Juggling more than a dozen superhero characters and giving them all something meaningful to do while simultaneously spinning a tale that not only is relevant to today’s world but is complex, exciting and emotionally wrenching on its own terms seems like an almost impossible task. Yet Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have done it with Captain America: Civil War.
The team’s third screen outing starring Cap (and second with Anthony and Joe Russo directing) may be their masterpiece, the culmination of some long-simmering MCU story threads and a shattering introduction to the studio’s Phase 3 slate. It puts Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) head to head in a powerful story revolving around vengeance, loyalty, trust and government power.
Civil War brilliantly subverts the Marvel template in many ways, from the personal moments that are bigger than any standard “buildings are falling” climax to the character reveals to the way it makes the MCU’s most popular hero into an antagonist. And it introduces not just the incredible Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) but the new iteration of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) who may be the best we’ve seen yet.
Den of Geek sat down with Markus and McFeely at the recent Civil War press junket to discuss this movie and their next Marvel assignment, the two-part behemoth Avengers: Infinity War.
Note: some light spoilers are included in this feature, but we’ve taken out the heavier ones for now and will run them separately next week, after Civil War opens.
Den of Geek: Do you remember the first conversations about Cap 3 and when Civil War came into the picture?
Stephen McFeely: First conversations were the search for Bucky. I think a lot of people come out of this one and go, “Wow. Bucky’s in it a lot…” I mean it’s not just the Avengers. It’s really about Cap’s story. So that was the barebones or the skeleton to start. As for Civil War…
Christopher Markus: We were building a plot that then fit very well into Civil War as an overarching thing. We had Zemo. We had Bucky. And we had the Berlin incident…And we liked how it was working, but it felt like another day in the Captain America story. It wasn’t necessarily an expansion on or an evolution of where we’ve been before. So it was coming along, but it was like, “Is this…?”
McFeely: Yeah, where’s the overall theme? And then Kevin said, “Let’s do Civil War.” And then we all went, “Oh. So we’re just going to…” But we also went, “Oh, wow. He just gave us a chance to do things kind of differently. That’s crazy.”
Markus: But also, on a character level, it fit really nicely into things we had implied Bucky had done. We brought in the biggest player in the MCU in an antagonistic way. This would have become Civil War whether or not somebody had said it was Civil War.
McFeely: And that means, “Well, when are you doing the splash page?” There were some predictable things we didn’t want to do, which is we certainly didn’t want to do everybody fights, fights, fights and then we realize we’ve been fooled and there’s a bigger threat out there. So we wanted to fake you out towards that… Hopefully that works for people where they go, “Well, now I don’t even know what I’m looking at!”
Markus: It was also weird that, physically, the biggest fight is not at the end of the movie. So we let it go big and then become personal again.
Normally the template is go big, go big, go big, bring down buildings, end of the movie. And that’s not the way this works…
McFeely: We wanted to acknowledge that the other movies, as fun as they are, become a little similar in the third act. And we’ve all loved them, but there should be a cost. You know, particularly with the Russo brothers, we’re doing the grounded version in many ways. So what does that mean? So that’s how the accords show up. And if we were to do the same thing in this movie and go destroy Times Square, we’re just hypocrites. So the movie can’t go in that direction.
The Russos have said that they went forward kind of living on the edge, not knowing if the deal with Robert was going to go through. Did you just keep writing that way without necessarily having a Plan B?
Markus: There were times where people would say, “I don’t know if that’s going to work. We’ll have to talk to the lawyers…Is there any other version of Civil War…?”
McFeely: We kept yelling: “No!”
Markus: “Well, there’s a lame version…” Because the personal conflict was so integral to all that. We can have people who take the government’s side, but you don’t have that emotional drive. So yeah, there were worrying moments where trying to land all the necessary players was…
McFeely: The script is the easiest thing to start over again with. Imagine if you are building things or you’ve built the stage or whatever. As much as it’s a pain the butt for us and requires a lot of hustle, you want to get in early and have us rip something up and try again.
Markus: The same thing with “Spider-Man’s in, Spider-Man’s out. “
That was my next question, about Spidey and Black Panther.
Markus: Panther actually was interesting, Panther started more with T’Challa and T’Chaka as representatives of the Wakandans and as people who had issue with the superheroes and later on Bucky, but without necessarily going, “We’ll bring in Black Panther.” It was almost like, “Let’s not have him…let’s save his costume for his own gig. We set him up as a character in just sort of the natural world of the story we’re telling.”
I think we had Spider-Man for a little bit. Then he went away. So it was like, “Well, it’s really nice to (still) have a new hero in here. Let’s put the costume on (T’Challa) because he’s awesome.” So then he came in and sort of filled that Spider-Man role and then Spider-Man came back and it was like, “Well, we’re not taking Black Panther out because he’s great. Let’s just have everybody.” So it was a really nice byproduct of that kind of contract problem.
In writing Spidey for this movie, because obviously you are not just dealing with Marvel, there’s also what Sony is trying to do and Sony and Marvel trying to figure this out together. So what was the mandate for everybody in making this version of Spider-Man?
Markus: The primary mandate was “young.”
McFeely: Realistic and young.
Markus: Yeah. Let’s do him the way he was when he first came out in the comics, which was he’s a high school kid, or early high school. Don’t bother about the origin story. Everybody knows it. Just make him young, and not necessarily, “Oh my god, I have powers,” but, in a way, he’s the voice of the new kid coming to meet these established superheroes. In the same way that the character is new to the MCU, this little Peter Parker kid, this is the first time he’s ever been anywhere near anything like this.
So it’s a chance to see the very familiar MCU with new eyes and with a wonder that has kind of faded a little. So it was really fun, because everyone else — you know, they fought Ultron. They fought aliens. There aren’t too many wide eyes. T’Challa is certainly not the guy who goes, “Geez!”
McFeely: He’s not easily impressed. [laughs]
Markus: So it was nice to have someone who can kind of gape in wonder.
What’s amazing is that everybody really does have an arc in this movie.
McFeely: Not everybody can have a big one.
Markus: And everyone sort of slotted into the central argument in one way or another, which was really satisfying. So it wasn’t just, “Man, we need another costume here.” They all kind of relate – even people like Martin Freeman. They relate in a certain way.
McFeely: That’s all we did for a year, was try to figure out how to give people not just a cameo, but something where they say, “I start here and I end here.”
Was Bruce Banner ever in the mix in this story?
McFeely: Not in the story. He was in the tag…
Markus: Yeah, he was in the tag. One version of a tag.
McFeely: People thought that he was on set. It was the publicist.
Markus: Yeah, John Pisani looks remarkably like Mark Ruffalo.
McFeely: That’s exactly what it was…
Well, Mark Ruffalo said at one point, “Downey told me, ‘Oh, come on down to Atlanta.’” And that got the ball rolling on rumors…
McFeely: Before they figured out where Hulk had gone at the end of Age of Ultron, we said, “Is he available? Could we have a little stinger?” And they go, “Sure. Try it.” So that was in a really early draft.
Markus: But what was nice in how Ultron was left is that it did take the two most physically powerful players off the board, because they can end the fight very quickly. We needed it to be this kind of grinding human battle where no one had supreme physical power. But you throw in the Hulk or Thor and it’s like, ‘Well, we’re just going to have to…”
That’s the problem sometimes in comics when you have team-ups, or especially villain team-ups…If there’s three villains, they are three times as lame as they used to be because they all have to fail. So if we were going to bring in these huge guns, you’d have to diminish their power.
Let’s talk some Infinity War. How do you guys plan to approach that? You’ve been grounded all this time and now you are going…
Markus: We’ve approached it. We’re knee-deep in it. Just with arms wide open.
McFeely: We are in the “all things are possible” phase, so eventually we’ll turn these in and people will go, “Wow. That’s aggressive.”
Do you have a draft done yet?
McFeely: At the end of the month we’ll turn in both.
Markus: It’s literally two of the biggest movies I’ve ever seen, and two of the biggest swings I’ve ever seen. And I think it will play.
Are there any characters you’d like to introduce in these movies that we haven’t seen yet? Not saying they will officially be in there…
Markus: I mean there are characters who are a ton of fun.
McFeely: I am comfortable with the amount of characters we already have to service. Although if Chris had his way, MODOK would have his own movie, his own series, his own talk show…
Are you talking to the Thor: Ragnarok guys at all?
McFeely: Yeah. We have to talk to everybody. So we check in all the time as we’re going to do a new revision. We work on pass after pass of the draft. And we call and go, “I haven’t talked to you in a couple weeks. Anybody got any information on this, or this, or this?” I know where that last draft went, and so we have a good sense of Thor. It’s very helpful actually.
Markus: It is a tricky business of keeping tabs on things that do have people working on them and the ones that don’t have people working on them yet. When the train isn’t moving, sometimes we have to get up and push that other train a little bit in order to have it in the right place…
McFeely: And we always know that we’ll write a scene with the idea that when that’s cast — we’re writing scenes for people who have not been cast yet. That’s probably even saying too much. But, basically, we know that it’s a bit of a placeholder. And then further down the line we’re going to do that better. We did the same thing with Spider-Man.
We did the same thing with Black Panther. Like, “I don’t know who this guy is. We’ll just try.” And then when you cast Holland, you cast Boseman, you go, “Ah, OK…”
Markus: I mean we were writing Ant-Man before we’d seen Ant-Man the movie.
Do you have a sense of whether Part 1 will be on Earth and Part 2 will be in space…?
McFeely: No comment!
We’re out of time. Last thing: Agent Carter? Any news?
McFeely: I don’t know. I would love it to come back. We have a great idea for it. [laughs]
Markus: I can honestly say I don’t understand how popularity is judged anymore. The network model seems a little outdated.
Guys, I can keep going, but they are going to drag me out.
Captain America: Civil War is out in theaters this Friday (May 6).