The Challenges Of Captain America, Take Five

I noted in an earlier post that the origin story for Captain America is,well, poop.  This opinion might not sit well with some Captain America fans, but his origin story, quite frankly, is the origin story of a bad guy.

If it were announced tomorrow that the U.S. Army were working on an aggressive eugenics program to create a race of super-men, there'd be rioting in the streets... one would hope.  Or at least, given the times we live in (sigh, shudder) , a real zinger of a segment on The Daily Show

But let's leave poor Steve Rogers out of the equation for the time being.  What do we think of the scientist who decides to give the U.S. army a process to make super-men?  What do we think of Dr. Abraham Erskine, creator of the super-soldier serum?

Well, either he's oblivious to the ethical concerns of what he's doing, or he's an outright Mengele, or he thinks the ends justify the means cause Hitler's really, really evil and America is all milk, honey and freedom-boners.  (I'm pretty sure it was this last point that prevailed in the minds of Captain America's creators back when the comic started, even if I can't quite agree to the point of sanctioning eugenics, godless Canadian commie ewok that I am.)

However, those other two options have never wowed me either.

When it came to my fun-script and my Erskine, I didn't want him to be naive or evil, so I decided that I had to do the unthinkable and stuff untold minutes, pages and scenes into an already lopsided script, bite the bullet, and texturalize Abraham Erskine.  I was sabotaging the quaintness of the origin story, but by now this was old hat.  I had already dampened Steve Rogers's formerly exuberant patriotism.  It was time to concede the simplicity of Cap's origin entirely.

From the start, I had a clear picture of Erskine:

Were he alive and still working today, if we could drag him away from Grumpy Old Men 3, I think Walter Matthau would've done this Erskine proud.  This is an Einstein doppleganger, obviously.  Same whimsy, same adopted childlike mannerisms, same fierce underlying intelligence we can sense and slightly fear.  And, like an Einstein or an Oppenheimer in a similar situation, he's not 100% on board with his paymasters:

I'll take a moment here to point out that this script is using the same, graduating super-soldier process that we saw a bit of in The Incredible Hulk.  Only this time, where the Tim Roth character in Hulk was left high and dry, eventually Steve will get bombarded with the laser-light show, or whatever, that seals the deal. 

But the question remains why a sensitive genius is going along with the idea of super-soldiers in the first place.  To answer this, I gave Project Rebirth a dark history.

Early in the script, Steve learns that he isn't Project Rebirth's first test subject.  In fact, there were five men who participated at an earlier date, initially to wondrous results, but ultimately to the point of madness and physical collapse.  (This revelation makes Steve's willingness to say yes an act of exceptional courage, especially after he's shown film of the men.)  Erskine, we're told, came back to the project after a year away, finally having figured out a way to prevent his serum's dangerous and limited returns.

But that's not all there is to the story.  Steve, for his own part, suspects nothing the night before his final treatment:

In the comics, traditionally, Erskine is shot dead by a Nazi spy moments after Steve is given his "vita ray treatment".  This part of the origin is plain daffy, and not just because I had to type the words "vita ray treatment".  We're supposed to believe that a Nazi spy infiltrated what was likely a "Manhattan Project" level of security, waited until it was proven to work, forwent any notion of stealing the process, then decided to expose himself so he could shoot Erskine dead after the fact.

Hopefully, this doesn't get a literal treatment in the final film.  Things should play out a bit more obliquely.  In my fun-script, moments after Steve is bombarded, or whatever, a ticking time bomb is discovered by Erskine in the bowels of his machine.  Everyone evacuates the area... or so we think, until it's revealed that there's a man--the film camera operator--still inside the lab.  Erskine breaks from the pack, hurries back, only he's not in time.  The man is killed and Erskine himself takes serious injuries.  

Steve visits Erskine in the hospital.

This scene gives Steve an opportunity to show he's not daft about the implications of his own existence, that he's not just a puppet.  And Erskine's weaknesses--his feet of clay, for which we can forgive him--can be exposed:

Erskine confesses that meeting Steve provoked a second moment of weakness.  Before destroying his life's work, he could not resist making Steve its one true recipient.  Before Steve leaves, Erskine tells him that if he's really curious about why Erskine came back to the project, he will find his answers in an out of the way hospital in Kentucky. 

After Steve leaves, the Nazi spy does show up, though Erskine is not surprised to see him.  Erskine, ever brilliant, was aware that the destruction of his machine and his process would force the Nazi spy, whomever he might be, to make a desperate move and tip his hand.  Rather than let himself be kidnapped, Erskine forces the man to kill him.  What follows is the script's first action set piece, as Steve gives chase to the spy and his back-up. 

After that, however, he escapes the army's custody, makes his way to Kentucky and discovers that after the original batch of volunteers, and after Erskine had briefly departed the project, the army had not given up on testing Rebirth with less than willing (or at least informed) participants:

This revelation, with its unsettling real life connotations, lays down the final, non-B-movie layer on Cap's original B-movie genesis.  No matter how much madcap action ensues (and that's plenty, as is only fitting) Captain America himself carries more water.  I can't help but think we'd respect him--and root for him--more if he did.


Anonymous said…
First, high fives for some fun posts with your Cap script. As a fan of Cap forEVER, I can appreciate your efforts to keep the vision of a cinematic Cap honest and true to life...and any little bit helps. Don't want to see nipples on the stars and stripes down the road, do we?


Though it is true there are profound moral concerns with experimenting on Steve Rogers, I think one cannot overlook the possibility of Project Rebirth being a direct response to Nazi super soldier experimentation. This was true in the Marvel Universe of the comic book.

True, if these events were happening in a vacuum, the moral implications would be VERY unseemly, and even with the Red Skull and Arnim Zola doing their experiments, it still doesn't completely wash the hands of the people running Rebirth.

Still, it does supply some context to know the Nazis were doing the same thing and they had NO problem with experimenting on humans...whether they volunteered or not.

This is particularly true, I think, with Erskine. I know you touch on how weak the argument is to say "U.S.A. good, Nazi bad", and that's a fair point. But Erskine, being I would surmise a world wide leader in his field AND a man rescued from the Nazi regime himself, I believe would have direct knowledge of what the Nazis would be capable of if they worked on a serum of their own. Yes, it would be wise to have Erskine who is troubled and conflicted about the implications of his work. However, it would also be wise to have an Erskine who is knowledgable enough about the power of genetic "enhancement" to know that doing nothing while the other side keeps working is NOT an option. to be him.

That being said, and since the REAL Captain America movie looms not far in the future, I hope they do touch on the moral ramifications of experimenting on soldiers (volunteers though they are), and I hope PERFECTLY CAST Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine reflects that delemma. I also hope they don't short change Arnim Zola as Erskine's evil Nazi counterpart.

(RANT WARNING!! Notice I said Nazi counterpart ...not HYDRA counterpart. Good grief, are we getting politically correct about World War II?? I know its early, and they've been very careful not to release images of the movie, but lets see some swaztikas! I wanna see Cap whip some honest to evil Nazis, not just comic booky HYDRA guys! RANT OVER.)

All in all, nice work and hope to see more in the future. Here's hoping the Cap movie matches the one we see in our heads.

C. Saver