This interview contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You can read our spoiler free review of the film here!
When Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige announced at Comic-Con in 2012 that the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger would be subtitled The Winter Soldier, the place exploded with excitement: Ed Brubaker’s story in the comics was widely regarded as one of Cap’s greatest and most personal adventures. The job of adapting Brubaker’s tale fell to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriters who had done such a credible job bringing Cap to life in the first film.
The writing duo, whose past credits include all three Narnia movies and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (as well as some work on Thor: The Dark World) did not adapt Brubaker’s storyline literally but rather took major elements from it – in particular the title character, a legendary assassin with powerful ties to Cap’s past – and crafted a modern political conspiracy thriller that finds Cap (Chris Evans) teaming with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new hero The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) against a vast plot that threatens not just the existence of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the course of history.
Den Of Geek sat down with Markus and McFeely at the recent press junket for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to discuss writing the film, working with directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and what they have planned for Captain America 3.(warning: slight spoilers)
Den of Geek: How long after Captain America: The First Avenger came out did (Marvel president) Kevin Feige call you up and say, “Hey guys, you want to start looking at the second one?”
Stephen McFeely: Pretty early. We had made a deal to write it before the first one came out and maybe a month or two afterwards we started the process of doing, you know, the outlining and blue sky thinking and things like that. Summer of 2011 we started.
Did you have any mandates at that point in terms of where Cap had to go in this story or what elements had to be in it? Weren’t there a couple of different versions discussed, with and without the Winter Soldier?
McFeely: Starting off I don’t think there were any mandates per se. Things came up as we went along — not even mandates but sort of, you know, Marvel Universe trajectories that they wanted to head toward. There was a debate whether we should do Winter Soldier flat out in the next movie or maybe save him for later. Was it too soon to go back to this guy? And we did plot out a version that was not –- that wasn’t this movie at all. And it worked fine but all of us just kept coming back to how cool the…
Christopher Markus: Wouldn’t it be better if, you know…
McFeely: And eventually everyone just sort of went, why are we saving this? Let’s go. And at one point Kevin came in and said, “Hey, we all at Marvel have been talking and we think we want to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D..” And we went, “Oh, we can do that. Let’s build that story.”
Why do you think The Winter Soldier is one of the most appealing and popular Cap stories?
McFeely: Well, part of it is Brubaker because he and Steve Epting just put out a really great book. But for our purposes, it was the best way to discuss the problem we saw Steve having, you know, which is “Where do I fit in in the modern world? What do I know to be true? I think I know my values but I don’t know the values around me.” And then we bring back this character who now makes you question everything, you know.
Markus: He’s also almost the exact negative image of Cap, you know. He was unnaturally awake for the years that Cap was unnaturally asleep. Cap does good things, he’s done terrible things, you know. And they both come from the exact same place and have gone in radically different directions and then come back together. It’s just so loaded.
McFeely: Yeah, it was pretty clean storytelling.
A lot of us already know who the Winter Soldier is going in, but the way the film builds to Cap discovering it is great. He has all this other stuff happen to him, so by the time the Winter Soldier takes off his mask, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back in a way.
McFeely: Right. It’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Markus: We played with deploying it in a couple of places because it’s like, you know, geez, do you have no mask and just get it over with? Or do you delay it too long even though anyone’s who’s read a comic book knows who he is. But it all synced up really nicely to have him part of this larger conspiracy that Cap’s uncovering. And so, you know, as the story unravels you get closer and closer to seeing the face of this. And the enemy is ourselves.
Did you talk with Brubaker during the process or consult with him at all on any aspects of his original story?
McFeely: We know him and talk with him, you know, halfway frequently. We didn’t quite use him in that way but he’s been to my house for parties and stuff.
Markus: And I think I can say, you know, for a man who writes such sinister stories he’s giddy.
McFeely: Yeah, he’s pretty damn happy.
Do you approach adapting a story like this in the way you would approach a novel, taking the elements that will work on screen and keeping it faithful to the tone and the spirit?
McFeely: Exactly right. Like, you know, we kind of knew we’re not gonna use the Cosmic Cube. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. He’s not Russian exactly. He’s not a Soviet experiment.
Markus: We didn’t want to bring back the Skull so soon.
Markus: Let alone have him inside the head of somebody else.
McFeely: There were just some things that would be much tougher to do on screen as they are in the comic.
Markus: But yeah, it is a matter of being really respectful to the tone and the spirit of it without necessarily having to duplicate the exact details.
Did I hear you say something about bringing the Red Skull “so soon”? Did I get a little piece of news there?
Markus: (laughs) I only said that because I think it’s fairly clear he didn’t die in that first movie but fucked off into Wonderland.
When you’re actually writing the script, are you aware of what Joss (Whedon) is doing? Does he share notes on where he maybe wants to pick up the story? Because Age of Ultron is very much going to be a sequel to this.
McFeely: Kind of, yeah. We certainly read the drafts we’re allowed to read, you know. So for Cap 3 we read Avengers 2 and for Cap 2 we had to read Iron Man 3 and The Avengers early on.
Markus: But even though they seem like they’re all coming out kind of contiguously like that, there’s enough time to read the preceding ones before you’re really writing. Like, we’re thinking now about Cap 3 and we’ve read Avengers 2. And Joss had read us, I think, before he started in earnest on Avengers 2. Plus there’s the overriding control of Kevin who has a very, very accurate bullshit detector — not only does he know when ideas are stupid but he also knows when ideas are gonna conflict.
McFeely: But Kevin also wants the best movie possible so he always steers you towards that. Other movies can get out of the way, you know. It’s pretty organic.
One thing I was surprised about was how much Robert Redford is in the movie. When they announced it, I kind of assumed he’d show up in one or two scenes. But he’s right in the thick of things. Did his role expand once you had him or was Pierce always that big a character?
Markus: Pierce was always there but to be honest, once Redford came in we rewrote him.
McFeely: We rewrote twice. We wrote a draft to kind of seduce him, you know, because once we knew they were going to get him we went all right, well let’s write towards him which means smart, which means a little cool. And then once we got him, we sort of pulled stuff away because he can say things with his eyes. And he said as much. He said, “Listen I probably don’t need these three sentences because you’re gonna get it off of my last sentence because I’m gonna then do this.” It was pretty impressive.
Markus: When you know you have Robert Redford, he maybe has played a villain before on TV in the ’50s, but this is not a guy who comes off sinister. So when you’re writing a generic villain, you know, when you don’t have a face to put to a name, they tend to start to say more nefarious things. And then you trim it back and then when you know that Robert Redford’s gonna be saying it — one, you take away some of the things where Robert Redford cannot say that crazy line but then it’s also, if Robert Redford said that crazy line it would be incredibly disturbing.
McFeely: I would believe it.
Markus: Like, that’s not the guy who’s supposed to say I’m gonna kill ten million people.
What’s your interaction been like with the Russos? Is it interesting for you guys to work with a co-directing team?
Markus: It’s been really great, very collaborative. It is interesting to work with another team, because I think when there’s two versus one on either side it can feel unintentionally like ganging up. But when there’s four people it just becomes this very free flowing exchange where, you know, one of us and one Russo can side against the other Russo and the other writer.
McFeely: That happens a lot.
Markus: It’s like whole new teams have developed. It’s a different Marvel team-up.
Markus: But seriously, we had a draft before they came in and they saw everything we were trying to do and, you know, took it to another level and it had all the right reference points.
McFeely: When directors come in and say this scene should be like early Brian De Palma, we go, oh yeah, of course it should.
I understand that you are all working now on developing the story for Captain America 3.
McFeely: The Russos walk out of the editing room to finish this movie at eight and then we take them from eight to ten at night.
Markus: We have a meeting to talk about Cap 3 tomorrow which I think it’ll end at about two and the premiere for Cap 2 is at six, I think.
McFeely: There’s not a lot of rest.
Markus: Yeah, there’s no kicking back your heels and taking a vacation during this.
Are you going back to the comics for the next one and plan to adapt another story, while incorporating the many threads left open at the end of this one?
McFeely: Oh yeah, you can probably predict some of the threads we would like to pick up again that we’ve laid out there. And we always go back to the comics and dive back in and look at anything we’ve missed in the last few years that might be relevant.
Markus: We’ve definitely set out on a more realistic road in the Cap movies, you know. Even more grounded than in the other MCU movies. And so it kind of rules out Cap fighting the Dinosaur Man or something like that. There are some that aren’t gonna start and other ones that — I mean there’s a couple we’re playing with right now that we really want to take elements from. Which we’ll not reveal.
Oh, come on.
Markus: All I’m saying is psychotic 1950s Cap.
Kevin Feige speaks highly of the both of you. You’ve done both Captain America movies, you’re doing the next one, you’ve helped out with Thor…do you feel like you’ve got like a home at Marvel and are there any other Marvel stories outside of Cap that you’d like to tackle if you get the chance?
Markus: It’s nice that Kevin says that. But we never try to feel too comfortable anywhere because, you know, you can always be fired.
McFeely: But that said, it’s a nice sandbox and we feel really taken care of here. As for other projects, there is a thing that’s already on the table. If ABC were to green light the Agent Carter series, we’d love to do that. It would be really exciting. So, I mean, that’s an actual real thing.
Markus: Then there are other pie in the sky heroes out there that you could make a great movie out of.