Avengers: Infinity War is out at last and no doubt as more fans see it, debate and speculation will begin to rage over the story, the ending and where things go from here. But one thing that should not be overlooked is the tremendous accomplishments of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have somehow found a way to weave together dozens of characters from across the Marvel Cinematic Universe and make a coherent, thrilling and moving story around them all.
A large part of it comes from experience: Markus and McFeely are the closest thing that Marvel Studios has to “house writers,” having penned all three Captain America movies, Thor: The Dark World (with Stephen Yost) and now Avengers: Infinity War and next year’s Untitled Avengers (a.k.a. Avengers 4). On both new Avengers movies and the last two Captain America adventures, they’ve worked with directors Anthony and Joe Russo, with Marvel head Kevin Feige saying about the quartet, “The four of them together have an understanding of our cinematic sandbox more than anybody else.”
Now that Avengers: Infinity War has arrived and the implications of the story and its climax are starting to sink into fans’ minds everywhere, the question becomes: how do Markus and McFeely advance the story from here? The results could have even more staggering repercussions for the MCU. We spoke with both writers about juggling all those superheroes, what if any marching orders they got from Marvel, and how this Avengers epic and next year’s are very different from each other.
Den of Geek: You guys elegantly wove together a dozen or 15 characters in Civil War. Was that a good test ground to now do three times as many characters in these films?
Christopher Markus: It taught us some lessons about bringing people in when they’re needed. You don’t have to do a roll call at the beginning of the movie. Like, Hawkeye comes in two thirds of the way through the movie when he is needed. That was how we stayed sane throughout this.
You can just check in with everybody, and then start the plot. But it’s just wheel spinning, and as lovely as all these characters are, you get bored when there isn’t an engine. In Civil War, bringing in Spider-Man that late with no set-up, and it being that satisfying, proved, like, “You can do this right. You can do this whenever you want in the movie, and it won’t feel like a hand job.”
Speaking of Hawkeye…
Stephen McFeely: Where the hell’s Hawkeye?
There’s obviously some kind of hidden long arc happening here with Hawkeye.
McFeely: As Chris was saying, one of the ways we could handle this is because we said to ourselves, “All right, we’ve got two movies to work with.” They’re clearly related, but they’re very distinct. Certain characters will carry over, and that has to be okay. Judge us in May of ’19, whether or not that character had a full arc, don’t judge us hopefully just on one movie.
My assumption is that there will be some people who go, “Oh, my favorite character only got a little bit of screen time in the first movie.” Odds are, they’ll have a lot more in the second one. And that was what was best for their story.”
So is that the case with Hawkeye?
When this was first announced, it was Infinity War part one and part two. How quickly did that change and how much of that original concept is still in these films?
Markus: Well really, creatively, nothing changed. From the get-go, Kevin and everybody wanted the two movies to be two movies. For it not to be like hitting pause and saying, “See you next summer!” And then it just starts up again. How can you have two whole movie-going experiences that are still clearly connected, clearly part of the same larger story, but feel like two separate works of creativity?
It came to a point where we had developed the stories for that, and we were doing the scripts for that, and we were prepping it, and they really were becoming two distinct things. It seemed to be doing a disservice to both of them to just go, “Infinity 1, Infinity 2,” so they both seem like half a movie, as opposed to two complete ones.
McFeely: It’s why we haven’t told anybody the titles. Like, eat this one, digest this one, I’ll tell you the other one later. We want this one to stand on its own.
Both Kevin Feige and the Russos have said that the title could potentially be seen as a spoiler.
McFeely: Well, it’ll make you think…if I told you the title right now, it would make you look differently at this movie. There’s no fun to that, and that’s bad for us.
Going back to what we were talking about earlier, are there other characters that maybe aren’t in this as much that’ll factor much more in the next one?
McFeely: For sure. Again, there are 23 characters, and they don’t all have an equal amount of screen time, right? We did our best to give them arcs to some degree, but some will have much bigger arcs in the next movie. And some with big arcs here will have smaller arcs in the next movie. That’s just sort of the balance.
Was it challenging to write for characters you haven’t touched on before, like Doctor Strange or the Guardians? I think James Gunn said he helped out a bit with the Guardians.
Markus: Well, they were all fun. It was fun to write the Guardians. James, we showed him our Guardian scenes, he made some suggestions…
McFeely: Some great, funny pieces.
Markus: There is a hysterical chunk that is him.
McFeely: The first song is James.
Markus: It’s just a breath of fresh air. We’ve been mining the Cap zone for three movies, and to finally get some characters who don’t take anything particularly seriously is fun to play with, and also fun to then mash them up against the people who take everything seriously.
McFeely: It’s Civil War that sort of taught us that we can, hopefully if we can buckle down, we can sort of handle everybody’s character and give them a voice that’s true to what’s come before, but slots into the tone and stakes of our structure.
Are there elements in these films, the two of them, that we haven’t seen before? Is everything on the table in terms of time travel, multiverses, things like that? Were you given carte blanche in terms of what could be used?
McFeely: For sure. The only things that Marvel said to us when we started were, Thanos, Infinity Stones, and be bold. Reach for an epic story. People don’t expect “My Dinner with Thanos.” They expect a really big canvas, so let’s try to tell a story that requires a big canvas.
Markus: Two of the watch phrases at Marvel are “Spend it all now,” just use all your good ideas now because you’ll have more, and “Write yourself into a corner.” And we did both of those. Then it was like, “Okay, we’ve got to get out of the corner. We’ve used up all our ideas, so what do we do now?” (laughs)
Were you given any sort of mandate in terms of who could potentially live or die?
McFeely: No. But that’s a group conversation. So we would say, “Listen, the story that it looks like we’re telling, maybe this sacrifice needs to be made.” Or this person needs to say goodbye in a certain way, and then that becomes a group conversation. But as part of the epic storytelling and the big ambition, it’s an end chapter, it’s not a chapter. So if someone’s arc comes to a close here in a really satisfying way, why would we not do that?
Markus: If the story doesn’t demand it, don’t do it, and if the story demands it, don’t hold back.
McFeely: I mean, the marketing is accurate. This is really the end of something, and the beginning of something else. We really tried that.
Are you finished or are you on call for potential Avengers 4 reshoots?
Markus: No, we’ll be tinkering with Avengers 4 ’til this time next year. The vast majority of it is in the can, but…
McFeely: We haven’t seen an assembly of it yet, so who knows. Maybe we made something terrible and we have to fix it. (laughs) I look forward to that. I’m really charmed by that second movie, and I want to know how it’s coming together. It’s so different than this one, and anything we can do to make it shine would be really great.
Different in tone, or…?
Markus: Tone, genre…It’s fully animated, it’s basically a Pixar movie, stop-motion. (laughs)
So what would be the genre, if you could say?
McFeely: We can’t really say. The Russo brothers talk about a 90s heist movie, like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Out of Sight. And I guess by that they mean that one guy is, because of his intention and the crimes he’s committing, forcing other people to come in and maybe they want to steal the diamonds for themselves, or whatever. And so everyone is reacting to Thanos, and that’s sort of the only way this could work. He’s the hub of the wheel, and everyone else is a spoke.
Markus: And then things we keep going back to are things like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, where you have very specific characters, but there’s also a sense of massive movement that’s happening so that tectonic plates are shifting, and there are groups of people who are widely separate and they’re not in contact with each other for seasons and seasons. But you know it’s all one story, and it’s about keeping that unified tone without everybody having a cell phone that works in space.
Avengers: Infinity War is in theaters now.