Interview: 'Captain America: Civil War' Screenwriters On Moral Ambiguity And Setting Up 'Infinity War'

Captain America: Civil War marks screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's fifth collaboration with Marvel, after Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor 2: The Dark WorldCaptain America: Winter Soldier, and their work on Agent Carter. So it's not surprising Marvel selected the screenwriting duo to handle an undertaking as large as Avengers: Infinity War.

The stories Markus and McFeely are telling continue to increase in scope, but the two rarely lose sight of character and the story at hand, never spending too much time teasing the future of the MCU. Considering the fact that they had to set up Black Panther, the new Spider-Man, and a tiny bit of Infinity War, it's impressive how focused and cleanly told Civil War's narrative is. Perhaps in less capable hands, Marvel's latest easily could have been a complete mess.

To learn how the script came together, read our Christoper Markus and Stephen McFeely interview below. Be warned there are SPOILERS ahead for Captain America: Civil War.

Juggling all these characters and storylines, how detailed was your outline?

McFeely: Oh, always. I am fairly obsessive compulsive. In order to work together, we need to know pretty much every step along the way where we're going. We can freelance a little bit within the lines, but we need to know we're writing the same movie. So yeah, on all our projects we're big outliners.

Markus: Even though Marvel is actually a very small shop and you don't have to talk to that many people while you're making a movie, in terms of getting permission and things like that, there are so many key departments when you are making a movie like this, with character designers needing to get started on conceiving a costume, to effects people, the stunt people. If we didn't have guidelines being issued on a regular basis, everyone would be left with no time to do their job by the time it actually got to production. So you need to start informing these departments very early on.

This is very much a Captain America sequel, not an Avengers film. For the both of you, what made this Captain America's story?

McFeely: It's the Bucky story. As we were crafting Cap 3 before we all decided it was Civil War, we were picking up the threads of Winter Soldier, and primarily that's the hunt for Bucky.

McFeely: We kept coming back to the things Bucky did over those 60, 70 years as an assassin. What would come back and bite him in the ass?

Markus: What do we know he did?

McFeely: Yeah. And there was one, and we sort of pulled our punch on it a little bit. If you are familiar with Winter Soldier, then you know Zola tells them that Hydra Head killed the Starks. If he killed Tony's parents, well, then there would be one very specific Tony Stark who has something to say about that. You can only make that Civil War.

Markus: That's the concept.

McFeely: At the same time, I think Kevin wanted to address all the third acts of the Marvel Universe, which are not dissimilar. You know, we fight bad guys from the sky...

Markus: And make things blow up. Also, there is a certain conceptual level where it feels like Avengers movies are people coming together to fight an external threat. That's literally what Nick Fury designed them to be. They get these guys together when a big threat comes. This is a different kind of movie. And it felt right for it to be a Cap movie. It's political. In a weird way, Cap has become...for as much as people tend to think he's a Boy Scout and a very black and white person, his movies have become where you deal with uncomfortable problems. Maybe that's just who we are. [Laughs.] But they are murkier than your average superhero movie.

Steve makes more morally ambiguous choices in the film. If he quits, not to say that's selfish, but more people would die without his help.

McFeely: Yeah. And it was scary to give Steve something he valued over keeping the peace. We had a lot of good conversations trying to figure out how far Steve was going to go. What would he admit to knowing? That's a big moment, right, when he says, "Don't bullshit me, Rogers. Did you know?" Can he say yes?

Did you have similar discussions about how far you could push Tony Stark?

McFeely: You know, it was that first scene with Alfre Woodard and, frankly, his arc. I think in Age of Ultron if he doesn't learn a lesson from Ultron, then he's a sociopath. And so, Miriam, Alfre Woodard's character, is sort of a way to bring that all home. So I don't think he's acting out of character. But once he makes that decision — we've got to be put in check — everything sort of flows after that.

Markus: It's more of a question of physicality. I think he does ratchet it up in the final fight...well, the final fight and in the airport fight, which is a lot about taking the gloves off, I think. It sort of relates to how we wanted to structure that big fight scene. Even at the beginning of that nobody really wants to hit each other. As they begin to hit each other and the pain begins to resonate, they hit harder. So that's when you have to kind of modulate the force the people are using, modulate the level of animosity.

spider-man footage

How much of a challenge was it structuring that airport set piece on the page?

McFeely: It was a challenge. That's a really fluid scene. So we wrote the first draft and Giant Man is in it [laughs], and Rhodey gets shot down by Vision. It's like a lot of the big tentpole moments happened, and then we turn it over and a lot of other people were going to weigh in—stunts, visual effects, location. There were so many things. It's got to be the most complicated action set piece, certainly in comic book movies. It's really daunting.

Then it keeps going through version after version. Visual effects would come in and say, "Hey, here are some interesting things we could do." We'd go, "Great." Or stunts will do a section and say, "Hey, what if this fight goes in this way?" And we'll say, "Great."

Our job as it gets further along the line is to make sure that it all stays on character, it's well-structured, and that it grows so that it goes from, "We're trying not to hurt each other," to "You just pissed me off!" to "We're not all getting out of here." So now our strategy changes. And then, of course, we're rewriting lines all the time.

Markus: And also, it was very important for that scene to have an objective beyond it, perceived to be wanting to get somewhere else to do another thing. It's not just, "We came together to beat each other down and the only way this ends if somebody is dead or unconscious." It's a giant fight, but it's an obstacle to the plot in a way so that the machinery that we constructed for the plot didn't grind to a halt because this fight happens. We needed it to be the end of act two and not the end of the movie.

When in the writing process did you learn Spider-Man would play a part in the story?

McFeely: He was always possible, not necessarily always realistic. From the very beginning, we knew it would be great if we could get him. And Kevin Feige gave us reason to believe that there were some ongoing negotiations and maybe it's possible. So we did versions where he was in it and then he came back in and went, "Not going that well," as any normal negotiations would. And then we moved pieces around and strengthened Black Panther as a character. We knew we were definitely going to use him, because we definitely wanted that splash panel to have as many earned participants as we could get.

Eventually, when the deal was done, it was bittersweet because we had a really tight thing going. Kevin said, "We got him." And we said, "Great. That's a lot more work for us. OK. Let's figure it out." [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Were you both only collaborating with Marvel on the character?

Markus: We only had to deal with Marvel. Marvel dealt with Sony.

McFeely: Well, I think they sent the two scenes...

Markus: Yeah, they sent the scenes and then they came to set when we were shooting those scenes. It felt very freeing. They knew, 12 movies in, we weren't going to screw them up. Marvel wasn't going to trash them. So it was a...they were made comfortable and then they were enthusiastic.

When it comes to the future of the MCU, knowing where these characters are maybe going or how their arcs might end in Infinity War, did that influence Civil War at all?

McFeely: We had done the vast majority of the work. We didn't know we were going to be writing Infinity War. So we only got the job when we started shooting. We didn't really break that movie until after Civil War but had ideas along the way. So I think other than... Jack, you are in charge of spoilers, right?

[Laughs.] Yes. I'll put a warning.

McFeely: Other than breaking the Avengers and shattering them and leaving them vulnerable for when Thanos comes to town, that was all we wanted to do.

Markus: Once we got involved with Infinity War, we didn't really want much connection other than sort of softening up the players so that they were in a bad place when things went down. We're writing two Infinity War movies that are dealing with a central issue, to then drag that into Civil War seemed like we would be accused of just endless franchise building as opposed to telling a story.

Captain America Civil War

Were there any scenes that required a lot of rewriting?

McFeely: The airport scene was a lot of drafts.

Markus: Tony's speech, too. I think we went through a lot of drafts. It became, in the end, very short. It was actually quite...

McFeely: It was at a mall at one point. How are we going to show Howard and Maria organically? That took a lot of time.

Markus: Everything else just came out in a couple of days. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Were there any scenes in the first draft you guys just knew you got right?

Markus: I will say that the Spider-Man recruitment was pretty damn close to the first draft.

McFeely: The roundtable?

Markus: No. We rewrote that a lot. The funeral [scene], to a certain extent.

McFeely: Yeah, that was easy.

Markus: We were constantly rewriting everything. The Russos are very into that.

McFeely: And we get paid by the word. So it was no big deal for us. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Are there any memorable scenes that come to mind that got cut during the writing process? Are there any deleted scenes you both miss?

McFeely: Nothing that we miss. The brothers pride themselves on shooting only what they need, but shooting the hell out of it.

Markus: I don't think there's anything we shot [that we miss]. There was a point where we went all the way with Scott Lang in San Francisco and got to have a little more taste of what his life was like, and it was fun to write for us. But it was unnecessary, so it never made it to the camera.

Can I ask you what was his life like in San Francisco in that scene?

McFeely: No!

Markus: No! We were probably wrong. Because of the nature of when we start making the movie versus when it comes out, as we're doing for Infinity War, we wrote a lot, if not all, of Scott Lang's stuff before we ever saw Ant-Man. You just have to roll with that because we need to film.

McFeely: We assume that the Infinity War drafts we turn in shortly are...we're probably just wrong on some of these voices.

As you guys said, you wanted this story to stand on its own, but there is some foreshadowing, like when Vision mentions wanting to control the Infinity Stone in his head. Is that the only potential setup for Infinity War?

McFeely: That's the only one.

Markus: That's the most blatant one I can think of. Yeah, I mean the only thing is just putting them in the bad position so that when Infinity War does happen, they are not going to be a unified front, and they'll be unprepared for Pearl Harbor.

Probably a total coincidence, but my editor is curious about Spider-Man's title, Homecoming, which is one of Winter Soldier's activation words, funnily enough. Is this completely coincidental? 

McFeely: That's a coincidence, but boy I wish it wasn't. [Laughs.]

Markus: Every single word they say to The Winter Soldier will be the title of another film. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Thanks for the hot scoop.

Markus: [Laughs.] Including Giant-Man Breaks Up.

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Captain America: Civil War is now in theaters.