Kevin Feige might be The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s man-with-the-plan, and Joe & Anthony Russo might be its new golden boy directors, but screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are also power players in this blockbuster factory. The pair have contributed to the scripts of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor 2: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they’re also producers and writers on the Agent Carter TV series. They’ve also scored the scripting gig on Marvel Studios’ most ambitious project yet: Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 & 2. But first, there’s Captain America: Civil War, which features more Marvel superheroes than ever before. The film revolves around Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) wildly divergent philosophies on how accountable they need to be to both the US government, and the world’s population, in light of the mass destruction caused at the end of Avengers: Age Of Ultron. That divergence ultimately leads to an all-out superhero war, in which loyalties are tested and friendships are ripped asunder. FilmInk spoke with the screenwriters in the middle of production on the Captain America: Civil War set…
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you talked about how it was a throwback to 1970s spy movies. What was your motivation for this one?
Christopher Markus: “It’s pretty hard to find a model for two groups of superheroes beating the crap out of each other. It’s a pretty distinct thing of its own.”
Stephen McFeely: “We did have a model. Can we talk about our model? We do use models sometimes. On Captain America: The First Avenger, we and talked a lot about Raiders Of The Lost Ark and how we could rip that movie off. Three Days Of The Condor was the model for the second one. There are a couple of movies that we borrowed from for this one, but I don’t think I can tell you what they are because then you would know more about what is happening. But Chris is right. It’s not a neat of a fit this time. The universe has gotten to a point where it required this story. The comic is from 2007 or so. And we wanted to tell it in the way that The Marvel Cinematic Universe required, which meant far fewer heroes. If you know the comics, there are hundreds and hundreds of them, and we have all of fifteen or something.”
Can you just do a brief, one paragraph synopsis of the story…
Christopher Markus: “It’s after Avengers: Age Of Ultron and after Ant-Man. People are beginning to notice that when The Avengers come around and save the world, they wreck a large portion of the world in the process. And people are starting to wonder if maybe there should be some kind of regulation involved in this. That’s proposed, and some heroes take the pro side and some heroes take the con side. They eventually come to blows, and there is an entire other spine, which I won’t talk about, which is the actual story of the movie. In a way, registration and the civil war is the background to a much more personal story that is happening in the movie. And everyone is forced to question where they stand and why they do what they do.”
When scripting something like this, do you have to look at who is available?
Stephen McFeely: “Yeah, sometimes the powers that be will come down and say, ‘This guy’s only around for two weeks, so let’s figure out how to use him in the time allotted.’ But sometimes the story dictates things. The story of Captain America: Civil War does become the story of Steve Rogers versus Tony Stark, so when you look at the call sheet, they’re the ones at the top, and then other people will slide around them to varying degrees. As it’s a Captain America movie, we inherit a lot from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because we’re really attached to that. You’ll get a lot of Scarlett Johansson and a lot of Anthony Mackie. If you were to break it down, the fifteen characters don’t all have the same amount of lines.”
Christopher Markus: “And it’s also about how do you differentiate it from an Avengers movie? Because there’s a risk as these movies go forward and the universe becomes more interconnected that every movie has the same people in it. How do you justifiably pair people up? Or eliminate people? Luckily Avengers: Age Of Ultron sent both Hulk and Thor to parts unknown, and we leave them there. That’s also a blessing because if you have a fight with one of those guys on one side, it’s over very quickly. So we’re left with people with a similar power level. So we can at least have some good fun. But it’s a matter of figuring out how the story needs them rather than how the obligation of ‘50% of the market loves Iron Man, so we need 50% Iron Man.’”
Did things have to be altered when you realised that you had The Black Panther?
Stephen McFeely: Once we had a good shape for the movie, we were allowed to tinker with stuff, and The Black Panther was a really good result of that.”
Christopher Markus: “We talked about this movie for months before it was Captain America: Civil War. We talked about a third Captain America for a thousand years. And then when it became Captain America: Civil War, it made the movie that we were talking about inconsequential. When it became Captain America: Civil War, suddenly there was room for more people, because everyone will have an opinion on this matter.”
How about Daredevil and Luke Cage? They’re apart of the Civil War comics…
Christopher Markus: “They are not in the movie.”
Stephen McFeely: “They are not, no. It tends to be Marvel Cinematic Universe only, at the moment.”
How would you explain the success of the Marvel movies?
Christopher Markus: “I think that part of it is the interconnectedness. The fact that it is this ongoing organic universe. You’re stopping in for another portion of this thing. We worked pretty hard to make sure that none of them are the same. Marvel takes a lot more time with character, and they try very hard to make sure that the action is coming from where the character is in their life story, so that they feel more like human stories despite all the ridiculousness that is happening around them.”
Stephen McFeely: “Did you know that you wanted to spend time with Hawkeye? Maybe not, but after Avengers: Age Of Ultron, you went, ‘Oh, I want to know more about the Hawkeye story.’ So that’s what makes it interesting. It’s the characters much more than the effects, which are now photo-real and ridiculous.”
Thor does have a lot of play in the comics. How did you use that? How did you replace him?
Stephen McFeely: “Okay, let me just answer it this way. In much the same way that we did not do a literal interpretation of the Winter Soldier comic book ark, we’ll do the same thing with Civil War. We’ll give it the flavour of two groups of people that you care about coming to blows over a couple of things – legitimately. Hopefully, we haven’t made straw men. You should walk out of there and 50% of you should go, ‘Yeah, Tony’s right,’ and 50% of you should go, ‘Steve is totally right.’ That would be a big win. It’s not the comic writ large.”
Christopher Markus: But there are things performing the functions of the things from the comic book. So we don’t kill a hundred children in a schoolyard like in the comics, but we do have an inciting incident. We don’t have a clone of Thor, just because your storytelling goes out the window when you can clone gods. Why don’t you just clone a few more Thors? But there is an incident that serves the same function.”
How much do you start with the previous Marvel work? How much does that need to be in the DNA? How much elasticity do you have to create your own imaginative journey?
Stephen McFeely: “We feel that when you go to any phase, our fingerprints are all over it, and we try to honour all the movies…but we know the movies really well because they forced us to!”
Christopher Markus: “There is an elasticity because these movies evolve in the editing and the release and for the most part because we do know what’s going on, and because we do know the characters. People are pretty consistent with the characters; there aren’t contradictions. But sometimes things get embroidered in a way that have more weight. We were gonna tell this story regardless of the story of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but the story of that plays right into out movie.”
We have asked you this question before and I wonder if we’re closer to an answer. Is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow going to get her own movie?
Christopher Markus: “That is not up to us.”
Stephen McFeely: “I don’t know. They just wouldn’t tell us if it was. We know a nice amount. We don’t know all the amounts.”
Christopher Markus: “She is in this movie quite a bit. She’s a double agent nearly from birth, so when you put a person like that into a very sincere battle of wills, and to make someone like that ‘choose’ is a very interesting situation. It plays out in an interesting situation in the movie.”
A big part of the Captain America movies is the relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes…
Stephen McFeely: “It is a trilogy for us. Particularly that story is absolutely a beginning, middle, and end.”
Christopher Markus: “An epic love story!”
Stephen McFeely: “It’s not a love story.”
Christopher Markus: “A kind of love.”
Stephen McFeely: “A plutonic friendly love amongst brothers [Laughs].”
Christopher Markus: “It continues here, because it’s a test of Steve’s loyalties. Here is this guy who has undeniably been a murderer for seventy years, and he’s killed some of the world’s best people for some of the world’s worst people. Whether or not he was responsible for that is up for debate. Does Steve Rogers catch the world’s greatest criminal, or does he save his best friend? And where do the opposing sides of the civil war issue fall surrounding that one thing? And how does Bucky feel about all of that? He used to be a good person, and if he gets enough of that good person back, he’s going to feel very guilty. Does he want to get caught? Who’s in favour of a free Bucky? It might not be Bucky.”
Is there much room for improvisation?
Stephen McFeely: “Far too much!”
Christopher Markus: “When Robert’s on set, yes!”
Who are the actors who really like to improvise?
Stephen McFeely: “Respectfully, Robert loves to look at it and go, ‘Alright, we’ll do something like that.’ And to his credit, he knows Tony Stark’s voice better than anybody.”
Christopher Markus: “And he and Don Cheadle have such a rapport going now that you can kind of go, ‘Here’s where we want the scene to go’ and they will then drop lines that you’ve never heard before, but that fit completely into the context of the story. They’re bantering and you’re like, ‘Well, that’s better. We’ll get credited for that!’”
Stephen McFeely: “He would be either the best or worst offender, depending on how you want to look at it.”
Christopher Markus: “And certain characters are more available for it. Iron Man, War Machine, and Ant-Man have that inside the helmet. They can be extemporaneous for twenty minutes with the camera on them, and you can pick and choose what you’re gonna choose whereas with people’s whose face is in the scene, what they say is what they say.”
Stephen McFeely: “But everyone has done a little bit, and they’ve all been very comfortable. They are all very smart about their characters. I’ve always said that Chris Evans is really sharp about what Cap would say and how he feels and how he sees a scene. We’ve all grown together and been on the same page as we move forward. So he hasn’t had a lot of notes about that one.”
Christopher Markus: “And he’s completely non-indulgent. He will take things out. We’ll put a joke in and he’s like, ‘No. Cap doesn’t do jokes.’”
Stephen McFeely: “Lizzie Olsen is good with a tough character.”
Christopher Markus: “Paul Bettany is great.”
There’s an incident that happens. And it causes a fission between these two about how to deal with a particular situation. But there’s another storyline that’s kind of the heart and soul of the piece. What can you give us about that other storyline? Where is it taking us?
Stephen McFeely: “It’s Steve’s story. This is not all about simply, ‘Do I sign or do I not sign?’ Because if that were the case, Steve would not sign and he would just go retire.”
Christopher Markus: “It’s also – all respect to the comic – where the comic wobbled a little bit, because it’s like, ‘Why are they taking these stands? What beyond being a bit of a fascist is motivating Tony Stark and Steve Rogers?’ Tony has great reasons in this movie which I will not reveal, of why he is so desperate to hold this stand, and it’s the same with Steve. This really is the third part of Steve’s life story, and it plays into the Civil War scenario, but it is the fulfilment of the story that we’ve been telling for three movies now.”
Stephen McFeely: “Captain America: Civil War tests Steve’s philosophy but it also tests his character.”
When did you finish this particular script?
Christopher Markus: “Well, we wrote something for it five minutes ago.”
I’m just thinking because Ant-Man seemed to be a recent add-on…
Stephen McFeely: “It’s always been baggy enough to accommodate new people.”
Christopher Markus: “But the bulk of it has been pretty done and locked since earlier this year.”
Stephen McFeely: “We only had two years between movies as opposed to three for the last one. In that case, it was an accelerated timeline compared to the last one. But we felt pretty good about it earlier this year.”
Christopher Markus: “We’ve done drafts where one person was on this side and then we’ll be like, ‘Let’s see what it’ll be like if they were on this side.’ We’ve flip flopped people’s opinions.”
Stephen McFeely: “So the answer is that the script has been great for a long time.”
What’s happening with the next Avengers?
Stephen McFeely: “Oh, good question. It’s early days on that one.”
Christopher Markus: “We’re laying the terrain. There isn’t anything of The Infinity War going on in this movie, but that is going to be dropped into the formula. We’re leaving them right where we want them when it all goes down.”
How serious will the ramifications be in Captain America: Civil War?
Stephen McFeely: “Oh, good question. I don’t know how much I can say. We definitely don’t want to wrap too much up. We want to treat the conflict seriously. There should be lasting scars.”
Christopher Markus: “Both sides have a very good point. There is no easy answer. You would not be satisfied if either side won. You’d betray it if you solved it.”
Who’s the antagonist?
Christopher Markus: “Well, there are several layers of antagonists, and it also depends on what side you’re on. To Steve, Tony is the antagonist, and the government’s the antagonist.”
Is there a villain?
Christopher Markus: “There is a villain, in a way.”
Stephen McFeely: “Daniel Bruhl has parts to play that are suspicious. He comes from the aftermath of The Avengers existing in the world. I can say this: Kevin Feige comes into the room one day and he says, ‘Civil War’, and we go, ‘Oh that’s awesome…are you sure?’ And I didn’t get into his head about why he was ready to do it this time. But I think I know now, and I think it is this idea of collateral damage, and this idea that The Avengers, for all the good that they do, they do it in such a big way that if you’re going to be realistic about it, people are going to raise their eyebrows and have opinions about how you solve problems. So we then ran with that ball.”
Christopher Markus: “In a way, this is a corrective to the idea that it’s meaningless fantasy. It’s still elevated craziness and there’s a man dressed as a panther and a guy dressed with wings but it is The Marvel Cinematic Universe going, ‘No. There are consequences to all of the stuff you’re seeing.’ It’s still Marvel consequences, but there’s a weight and reality to this universe.”
Is this the end of the Captain America trilogy?
Stephen McFeely: “In the Steve/Bucky sense, we definitely think of it as a three-movie arc. Whether there are more Captain America movies, you’d have to ask people smarter than me.”
Why is it a Cap movie instead of an Iron Man movie?
Stephen McFeely: “That’s a Kevin Feige question. Why isn’t it an Avengers movie? They’re all in it.”
Christopher Markus: “It could have been, but in a way, the issues and the tone that you need to take with the issues are suited to Cap. You want Iron Man to be funny, and there are people who go to Iron Man movies because he’s gonna make hilarious jokes and fly around. He does that in this movie, but we wanted people to view it as, ‘Okay, I’m going to take this one somewhat seriously.’ The Cap prefix helps with that.”
Stephen McFeely: “We’ve invited Tony Stark into the Cap movies, so that means bloodying him up a little bit.”
Christopher Markus: “In a way, the Avengers movies are more like inviting Steve Rogers into the Tony Stark universe. It’s all very elevated and fun. So we wanted to drag him into ours and beat him up a little bit.”
Is that relationship complicated because Tony Stark’s father is the one who created Cap’s shield?
Christopher Markus: “It comes up. It’s fascinating to us because we’re involved with the Agent Carter TV show, which features the young Howard Stark. How much of it is on screen, I don’t always know, but it entertains the hell out of me to know that all of these people are interconnecting.”
Captain America: Civil War is released in cinemas on April 28.