“The biggest superhero brawl in blockbuster history.” Captain America: Civil War
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely discuss how their relationship with Marvel Studios has changed over the years, how the original Captain America comics inform their work, and adding Spider-Man to the Civil War script.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Captain America: Civil War is the third film in the Captain America series after 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger and 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it is also the thirteenth film in Disney and Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe series based on Marvel’s universe of superheroes.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely not only wrote all three Captain America films, but they also co-wrote 2013’s Thor: The Dark World with Christopher Yost, created the Marvel television series Agent Carter, and are currently working on the script for the grand climax of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, set for release in 2018 and 2019.
Because of that, Markus and McFeely have emerged as two of the primary creative voices behind this groundbreaking multi-franchise epic. Prior to working on the Marvel films, Markus and McFeely gained experience writing film franchises by writing the three Chronicles of Narnia films, wrote the adapted screenplays for 2004’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and 2013’s Pain & Gain, and the original screenplay for 2007’s You Kill Me.
In Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Captain America (Chris Evans) – known by his civilian identity of Steve Rogers – finds himself at odds with fellow Avenger Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) – known by his civilian identity of Tony Stark – when the United Nations demands that the Avengers and other super-humans submit to monitoring so they can be held accountable for their actions.
Rogers vehemently disagrees with the proposal while Stark supports it, and the disagreement reaches new magnitudes when Captain America’s best friend and former brainwashed covert assassin, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), re-emerges in the public eye.
Ultimately the conflict brings Captain America, Iron Man, and all the Avengers – including new superheroes Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) – to blows in the biggest superhero brawl in blockbuster history. But at its heart, Captain America: Civil War is a story about what happens when loyalty and authority clash among conflicted superheros.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Markus and McFeely regarding how their relationship with Marvel Studios has changed over the years, how the original Captain America comics inform their work, adding Spider-Man to the Civil War script, and why they enjoy writing mega-villain Thanos in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
Since writing Captain America: The First Avenger, writing for Marvel Studios has become something of a full-time job for you two. Has the way you write these Marvel screenplays changed over the last four movies?
Stephen: There’s a little more trust on everyone’s part. We’re pretty knee-deep in the development of this stuff – in many ways we’re the research and development part. For example, on Civil War all we knew is that we’d like to pick up the Bucky story. Chris and I sat in a room with the Russo brothers and started to beat out what the next story would be, which was basically the search for Bucky.
So many of those things are not fiats from Marvel, they’re stuff that we the filmmakers create. That wasn’t as much the case when we first started.
Christopher: But other than the fact I can point to the different posters, it feels like one long movie in a really gratifying way. Even back on First Avenger, we were still thinking of the interconnectedness of the whole thing. We had Tony Stark’s father, Bucky, and S.H.I.E.L.D. It was a much smaller universe, but it still felt interconnected.
One thing that I would personally find daunting is that you’re in uncharted territory as screenwriters – this is the thirteenth movie of a deeply-intertwined saga that keeps getting grander in scale with more characters and storylines. What’s the most challenging aspects of writing a screenplay within that framework?
Stephen: It’s a little like a television show in that way. While I do think we’re breaking new ground in some ways because we’re demanding so much of the audience and honoring their investment, in many ways it’s like being on a successful television series when you’re in a writer’s room charting out where the series is going to go.
Both the Winter Soldier and Civil War are acclaimed comic book storylines, and while your screenplays are modeled after them and use many of the story elements and tone, your movies are their own stories. How do you decide what you’re going to use from the comics versus what you’re going to create?
Christopher: On a most basic level it’s “Which of these characters do we have? Which of them are not owned by Marvel, or would take too long to set up?”
In Civil War, there are hundreds of heroes bashing each other in the comic book, so we knew that we had to do a more contained story. Also, in Civil War the comic Tony feels pretty explicitly like the villain. We knew that just wasn’t the kind of movie we wanted to make.
You can’t have a tone shift like that with one of your characters suddenly behaving in a way that the audience is not accustomed to seeing him behave in five prior movies. We had to figure out how this decision comes from the Tony played by Robert Downey, Jr. that everyone knows.
We use the comics for inspiration, but sometimes they go off on a sci-fi tangent that the movies might not be able to support under those circumstances. Where we were with Winter Soldier, we could have never had Red Skull inside a Russian general’s head. [Note: This is a reference to Red Skull’s involvement in the Winter Soldier comic book storyline, though the character is not used in the film adaptation].
Stephen: In general, we do that with anything we have adapted like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Pain & Gain. We pick the things that are most interesting to us.
At first we don’t judge that, so we will have a dining room table filled with interesting things that tickled us – lines of dialogue, characters, sequences, and notions. When you spread all that out, you can see patterns and things that sort of come to the forefront and demand to be central plot points in your story.
The best way to describe it is that we then take all of that, pick the things we like the best, and turn them into scenes of the movie. Spine and structure are incredibly important to us.
Speaking of setting up new characters, in Civil War you introduce two major new characters – Spider-Man and Black Panther. I assume you didn’t re-do Spider-Man’s origin since everybody knows it, but it was important to establish the origin of Black Panther since he’s a lesser known character. What points did you feel you had to hit to make sure you established enough of his origin?
Christopher: Part of it was initially how that character entered our thinking for the movie. We wanted an outside view on the Avengers’ behavior. We wanted a foreign country to be saying, “Look, your people are crossing borders and behaving like thugs in a way that we can’t tolerate.” We thought it would be fun to bring in the Wakandans, so in our thinking we brought in Wakanda before we brought in Black Panther.
As the story evolved and we found out we could use T’Challa, that began to relate to the mythology of Black Panther himself, who lost his father and took on the mantle of Black Panther, it began to sync up nicely with what we were doing. So we said, “Let’s go full Panther!” [Laughs]
We knew we could leave a lot of him a mystery because he was coming into the movie as a bit of a shock to the other heroes who don’t know he exists. He’s following his own third agenda – he’s not on either side of the fight. There was room for mystery and room to tell less because of the role he was playing in the movie.
At what point in the writing process did you find out you could use Spider-Man, and how did that change the screenplay?
Stephen: He was in and out all over the place. From the very beginning, we knew if we called something Civil War we were going to have to pay off what we called the “splash panel,” which is that seventeen-minute fight where everyone goes at it.
It was incumbent upon us to try to fill that with as many heroes as we could without breaking it or forcing people in. We always had a little recruitment section where Tony would get somebody and Steve would get somebody and the rosters would fill organically. Spider-Man was always our first choice for that because [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige said to us at one point that there was a chance because he was having conversations [with Sony, which holds the film rights to Spider-Man].
We had him in, and sometimes a month or two later Kevin would come back and say, “No, negotiations are not going quite as well. Don’t plan on him!” [Laughs] I don’t know the exact date when corporate signed contracts with Sony, but it eventually led to some hard and fast choices later on.
Christopher: In that regard, it was very good that he was in a section where the script would’ve called for somebody there, but there wasn’t necessarily a tremendous amount of quantum mechanics riding on that it had to be Spider-Man. So if we finally didn’t get him, the whole house of cards wouldn’t fall down. It would just mean we would have to come up with a different character to play that function.
You did a great job with his humorous dialogue during the fight sequence.
Stephen: We wanted his point of view and personality to come from his youth, inexperience, and his nerves. He’s not a professional comedian, but we should enjoy him. A lot of that is Tom Holland, too, who’s just great.
Sadly, we lose Peggy Carter in this movie, a character that you two really built from the ground up in the Captain America movies and Agent Carter television show. She plays a small, but pivotal role in this film. Can you talk about your relationship with the character?
Stephen: When we did the funeral scene in Atlanta, the props department had programs printed up for the service, like you would at a real funeral. I brought that back to the writer’s room on Agent Carter season two and it was bittersweet for most of us. [Laughs]
Christopher: At one point Hayley [Atwell, who plays Peggy Carter] visited the Agent Carter set and we gave her a program to her own funeral, which was a little scary for her. [Laughs]
Stephen: In many ways we had said goodbye to her in Winter Soldier. That scene in which she has Alzheimer’s, but still helps Steve through a tough moment was what we thought was all we were going to get from her. We were pleased that we could find one extra thing, even in death, that she could do to help inspire him.
Christopher: She was fading in Winter Soldier, so it wouldn’t have been very pleasant to revisit her. But in Civil War the comic book, Steve gives the so-called “No, you move” speech. It’s very inspiring, but makes him come off as strident in a way that we shy away from having our Cap being because it’s a knee-jerk expectation for Captain America that he’s going to give these speeches and tell people about the nature of America [Note: the speech appears in 2007’s Amazing Spider-Man #537, written by J. Michael Straczynski].
But it’s a good speech. We were able to put it in Peggy’s mouth, through having Sharon say it. We got to preserve this iconic speech but have it not come out of Steve’s mouth but still have it function to inspire Steve to keep going. The funeral worked in a way that wasn’t just sentimental, it really pushes Steve’s character forward.
In addition to Peggy, I think it’s fair to say that you two feel very close to Captain America since you’ve worked with him the most. He’s a character who has existed for over 75 years and has countless of classic stories. Are there any great Captain America or stories or elements that you haven’t gotten to use in a screenplay yet but you would still love to write?
Christopher: There are arenas that we haven’t been able to touch on yet. I mean, we essentially did his entire World War II career in a montage in the first movie. There are tons of fun things to do in the – at least – two years that we covered pretty damn quickly. There are also crazy adventures that don’t quite fit in with the tone of the MCU as it stands now. MODOK the giant floating head is my favorite guy.
We also might have eaten the lunch of some good stories that we now can’t do because we’ve made three Bucky-centric stories. I remember one where Steve is with the Avengers and they’re able to go back to the moment Bucky dies but only look at it. They can’t interact. But somebody presses the wrong button and they suddenly become tangible, and there’s now two Captain Americas and all the Avengers fighting Zemo and Steve has to stop himself from saving Bucky because it would muck things up.
I remember that story from when I was a kid and thinking it was pretty heavy for a Captain America comic book! [Note: This is the classic story “Death Be Not Proud” written by Roy Thomas, which appeared in 1968’s Avengers #56]
You are currently writing what is the two-part film that all these Marvel movies are building up to, the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Which characters new to you have you most enjoyed writing so far?
Stephen: Oh, that’s a sneaky one. The easy one is Thanos.
Christopher: Not even a lie!
Stephen: Not even a lie. I think it’s safe to say that he’s had such a limited opportunity so far. He’s appeared in several movies, but hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot.
It is incumbent upon us to give him a real story, real stakes, real personality, and a real point of view. I’m sure we’ll continue to revise that, but he’s pretty interesting.