Casting Will Smith becomes controversial?
Okay, so it turns out it wasn't real, but I'm going to spend a little time today seriously considering this. Captain America has been, for as long as I can remember, my absolute favorite superhero (that's probably over 18 years at this point), so while I'm not as qualified to comment on it as, say, Paul Dini, Mark Waid or one of Jack Kirby's children/grandchildren, I've been sufficiently emotionally invested in the guy for over 3/4 of my life. I honestly think I settled on him because of the shield, initially; I had a big thing for shields when I was little.
Steven Rogers, declared 4-F (unfit for service) when he volunteered to join the Army during the darkest days of WWII, until Project: Rebirth and the Super Soldier Serum entered the picture. They rebuilt him, made him better, faster, stronger... They had the technology (up until the point that the serum's inventor was killed by Nazi spies), and when his physique matched up with his willpower, Steve Rogers became Captain America, and led the U.S. Army and its allies in the European theater of war until he was captured by the Red Skull (the Reich's answer to the ultimate embodiment of everything that made America great - interesting that Steve's a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fellow, traditionally - more on that in a second) and presumed dead, until he's discovered by the Avengers (or S.H.I.E.L.D., depending on if you're looking at traditional or Ultimate continuity, I suppose), floating frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic. Thawed out of his icy tomb, Captain America re-emerges like an Arthur Pendragon for the New World, returning when his people need him most.
Now, let's consider this a bit more carefully, and dig a bit deeper than a recounting of Captain America's origin story (skipping over Steve's time as Nomad, or the Captain, or his recent assassination...). Steve Rogers is a New Deal liberal, dedicated to all of the true and pure American ideals, literally the American ubermensch (obviously, from a specific perspective, but it's one that I share). He was designed to be, in part, a tool of propaganda for the War Office - a man dressed in red, white and blue chainmail isn't going to be performing covert assassinations and acts of sabotage (that's what his sidekick, the young James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes, was for - at least, according to the updated continuity provided in Ed Brubaker's still-going run, which easily ranks among the best 3+ years of comic books I've ever read). Captain America participated in large-scale operations, often as a member of the Invaders, an international group of superheroes working alongside the Allies (Great Britain's Union Jack and Atlantis' Prince Namor were among the members).
Now, imagine that, instead of an Aryan leading the charge at the battle of Normandy, it was, say, Jesse Owens, or someone that looked like him. That's what would have been at stake with the casting of Mr. Smith as the lead in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Let me get this out of the way before I go any further: I believe, with all of my heart, that Nathain Fillion, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Sherrif Bill Pardy, should play Steve Rogers. He has the physicality (both the brawniness and in his gift for playing injured), the look (again, brawny, square-jawed, the perfect American man, if he weren't Canadian), the smarts (much like Superman, Cap has to be able to play the weak, mortal man when he's not in character - there's not a whole lot that separates Clark Kent from Private Steve Rogers, when you get down to it) and the delivery (key among Cap's various skills is his "speechifying" - in the Iron Man book Operation: AIM, Tony Stark describes his friend as the only man who can fight off a horde of supervillains while disarming a bomb and outdoing the Gettysburg Address simultaneously). If addressed correctly, the part of Captain America will be extraordinarily demanding for any actor that can physically fit the bill. Fillion can do all of those things, and well.
Casting Will Smith as Steve Rogers (if that'd still be his name in Will Smith is... Captain America: The First Avenger) is not simply a "flying the face of 60+ years of comics continuity" action, as many knee-jerk reactors on the Internet might have you believe. It would, in fact, have been a spectacularly gutsy maneuver, with the potential to redefine what a comic book movie is capable of doing and saying. They would've cast a black man as the ultimate emobdiment of America, or at least what America thought it could be in the 1940s; they'll be making him into a symbol that every man, woman, and child in the United States was supposed to strive towards. A black man would be leading the charge against the Nazis, with companies of men behind him, men still serving in segregated units, men who, in some cases, probably agreed with Hitler's ideas on racial purity. Hell, some men who had familial ties to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And the man expected to be the first one to put his boots on the ground would be the descendant of people brought to America by force and thrown into slavery.
That's so forward-thinking and idealistic as to be almost absurd.
I remember hearing, back when the Ultimates line was getting started, that Brian Michael Bendis & company were talking about "casting" Captain America as a black man. I remember the outcry from the nerd community; most everyone is so married to history and continuity that to change any essential element of it is always met with vicious disapproval. I would say that 99.9987% of the people that reacted negatively to that story did so because of that sort of attitude; no one with a brain, or an interest in good storytelling, decried the idea of the black Captain America because he would be, well, a black Captain America. The same thing wound up happening when the Will Smith story was still flying around as a legitimate possibility.
If this decision had actually been made, it could not have been made lightly. It would have changed the entire substance of the movie, and made it about something, in the truest sense of the word. And the number of doors that would've been thrown open for the Avengers movie, when Smith's Steve Rogers awakens in this world, well, it almost boggles the mind (how would that Steve Rogers react? If you want to talk about conflicting emotions, it would probably have been a case study). It completely redefines the relationship between Cap and Nick Fury, as well as that between Steve and his closest modern-day ally, Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Rogers'll have to lean even heavier on his compatriots when he can't fathom the myriad changes in 21st century America.
In this world, Will Smith's Captain America could well have been a source of inspiration for leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; both men would've been able to draw on his example in their battles for social change. Through the fault of the Nazis, Steve wound up missing out on what he might well consider the greatest battle of his life. The speed at which change occurred, and at which it's still occurring, is mindboggling enough to someone my age; just imagine what it might do to him.
My mind is spinning with the possibilities.
I think I'm disappointed to find out that it was just a rumor, with no substance to it at all. I think a great American hero deserves to have his story told in a way that demands greater attention and understanding, that provokes thought and discussion and genuine consideration. Captain America, starring Will Smith, would've done exactly that. Captain America, starring Nathan Fillion, has to focus its vision somewhere else, and can't pose the same sorts of questions. It'll just have to utilize the traditional questions and conflicts that Cap's always addressed, but it'll have to be better, just to make up for the fact that I'll always be asking myself what could've been.
Of course, Marvel is a business, with a vested interest in the bottom line. They don't portray themselves as agents of social commentary or change (despite, well, the X-Men, to name one example); their priority with the Captain America movie is not to talk about the role of race in America in the last 60 years. But I don't see why it shouldn't be.