Captain America. First seen as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a fun, quippy World War II movie that came a few years after 2008’s Iron Man, which starred Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, of course, was shockingly successful, and basically set us on the increasingly narrow path, American movies–wise, we are still walking to this day. The first Avengers, which combined Evans and Downey alongside Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeremy Renner, came out in 2012 and made $1.5 billion. It’s been Marvel all the way down ever since.
Evans got in just late enough, in terms of when he was offered the part, to know what he was getting into. “I was really apprehensive about taking the role initially,” he says. At the time, he was nearly 30. “I remember in my late 20s having a real shift in how I felt on set, how I felt promoting films: a little more anxiety, a little more uncertainty. You always end up questioning, Is this what I should be doing?” To the extent that he recognized the trajectory he was on, it didn’t feel like a great one. “I just wasn’t sure if I was moving closer to myself or further away. And something inside me kept saying that I was getting further away—that something about this industry wasn’t healthy.” The work was messing with his psyche, his sense of joy, even his sense of self.
So he said no a few times before he said yes. Negotiated down the commitment, in terms of how many movies he was going to owe Marvel. Weighed the positive and the negative—“the pros were that I’d be able to take care of my family forever; the cons were that I would become deeply, deeply unhappy with fame and loss of control”—and then, in the end, put on the suit and became the man.
“I often think about the parallel world where he said no,” Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios, says. “Robert Downey Jr. gets a lot of attention, deservedly so, for being the foundation of this studio we have here. But in many, many ways, Chris Evans was one of those additional pillars that the house would not be standing today, if not for him.”
Looking back on it now, Evans says, he mostly just feels gratitude. He did not in the end lose control, or become deeply unhappy. “I love playing that role,” he says. “I feel connected to it in a way that when you revisit a character so many times you can’t help but try to absorb some of their traits and measure yourself against them.”
And beyond gratitude, a bunch of feelings that he chooses not to examine at all. “I think sometimes it feels like almost nothing in my career or life is really happening to me. It feels like you’re watching someone else do it, or you feel like you’re spectating. So when you get asked questions like that”—the question, for what it’s worth: Did Evans feel like he was able to walk away from the character with his sense of independent self intact?—“you’re like, Shit, I don’t know, ask him. Oh, it’s me. Oh, fuck. That’s right. I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been sitting here watching it happen to that guy with everyone else. So sometimes you feel very outside of it. Like I said, the time in the field has shown that the more you spend thinking about those things, the less happy you are.”