Christopher Markus interview: writing Captain America 2 and 3

Ahead of Captain America: The Winter Soldier's release on disc, we talk to Christopher Markus about sequel screenwriting and Peggy Carter...

NB: The following contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Together with regular collaborator Stephen McFeely, screenwriter Christopher Markus has enjoyed a decade-long career in the film industry, having co-written such films as The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, the three Chronicles Of Narnia movies and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain.

Most recently, Markus and McFeely have been working closely with Marvel, having produced the screenplays for Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World. This year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier represented a new challenge for the duo, however: their aim was to not only follow the success of Cap’s debut outing in 2011, but also forge a mature, conspiracy-thriller inspired storyline which would also be accessible to family audiences.

As The Winter Soldier arrives on DVD and Blu-ray, we caught up with Mr Markus to talk about how he and McFeely achieved this tricky balancing act, plus a bit about what we can expect from the forthcoming Agent Peggy Carter series.

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Cap 2 had quite a drastic change of tone from the previous Captain America film, and indeed, the other post-Avengers films which had been quite comedic. Did that come from you, and if so, were you worried it might be a problem?

Yeah, I mean, we did sometimes look at the script and think, “Man, will moms want to take their nine year old to see this? Is it too adult?” But from the start we wanted to do a thriller-conspiracy kind of thing, and Kevin Feige really encouraged that. We wanted it to be smart, and make the audience work for stuff, have a big mystery at the centre. Then when the Russo Brothers came on board, they were all about making it a 70s, political, Brian De Palma-William Friedkin kind of film, and that all just came together in a really nice way.

One of the best observations I’ve seen about this film is that Captain America’s got a really strong moral centre, in that every choice he makes is the most moral one he can under the circumstances. Was that something you were actively thinking about?

Yeah, that really came from the source material, I suppose. One of our jobs as screenwriters is to never lose sight of the character. He’s been working well for 70 years so we didn’t really want to put a stamp on him, so much as do the best version of our story with that character. We’ve always thought that Cap doesn’t change so much as the world changes around him. He stands still and forces the world to change.

It’s kind of tough in terms of screenwriting, because usually you want your character to have a big dramatic arc where he starts off being a jerk and then he becomes a good person, and that’s not the case with Cap. To Marvel’s credit, they know that, so they’re cool with a script which doesn’t follow that template. That’s why bringing down SHIELD was such a great story point, because it was the physical manifestation of Cap changing the world. 

On that point, taking SHIELD apart was obviously a major thing for the overall arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in that it impacted other movies and the TV show – did you come up with that as a story point and then Marvel ran with the possibilities, or were you asked to make it happen as part of this movie?

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Oh, that was Kevin. He’s working on it all the time, trying to push the ball forward. Four to five months in, he said, I think, “Okay, I think we’re ready to take down SHIELD”. So Chris and I were like, “Oh, well that means we can do X, Y and Z, the third act can be this…” Because honestly, at that point we were struggling to figure out what the big third act was. And then when you have a story point like that, you can say, “Oh, well he’s having a big emotional crisis, and that changes the way the world works, and that’s the ending.”

Did having that to deliver that story beat feel like a big responsibility, then? Where do you even start with that sort of storytelling edict?

Oh, you start small. We know we wanted the Falcon, so what’s the smartest way to bring the Falcon in? We wanted Cap to meet other vets, because he has the ‘man out of time’ part of his personality, but he’s also really a veteran coming home from war. We wanted to deal with it lightly, but we wanted to deal with it. And that’s how we got Sam in there. It’s that kind of thing. Who’s going to get the most out of Cap in terms of personality? Well, Natasha, because her morality is flexible and his is not. Things sort of come together that way. You make the small choices and they add up to be big stuff. 

Speaking of introducing the Falcon, I assume you’re familiar with the recent developments for the character in the comics?

That he’s the new Captain America? Yeah.

So do you see that as a potential endpoint for your version of the Falcon? Can you imagine him taking over that role at some point in the future?

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It’s such early days for our Sam, I wouldn’t want to speculate. I sort of sit on the sidelines and watch the comics and see what comes up so I know what I’ll be stealing in three years, y’know? But it’s not quite as hand-in-glove as that. I will say that I love [Anthony] Mackie. If they wanted to go that way, he could do it.

Looking at other members of Cap’s supporting cast, were you surprised with the way Peggy Carter managed to really hit with the fans, so much so that she’s now going to get her own series? And how involved are you in that?

Oh yeah, we’re heavily involved in that. We’re very happy. Although when you meet Hayley Atwell you go, “Oh, she’s got something.” So I was a little surprised, because I googled occasionally and I saw so much fanfic about the romance that got away, and the woman who was made stronger by this loss. That’s fascinating to me.

But we liked that character, and then Eric Pearson did that short for the Iron Man 3 DVD, and the response for that was great. But it also looked great, and everyone thought, “Hmm, that could be a TV show…” so then Marvel called us up and said, “Hey, it’s gonna be a TV show!” So we start shooting that soon. 

You’ve talked a lot about comic writer Ed Brubaker’s influence on your approach to Cap and the storylines you’ve picked from for the story of Cap 2 and presumably what comes after. Do you exclusively look at his work for inspiration, or do you go back to everything and pick your favourite elements?

We look through everything. It’s all available to us, and we cull as much as we can. We certainly think Brubaker’s run is tonally like where our version of Cap would live. If you hold up our screenplay and his run, it’s not the same Winter Soldier story, but tonally I think we served Ed pretty well, because it feels like his run. So everything’s available, but moving forward it’s probably going to feel a lot like that still.

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And lastly, I know you probably get this question all the time but since I’ve got you on the line, I have to ask: Is Redwing going to be in Captain America 3?

[Laughs] Sorry, I have no comment.

Chris Markus, thank you very much.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be released on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray and digital download on Monday 18th August.