America. I think many of us were hoping it'd be some young cornfed Turk from the Midwest, who had a few commercials and a play to his name, and the camera would zoom in on him and it would be Steve Rogers. We all live for those moments of cinema, though wishing they would happen with a particular film like Captain America is pretty fanciful. They just are. They're happy accidents.
And here's hoping that Evans just is, from the very moment he has to put on the red, white, and blue. May it equal Superman's first flight, Iron Man's Afghan cave, and Wolverine's first SNIKT, and then go beyond all of that. It's Captain America. It has to. And it's a daunting task whether your known, unknown, or in that misty casting area in-between.
Wish him luck.