Shortly after Avengers: Age of Ultron opened in theaters last summer we visited the set of Captain America: Civil War and spoke with the creative time behind the first chapter in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the first two Captain America screenplays, helped write Thor: The Dark World, and are already scripting Avengers: Infinity War, offered the most insight into how the story of Civil War came to be adapted to the MCU.
More than any of the dozen prior MCU installments to date, Captain America: Civil War relies on the character histories and relationships previously established, along with the events they took part in. And while we delve into what we can expect from each of the Avengers moviegoers may feel they know well, some of it is unexpected, and some of it the writers weren’t willing to (or weren’t allowed) to discuss at the time.
Similar to our interview back then with Executive Producer Nate Moore, Markus and McFeely were playing the media game too and avoiding any confirmation of Spider-Man being in the film. At the time, given that Ant-Man hadn’t even opened in theaters and Spider-Man hadn’t been cast, this made sense but we’ve since learned more recently during the Civil War press tour that the pair had written the character in from the beginning, even before a deal was officially made between Disney-Marvel and Sony Pictures to reboot the character within the MCU.
Enjoy this look-back to the time when Marvel Studios and directors Anthony and Joe Russo were shooting the “Splash Page” IMAX sequence of Captain America: Civil War (the German airport sequence).
I guess I’ll ask the question a lot of us have been wondering. This movie, there’s so many Avengers in it. How is it Captain America: Civil War versus “Avengers: Civil War?”
Christopher Markus: I think it’s tone. One, it’s focus, in that there is a story in addition to the Civil War. Civil War is kind of a backdrop to what’s going on, and that is 100% Steve’s story. We kind of set up an area with Winter Soldier, where we’re the franchise that kind of takes in the consequences of all the fun superhero destruction and action. If the Avengers kind of have more of an “Iron Man” feel and everyone comes and plays in Iron Man’s world. We wanted to drag everybody into Cap’s world and make him feel bad for a while.
Stephen McFeely: So we’re the bummer.
The Winter Soldier felt like kind of a spy thriller. Is this a specific genre for this movie that you guys are working in?
Stephen McFeely: Tone wise, we’ll be close to Winter Soldier. It’s as if we made the canvas bigger but stayed in that world and with that tone. That’s probably the best way I can answer it.
Having seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, it makes sense how we get to a place where there’s Civil War and stuff. What is harder to see from the outside is how the Winter Soldier himself fits into this. A lot of fans are wondering, we left Bucky at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and are we even going to follow up with him here in Civil War?
Christopher Markus: You are going to get some more Winter Solider.
Stephen McFeely: I think it’s fair to say that there’s A, B, and C plots to the movie. If “Civil War” is the A plot, then the Bucky story is the B plot. At some point, it’s for Steve to choose. That’s probably the best way I can put it.
A lot of things happened. This takes place a while after Age of Ultron. How much time passes and what other events may have happened in that time?
Christopher Markus: It’s pretty close to actual time, it’s about a year after Ultron and Ant-Man.
Stephen McFeely: Unless the powers that be tell us otherwise we generally go with, “When did that movie come out?” In terms of other incidents or events, nothing you need to go to do any homework on.
Most of the Marvel movies had villains that are exterior, outside forces pushing on the group. In Civil War, are they going to be more internal will there also be an outside villain to come in on top of everything that’s going on Tony and Steve?
Christopher Markus: What’s fun about this, is that depending on what side you’re on, the villains are different.
Stephen McFeely: Antagonist.
Christopher Markus: It depends on how passionate you are about your side. It is not the traditional, “I want to rule the world” guy. Things are grayer. There are some strings being pulled and interesting things going on that are of a debatable moral quality. It’s different.
What was the thinking behind including such a huge cast? What was the thinking of bringing all of these characters together? What has been the challenge of balancing them?
Stephen McFeely: Balance is absolutely the challenge. We don’t fool ourselves into thinking everybody is going to have, we’re not going to split all the roles and lines and screen time into fifteen parts. It is a Captain America movie. Lined up on the opposite side of him, first and foremost, is Tony Stark. If you were to look at the call sheet, those guys are way at the top and have the bulk of the lines and the screen time. That said, we’re Cap guys. We feel very beholden to Winter Solider. You’ll get a lot of Sam Wilson. You’ll get a lot of Natasha Romanoff. It sort of trickles from there.
Christopher Markus: One, it’s partly servicing the comic book in that you can’t call it “Civil War” and have it be three people fighting. That’s a fist fight, that’s not a war. We needed to get as many people as we could comfortably get. Thankfully, certain story elements in “Ultron” took Thor and Hulk off the table, which is great because it’s really hard to have a fair fight with anybody who has either of them. “No, I think we’re going to win.” The challenge is to bring people in without it feeling like a cameo. Without it feeling like we just happened to yank that guy in because we needed more people on this side.
Stephen McFeely: Look who’s here having dinner at the same restaurant!
Christopher Markus: Even if it’s even the smallest arc, the challenge is to give everybody a human turn and to place them in the context of the thing. The good thing is that the fight has a central question, the Civil War question. It’s not like we’re fighting a giant robot and we’re going to bring in some more friends to fight the giant robot. Everybody becomes a character you minute you pose that question to them. It activates their world and you go, “As this guy, how do I feel about that?” It tends to kind of characterize the characters, which makes no sense.
Let’s talk about the central question. In the comics, we have the Stamford explosion and Superhuman Registration Act, which was about unmasking. Obviously in the MCU, unmasking is a waste of time because nobody’s got a secret identity. There’s the Sokovia Accords, can you talk about what those are?
Stephen McFeely: Who told you the about the Sokovia Accords? Robert Downey Jr.?
Christopher Markus: Oh, that guy! Motor mouth!
What’s this movie’s version of the Superhuman Registration Act or unmasking?
Stephen McFeely: We’ll dance around it a little bit. There will be a Stamford Incident but it’s not Stamford. We’ll have an incident that will force the governments of the world to go, “Wait a second. Let’s talk about the laundry list of things that we’re not happy about. Let’s finally do something about that. We think you guys need some oversight.”
Christopher Markus: It plays in an interesting way into people’s… some critics reactions to these movies where it goes, “You tore down half of New York. Why are we happy about that?” We dropped helicarriers on Washington, DC. You do this and it’s great but eventually you’ve got to go, if this is a realistic world, somebody’s going to go, “Stop dropping helicarriers on my fucking head.”
Stephen McFeely: It’s more about oversight than unmasking or outing anyone.
Christopher Markus: Yeah … which in a way, was what the comic book was about. The unmasking was a way to register people. I think we found a way to also make the sides very personal so it’s not just this polemic argument where it’s, “I believe we should be registered.” You can get a scene out of that and then it’s like, “Oh shut up about the–.”
Stephen McFeely: You want to have people, when they’re challenged over and over again, to not just pack up their bags and go home. The stakes have to ratchet up and larger, that’s the goal.
Christopher Markus: You need the test case for the Accords. You need a plot that goes okay, how is everybody going to respond? How’s everybody react to the Accords in the light of this thing that’s going on? We’ve got a really good thing going on.
You said that the A plot was “Civil War”, the B plot was the Winter Soldier, what are you saying about the C plot.
Christopher Markus: The C plot is a musical.
Stephen McFeely: That’s right. No, not really. Suffice to say that it’s not just a registration and let’s fight about the registration. Steve gets tested as a result of not only registration but Bucky’s return. It becomes very personal to him. That’s again, why somebody asked earlier, why it’s a Captain America story.
Speaking of Bucky’s return, obviously what the big conflict between Tony and Rogers is oversight and that kind of thing. In “Winter Solider,” we learn that Bucky is also responsible for Tony Stark’s parents’ death.
Stephen McFeely: Do we? Do we? Do we?
Does that come into play at all? Do that become another conflict where Tony and Steve go at it?
Stephen McFeely: Hydra, it is implied that Hydra killed Howard Stark. I think we can say that. I think that’s all we know, for sure, is that they did that. Bucky killed a lot of people. That’s perhaps more important. When Bucky wakes up, or gets some semblance of his humanity back, if he were to get some semblance of his humanity back, how does he feel about the long list of kills on his record?
Christopher Markus: It was bad enough when Cap woke up after 70 years in the ice having done nothing. He woke up after 70 years having murdered a hundred of the best people of the last century. Do you want to go on? Do you want to be free? Do you want to put a bullet in your head? What is it?
Stephen McFeely: That is the fun stuff. We’re fun. It’s the rich stuff that we’re trying to dick around in, and Sebastian is crushing it.
At what point in development did you realize we can pull out General Ross card and put him in the story?
Stephen McFeely: We are very pleased to have pulled out the General Ross card.
Christopher Markus: Very early, in that we knew we were dealing with government questions. We had various, sort of functionary government people in “Winter Solider.” We arrested Gary Shandling, can’t use him. Who could we pull out that who would have a little oomph to it as opposed to, “This is a man in a suit you’ve never met before but trust me, he’s very important.” Then you go, “Holy crap, we have William Hurt.” Not even we have General Ross, we have William Hurt. It’s Marvel so he’s probably handcuffed to some giant contract. Let’s just make him do it. Luckily, he loves these movies and he’s been kind of like, “I want to come back.”
Stephen McFeely: He did. He whispered about Infinity War. It’s like, okay, hold on a second.
How early in the process did you know that you get to use Spider-Man?
Christopher Markus: I don’t know to this day that I get to use Spider-Man.
Anything about the registration act won’t be as much of a big deal but at the end of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. we now have the fish oil that will clearly be awakening Inhumans…
Christopher Markus: It sounds like a good show that I should watch. I have to confess, having come here, I’ve seen no TV since I got here in April. One, I haven’t seen any of Game of Thrones, and I haven’t seen the vast majority of this season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There’s fish oil?
Stephen McFeely: Is there really fish oil? What are you talking about?
What happens is…
Stephen McFeely: Perhaps we shouldn’t spend this valuable time … doing that.
Christopher Markus: The binge will be happening soon. To answer to your question, there is fish oil all over this movie.
Can you guys talk about how Bucky [Barnes] and Peggy Carter play into Captain America 3?
Christopher Markus: Well, she is, has always been, and will always been kind of Steve’s ideal. Not just a romantic ideal –
Stephen McFeely: Well, it could have been. A behavioral idea. It’s like, who’s the best person I’ve ever known and how would she respond to this? Obviously, she’s 105 years old so she’s not running around in the big fight like… We also have Ant-Man vs Peggy, it’s this amazing…
Stephen McFeely: Her visit to set weeks ago was merely friendly. She was not shooting.
Christopher Markus: But she continues to hold weight, which is great. And a lot of fun because we also have Sharon [Carter].
How big is Sharon’s role this time around?
Stephen McFeely: Bigger than last movie. The idea was that she was being sprinkled so that she could play a part here and she will be forced to choose a side as you will all be forced to choose a side.
Can you talk about Sharon [Carter] in terms of, in the comics Sharon is a romantic interest for Cap, and in the comics though Peggy was never as powerful a character, it felt like for fans. Fans are really taking to Peggy, and perhaps Cap will stop seeing Peggy and now start dating her niece…
Stephen McFeely: Well, no. It did not force [him] to stop seeing Peggy. He landed in an iceberg. That stopped him from seeing Peggy!
Christopher Markus: They kissed once on a moving car, with Tommy Lee Jones in the car. Not the sexiest situation you can have. So you know in a way people go, ‘Ooh that’s weird.’ But when you think about it, one, she’s her grand-niece. This isn’t incest. This is, ‘You’re vaguely related to a woman I once kissed.’ But it’s also not the kind of movie where, you know, much like Winter Soldier took place over like three days. This one has a fairly tight timespan. So it’s not like you can go, ‘Hold the huge international intrigue because I have to have a little bit of romance.’ You know, it’s again, we play with it. We definitely move closer… But especially when you’ve got this big of a cast, and teams, eventually you’re gonna have Falcon and Winter Soldier standing in the corner going, “alright, I’m gonna…” Huge fight.
With a character like Vision, who was created to be this perfect, worthy being, how does he develop as a character when he’s not as necessarily flawed as the others?
Stephen McFeely: It’s a good question… In the same way that in Winter Soldier we didn’t want Steve to have trouble with iPhones and tight jeans, you know like what is this modern world? But we wanted him to have problems with the modern world, right. We also don’t want to do, [in robot voice] ‘How do I become a human?’ Yet.
Christopher Markus: What is this love?
Stephen McFeely: And yet, that’s part of Vision. So we’re trying to be really elegant about this guy who was one day old at the end of Ultron adjusting to life.
Christopher Markus: Right. But he’s also… He’s superior, but he doesn’t have complete knowledge. It’s not like he can step outside of the frame and go, “you silly humans.” He’s in there. And it’s great to put that question… the question that everybody faces when you put it to him, he has to have an opinion. And in a way his opinion can sink other peoples’ opinion completely because you’re not gonna go, ‘Oh he’s probably wrong.’
Stephen McFeely: He can cut through the bullshit in some ways.
You said he’s gotta learn how to be a person, does that involve any Scarlet Witch side action?
Christopher Markus: Uh, side action! [Laughter]
Stephen McFeely: Are you hitting on me, Scarlet Witch?
They did in the comics!
Christopher Markus: Oh I know they have imaginary psychic children who didn’t really exist in the comics.
It already sailed. As soon as he picked her up at the end of Age of Ultron, it was like, yep let’s go.
Christopher Markus: I will say, we play with it. For the same reason Steve and Sharon can’t go to the movies five times in the movie. But it is kind of fascinating. But he’s got the stone in his head that I think Strucker used to give her her powers. So it’s all sort of, ‘These things are getting really weird.’ So there’s fun toys to play with there.
You guys are taking the new Avengers for the first ride since they assembled at the end of the last movie. How are they functioning together versus the lineup that people are familiar with already?
Stephen McFeely: I’ll answer it more by virtue of, it’s a Russo brothers movie, so it’s gonna be a little grittier, real-world. A lot of thought has gone into tactically, ‘How do we solve this problem that’s in front of us with the handful of people in front of us, given their skillset?’ So it’s very… it’s a lot more real-world and tactical, that’s the best way to answer it.
The Winter Soldier was grounded in that it dealt with Earth-based issues like S.H.I.E.L.D. and espionage and all that. And then Age of Ultron, there was the cosmic thread of the stone, the thread of the future of Thanos. Since this one is sort of bridging Age of Ultron eventually into Infinity War, is there any pressure to fit in cosmic threads or is it, no, no, this is back on Earth now?
Christopher Markus: Because we’ve got so much cosmic-ness waiting, we are more than happy to keep it waiting because, you know. Also, Civil War is such a grounded argument that you don’t want to go, [whispers] ‘Actually, that’s not very important because there’s a space man coming.’ We all know there’s a space man coming, but it’s going to blow this argument out of the water if you bring it up. So all that has to stay far enough away that—
Stephen McFeely: Eyes on the prize, folks.
The benefit of a shared universe of course is that most of the characters are pretty established already, most people know who they are – but you are introducing Black Panther and maybe Spider-Man –
Christopher Markus: I know nothing –
What is that responsibility like in a movie this busy to also make sure that a new character also makes a strong impression?
Christopher Markus: Well again it’s, do they have an organic place in the story? Panther has a great place in the story, and Wakanda has a great place in the story. So that even if he wasn’t the seed of a franchise, he’d be a good character with a justified place in the movie… In a way there were times where early on where we were getting character overload, where ‘maybe that just outta be Joe Blow from wherever, not Black Panther, because we’re frying. But it’s too good. It’s just too good.
What is Black Widow’s place in the story, is she caught in conflict between Tony and Cap?
Stephen McFeely: Yes.
Christopher Markus: It’s difficult, because she’s not trained to take sides. She’s trained to be a duplicitous double-agent and have loyalties for sale. Obviously she’s well on her way to not being that person, but it’s still… standing up next to someone and taking a side and going ‘No I believe in this’ is counter to her nature. So it’s in a way almost toughest for her than anybody to go, ‘This is my side and I’m sticking to it.’
You guys in the last movie had a really good quote that Steve doesn’t change, everyone changes around him. Is that the still the case in a movie where he is going from a guy who was the symbol of America in World War II to the guy who is standing up against registration and standing up against government, or is this an extension of his ‘I don’t want bullies’ thing?
Stephen McFeely: Hmmm.
Christopher Markus: A little bit of both. In a way yes he continues to be the guy… that’s an interesting question. When you’re a guy who has very strong beliefs, and the larger system suddenly changes around you, you become a criminal without moving. You don’t have to go rob a bank if they decide that what you’ve been doing since the day you were born is suddenly illegal, you don’t have to change.
Stephen McFeely: Sometimes you have to plant yourself like a tree.
Christopher Markus: And say “no, you move. “
Stephen McFeely: That said, we don’t want him to be a boy scout. And we don’t want him to never pay attention to the world around him and have blinders on. So at the edges we want him to sometimes go, “have I screwed up?” He has doubts.
Christopher Markus: You want him to go, “Am I a dick? Am I? Am I just annoying for no good reason?”
Speaking of dicks—
Stephen McFeely: Where is this going?
Christopher Markus: Yes, please, let’s speak of dicks.
One of the things that sort of out of the comic book version of Civil War is that Tony Stark sort of became a weirder character years afterwards. How do you keep Tony as a character – because this is a Captain America movie, so we’re all going to walk in and go, Tony’s probably going down – how do keep this character so he can show up again in the next Avengers and be as heroic?
Stephen McFeely: That’s our hope, is to not take the first half of your question. We want people walking out of this movie going, Tony’s right. And half the other people going, Steve’s right. That would be a dream if we got 49-51 split. Because the question is a legitimate one. Do they need oversight or not? And as soon as you imply oversight… Steve at one point says in the movie, what if these people send us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s a place we need to go, and they wont send us? Right? It’s an excellent argument. And yet, things have happened that you can’t deny.
Christopher Markus: Part of the challenge in not making Tony clearly wrong as he seems to me to be in the comic book, where you’re like, you built an inter-dimensional prison… is to give him his own personal reason, the same we’ve given Steve a personal, you know sort of illustration of this, give Tony his own one, so that he’s coming from a place where you understand why he would make this decision.
Stephen McFeely: And we did the same thing on Winter Soldier. We took the stuff that was most helpful to us and most interesting to us and tried to make a different, or another story. And we’ll do the same thing with Civil War, we’ll take all the best, juiciest parts but it’s going to be nearly an exact retelling of that comic.
Christopher Markus: In a way for both of these guys, the situation they’re in, it sometimes strikes me, is they’re like a designated driver. They’re not getting drunk with everybody else and they have to make the decisions where the rest of the people are going to go like, ‘Ugh, Jesus, this guy.’ But he’s going to make sure everybody’s alive at the end. So if you have to hold somebody down and take their keys, because they’re an idiot, you have to do it and tomorrow they might understand why you did it, but today everyone’s going to hate you for it. And I think at different times they’re both in that position.
Is Pepper okay?
Stephen McFeely: Sure, she’s fine.
Superheroes tend to act unilaterally and here they go their own way, and it sounds like that’s one of the conflicts of this film—
Stephen McFeely: Yeah, we’ve reached the tipping point on acting unilaterally… That’s been one of the challenges. Steve is very much the same as he was at the end of Winter Soldier and Ultron. And Tony’s the one that we have to massage in such a way that he’s not the same guy who stood up in front of Gary Shandling and said ‘I’m gonna go my own way.’ So things have to occur foreign to Tony to get him to take the opposite side.
Christopher Markus: In a way Ultron plays very nicely into that, where it’s like “that movie’s his fault.” And either you’re oblivious, in which case people eventually are gonna go, you know, “Tony is just… go to hell already.” or you gotta go, “Ok, I gotta adjust my behavior.”
In terms of locations, in Age of Ultron we saw a lot of Stark Tower and a couple international set pieces. In this one, do we see any Stark Tower, or is it real Avengers-based, or what other sort of locations?
Christopher Markus: It takes place entirely in Atlanta.
Stephen McFeely: That’s right! Everything’s named Peach Street.
Christopher Markus: This one takes place, I think, more places than almost any other Marvel movie in terms of, it’s all over the world. It’s some places you’ve been before, a lot of places you’ve never been, and at least one place where I think some people have been before but I’m not sure.
Stephen McFeely: I don’t even know what you mean.
Christopher Markus: I’m talking about a setting from Captain America’s past.
Stephen McFeely: Oh that’s nice, yeah. We will be self-referential as often as they’ll let us. We’ll just grab things that no one else knows about.
Christopher Markus: If people wont give you greatness you have to just take it on yourself.
Stephen McFeely: So a lot of places, a lot of Europe, it’ll feel pretty international.
How about this new Avengers base they have – will it be big part of the movie?
Stephen McFeely: Yeah, basically it’s a version of one at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When the title of this film was first announced, it was a fake-out… Serpent Society.
Stephen McFeely: Yeah, Serpent Society!
Christopher Markus: Or, was it a fake-out?!
Some people were disappointed that’s not really happening…
Stephen McFeely: No one was disappointed it wasn’t Serpent Society!
[Laughs] Was there ever a point where you were like, maybe it’s Serpent Society.
Christopher Markus: They’ve all separately chosen to take on a snake persona, and now they realize, what if all the snake guys teamed up? It could happen, it could happen. I find it unlikely.
Stephen McFeely: We were pleased with the title sequence they showed.
Can you talk about how Black Panther interacts with Tony and Steve because it’s interesting to me that Tony is the richest guy in the world, Steve is the greatest hero of World War II, and this guy is a prince who is a monarch. What is their relationship?
Christopher Markus: Well he’s a guy who could go, ‘Well I’m better at what you do than you.’ And I’m not gonna take either of your crap.
Stephen McFeely: Right, it’s frosty.
Christopher Markus: So it’s fun to have that guy show up after we watch the in-fighting and squabbling over however many movies now, someone to come up and go, “You don’t matter. This is a country in Africa.”
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War finds Steve Rogers leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps—one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War stars Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Emily VanCamp, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd and Frank Grillo, with William Hurt and Daniel Brühl.
Anthony & Joe Russo are directing with Kevin Feige producing. Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Patricia Whitcher, Nate Moore and Stan Lee are the executive producers. The screenplay is by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely.
Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters May 6, 2016, followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.