'Avengers: Infinity War' Screenwriters On Making Thanos The Ultimate Marvel Villain And Writing Within A Shared Universe [Set Visit Interview]

And now time for one of our most interesting interviews from the set of Avengers: Infinity War — a sitdown discussion with Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely,  the screenwriting masterminds behind it all.

During the interview, we talk about what the film is about, how this is Thanos' story, who they decided to include in this mega mash-up film, how the Guardians of the Galaxy fit into the mix, comparisons to the grand ensemble storytelling of Game of Thrones, their comic book research, how much of the film takes place on earth, how the Infinity Stones helped to shape the story, Thanos' villianous motivations, how cosmic and crazy does the film get, how Infinity War connects with Avengers 4, Captain Marvel's involvement, how much of Infinity Gauntlet's story made it into the film, how the film connects to the movies around it, balencing the tones of the different franchises, why awards reward epic trilogies but overlook superhero franchises, giving thanos an emotional arc and more.

Can you tell us what [Avengers: Infinity War] is about?

Christopher Markus: What isn't it about? This is about the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is about everyone getting together, or trying their hardest to get together, to fight a guy named Thanos.

Stephen McFeely: Who hopefully will come together in a way that will be satisfying? We've been teasing Thanos for many movies in 30 second clips, so hopefully all the lead-up will allow us to really go to town with him and make him a villain that requires this epic level of storytelling. That is the word I would use most often. It's ridiculously big.

How long does it take for Thanos to take the screen?

Stephen McFeely: It'll take 18 movies. [laughter]

Christopher Markus: We won't tell you exactly, but you're going to get Thanos and you're not going to feel like we've continued to jerk you around and kept him in check.

Stephen McFeely: In many ways, it's Thanos' movie.

You've talked, obviously, about how you've brought all these characters together, but are there any character pairings that you think people will be very surprised to see?

Christopher Markus: I don't know about surprised, because it's very hard to surprise people...

Stephen McFeely: That's not true at all. I think we will surprise the hell out of people.

Christopher Markus: Okay. We will surprise people.

Stephen McFeely: I don't know if we can tell you what the pairings are but yeah, one of the goals... After Civil War, we got in a room for four or five months trying to crack these two ridiculously big things.

Christopher Markus: We had wall of characters and at a certain point you just go [motions hands] – "That's funny and that's funny. What's a story that could get those two [characters] together?"

Stephen McFeely: Right. We talked a lot about, it's a Joe Russo term, "strange alchemy". What is it when you put the two characters together, even in a fairly normal traditional situation, but since we've invested in those characters and known them, we sort of delighted in the idea of those two people rubbing against each other. So, we always chased "delight" – and terror. Lots of terror.

Christopher Markus: And there's also...we're coming off Civil War. We're coming off Winter Soldier. So that's there's lots of backstory that still needs to play out in addition to the Thanos situation. Like, I just walked by Sebastian Stan out there. You could put Bucky in a room with anybody and they're going to say, "Oh sh*t! He's a maniac." He's shot Natasha [Romanoff] twice as far as I can keep count, so it's going to be interesting.

What about bringing in the cosmic universe? That seems to be something we're all very curious about. How are the Guardians [of the Galaxy] coming in?

Stephen McFeely: That's part of the "strange alchemy," right? One of the reasons that first Avengers movie was so popular and so exciting is, you were taking four franchises and [claps] smashing them into each other. Hopefully, we have the same kind of magic here, where we bring this completely different set of characters and smash them into varying groups of our characters. Another thing to think about, one of the challenges we've had is, how do you make sure this is not 25 people moving from one scene to one scene to one scene? So we talk, being a little facetious about it, but we talk about how it's like Nashville [the Robert Altman film], right? So you've got four or five different stories weaved together and then come together and then break apart. So, you get all these different pairings and groupings of four and five and six [characters].

Christopher Markus: And even now, not unlike something like Game of Thrones, where you have this vast canvas with characters you've been watching this guy over here molesting this girl over here in the East for years and only now does it have that feeling of massive plates shifting and finally bringing these characters near each other.

Are you saying this movie is going to be on par with Daenerys finally meeting Jon Snow? [laughter]

Christopher Markus: I'm absolutely telling you that. Yes!

Stephen McFeely: It's going to blow that away.

What we just watched was them coming to Wakanda to kind of warn them that something happened. Looks like they may have taken some sort of beating before that. But it's early to the film. What can you say about how it starts? Because as it stands now, all the characters in the MCU are scattered. Where does this pick up?

Christopher Markus: That is something we didn't want to blow off. Didn't want to devalue Civil War by having a phone call saying, "Let's all get back together because there's an even worse guy." Nah, everything's fine now. So we dragged that a long way through it so that we are valuing the resentments we've built up between these characters.

Stephen McFeely: They're ill-prepared to handle this.

Christopher Markus: Yeah. And it shows.

You mentioned that this is Thanos' film but I know that M'Baku has also been added to the cast as a villain. 

Stephen McFeely: It's M'Baku and Thanos – that's it. [laughter] But no, there's a substantial war coming.

Are there any other villains coming that we should expect to see?

Christopher Markus: Uhhh...I don't even confirm villainous.

Stephen McFeely: I would not confirm M'Baku's villainous in this for our purposes.

Christopher Markus: Villain is a derogatory term that Thanos wouldn't agree with. Another one of the things we set out to do in this was, if Thanos is just a bad guy, then you're dead in the water. It's just a bad guy, you know? You get bored pretty quickly after he's torn off the first few heads and we have two movies.

Stephen McFeely: That's sort of metaphorical but uh...I'm not really sure.

Christopher Markus: Hopefully, you'll come away from this the same way you do in the comics. He started off as a rogue villain but he's his own thing now. Where you go, "I can't say he was wrong." [laughter]

Speaking of the comics, when you guys were cracking the story, can you list any comics that you read?

Stephen McFeely: Oh geez, almost all of them. That cheeser piece had some close ups of that omnibus that we had sort of over-posted it.

Which comic?

Stephen McFeely: It's like an octopus.

Christopher Markus: It's a giant bound Infinity Gauntlet but we read anything that had Thanos in it. Anything that had the [Infinity] Stones in it. A lot of Archie [laughter]

Can you talk about how much of this will be on Earth? How much will be cosmic?

Stephen McFeely: We can't give you a percentage but it's fairly split. That's part of the nature of all these groups coming together.

Christopher Markus: And we wanted to give it, not have it be the feeling that it all comes down to Earth every time. It's this sort of "Earth-ist" point-of-view that you have to tell. "In order to conquer the universe I have to take over this one little tiny planet." We needed a broad canvas the whole time, so that it didn't feel like, coincidentally, every stone is on, is in America. [laughter]

Avengers Infinity War poster slice

Can you guys talk about the collection of the Stones? How the Stones almost help you guys shape your story? Were each of these passing gems, we were all watching like, "Well this is the one where the Stones sort of come together." Making it a little bit easier for the next person. It's not like they're spread...

Stephen McFeely: They're still spread out. Remember, one of our jobs, we're big structure guys. So if you go back and look at Winter Soldier and Civil War particularly, they are, whether you like the movies are not, they're pretty well structured. Big choices have been made. We had to do the same thing here and yet we had six MacGuffins – it can be relentless if you do this right. Which means, every time you collect [an Infinity Stone] – I don't mean to get into the screenwriting weeds – but every time you collect one, it can't just be a check mark. It has to do something characterful. It's got to move the plot forward but it also has to stakes and cost for literal characters at the time, so that it's not just a shopping spree. And I think we've done that and boy, we're going to wrench some emotion out of each and every one of those moments that we can.

Can you go back to Thanos for a second, the MCU has received tons of critical praise but the one thing franchise has been dinged on is, the villains are just not as impressive as Loki, over and over. That's something you guys are aware of, so trying to create "THE BIG BAD" of this franchise, I'm curious, how are you navigating that?

Christopher Markus: Well part of it is motivation, where if you have a villain who just wants to kill somebody or just wants to take over the world because it seems like a fun thing to do, or has been paid by the Russians to take over the world...run for President to take over the world. That guy isn't very interesting. He's pathetic but, we take this from [comic book writer Jim] Starlin. Thanos is an amoral philosopher. He's not the Devil – although he does sometimes have the Devil standing next to him. We wanted that all the way through. To have a villain with understandable motivations and emotions. Thanos has family. Thanos has two daughters that we know of. Thanos has eight million backstories in the comics but they're all kind of sad.

Stephen McFeely: What I want to point out, is that my favorite two [villains] in the entire MCU are Loki and Kilgrave, because he's creepy and awful, but really cares in a strange way.

And he totally doesn't see himself as the villain.

Stephen McFeely: For sure. And screen time, right? A lot of screen time for both of those characters. Chris is right, they both have these weird family relationships. So Thanos will get the benefit of both of those things. He's got daughters that he clearly has to deal with, and James did a nice job of setting the table for us, but we're certainly going to run with that. And screen time. This is not an origin story. Very often, in the screenwriting weeds, we're trying to get a character up and off the ground and so the bad guy tends to be a foil for the development of the hero and that's not the case here. If anything, it's the opposite. Our heroes are foils for the villain, whose story we need to tell at large.

Chris, can you clarify what you were saying about Devil?

Christopher Markus: Oh, Mephisto in the comics. I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Mephisto. He's often seen in hell, but he's not the evil. He's something more elemental more primal.

Were these films getting to the more weird, other-wordly characters and the personification of death or is it more motivated by family?

Stephen McFeely: It's cosmic and crazy but in a way tha we always try to ground stuff. Particularly in Winter Soldier and Civil War we took stories that everyone was familiar with, Brubaker's [Captain America] run and Civil War Millar, but make a different soup out of the ingredients. So we'll do something similar here because we owe it to the characters and these 18 movies were the characters.

You talk about structure. Are you structuring it as one huge movie or one movie, push it aside, second movie?

Christopher Markus: Both.

Stephen McFeely: Can't have the second one without the first one. But our hope is that it's breakfast and then lunch.

Christopher Markus: It does not feel like you hit pause and then unpaused it. It is two very different...

Because there's movies that come out in between, right? Have they influenced part four?

Stephen McFeely: Yes, by the way, another nightmare. [laughing]

We saw something earlier, as we were walking around, that implied Captain Marvel will have–

Stephen McFeely: What did you see?

Just mailboxes

Christopher Markus: She has a mailbox! [laughs]

She has a very telling mailbox. 

Stephen McFeely: You've caught us.

I'm sure that's very under wraps but is there anything you can share about the character's possible involvement. 

Christopher Markus: Well, super excited to have her—for one thing. You know, that movie does not exist yet so we're following up on something that is good intentions at the moment. But that's a power scale that right now doesn't exist in the MCU and it's, or she's I should say, in some ways the closest to Captain America which is a weird, now rare kind of character which is sort of a person who's right and knows they're right and doesn't really want to hear it when you tell them they're wrong. So, with all these flawed, f*cked up people and Quill who's a mess and Tony who's a massive ego all contorted. It's fun to get another person with a clear vision in there and going, "Shut up."

Infinity War Runtime

How much of the Infinity Gauntlet story is going to be in this?

Christopher Markus: I can no longer keep track of which thing that's called infinity is what.

Stephen McFeely: Is gauntlet Pip the Troll?

Yeah he comes to Earth, he gets reincarnated...

Christopher Markus: Yeah there's a car accident.

Stephen McFeely: They assume the bodies...

Christopher Markus: All of it! [laughter] That's why we're so conversived in it. It has elements of everything that had the word "Infinity" in front of it.

Stephen McFeely: That's right. We steal all the things that are helpful to us and we're not slavish to anything that doesn't.

Christopher Markus: Well it's also because a lot of those things then, you know, then you get into things like characters we don't have the rights to. Silver Surfer is flying all over those things but it's like, "You're in [Defenders]." [laughter] Unfortunately he flew to Century City and never came back.

How do you guys approach introducing a major character in the MCU like how you did with Black Panther in Civil War before his movie, with Captain Marvel for her movie, Pip the Troll for his movie? [laughter]

Christopher Markus: 2022. [laughter]

Stephen McFeely: Well there's a lot of conversations, right, and I'm neither confirming nor denying what you just supposed, neither on Pip the Troll or how Captain Marvel works, okay? But we have had to juggle both Marvel – Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Marvel – specifically because they all exist in various ways in and around these two movies.

Christopher Markus: Thor 3.

Stephen McFeely: Well, at least that's before this first movie. Black Panther is, too. So we think we handled it and solved it in fairly clever ways, [knocks on wood] but it certainly was an issue. If you wanna do what you wanna do here, how does it affect this movie and not just make this movie. Why is Ant-Man and Wasp not in Infinity War Part Two? So we gotta work on that and figure it out.

Christopher Markus: And also, how do you do it so like... I think he's writing down, "Ant-Man and Wasp are not in Infinity War Part Two" because you just said that.

Stephen McFeely: No no, how is the story of that movie not just part two of this?

Christopher Markus: How do you not fall into the trap of what these movies are sometimes accused of which is just sometimes feeding each other and not being standalone things

Stephen McFeely: Right.

Christopher Markus: You can't make them overly dependent on each other, and yet you still want to have this bloodstream flowing through the universe.

Stephen McFeely: Peyton Reed and his group of writers are going to make whatever movie they want. We had very small requests like, "It would be great if right there that person was—is that okay? Good?" You always make the best movie you can. Same thing with Black Panther and same thing with Captain Marvel. They're gonna make the movies they're gonna make and in this unique case, very small tiny suggestions for beginnings and endings like that.

Matching the tones too. I mean obviously, the tones of Guardians and those movies are so different from what we expect Black Panther to be versus what, you know, Spider-Man—I mean all those movies play such different roles. How do you work with that?

Christopher Markus: Well, I mean sometimes you play into it. You cut to the Guardians and it's a breather. If you're going from T'Challa and Captain America being very intense, you cut to Quill and Drax and it's like... [sighs] It doesn't mean they're not carrying as much plot, it just means the tone is different. But it's also fun to drag people into each other's tones. Pull someone into the Guardians and have them go, "What the f*ck is with you guys?"

What would you say is the tone of the movie and what type of movie is it.. Is is a disaster movie?

Stephen McFeely: It is difficult to explain.

Christopher Markus: It's Oscar-worthy.

[laughter]

Stephen McFeely: Can we not have that conversation? [laughter] This is embargoed. So Lord of the Rings, big epic thing right? It's three movies! This is 23 movies! When is someone going to get Fighty the Thullbird award. All it's doing is remaking Hollywood, please! Sorry.

[laughter]

Just to follow up on that because the Oscars are notoriously against the superhero genre. I'm curious what you guys think it will take for a Marvel movie to actually get that attention?

Christopher Markus: I don't know, I mean people mumble about it with various movies for various reasons. There was an article about Wonder Woman this Monday and there's articles about Logan, none of which are us. I think someone has to come to Jesus, so to speak, and take a look at the amount of work that's been done.

Stephen McFeely: You can work very hard on a crappy movie. You're not just rewarding work.

Christopher Markus: No but, Return of the King is no better or worse than the other two. It got cumulative awards. And frankly, if you go back and look at it you're like, "Really, you gave that Oscars?" Maybe they had extra Oscars that year.

Stephen McFeely: Two Towers is better, let's face it.

[laughter]

Christopher Markus: So there's one level where there does have to be, "Well f*ck, that's a bigger achievement than anybody's ever pulled off on a multi-movie scale." But also, I don't know what it's going to take to remove the prejudice from the eyes of these people. It's a civil rights drama and we're the victims.

Stephen McFeely: Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture. Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Christopher Markus: No, I think it's more than possible for someone with no blinders on to go in and go, "Well hell, that was a heavy lift."

Stephen McFeely: And that movie kicked my ass all over the place.

Christopher Markus: It's like diving. The degree of difficulty. I think sometimes people are like, "That movie was really simple and pure and should get an award." And that's great, but you should also go, "Holy sh*t, that was a crazy complicated dive and they did it." But the Oscars are not actually an accurate measure of anything.

Stephen McFeely: Did we whine enough there? [laughter]

You called Thanos an amoral philosopher, and I'm curious because I don't think he's literally talking to the Devil and you don't need to confirm or deny that, but he's not just going to be spouting his philosophy out. Can you say anything about who's Thanos' supporting cast? How did you crack that?

Stephen McFeely: Yes, you needed to make sure that he wasn't just all by himself. It also means that he didn't have the same scene over and over again as he went collecting stones and knocked people around. That's how you get this sort of tapestry film where he has emissaries who are doing some of his work while he is doing a lot of his own heavy lifting.

At the end of Ultron, he said "Fine, I'll do it myself."

Stephen McFeely: Not our movie.

[laughter]

Christopher Markus: And we've all sat there and went, "What the hell is he talking about? Where was he when he did that?"

There was also the other gauntlet in Guardians. 

Stephen McFeely: Another delightful, delightful problem.

Christopher Markus: Odin's a bit of a showman. Thanos turns out to have quite a few people to talk to both on his side and not on his side. Weirdly I think he's the most understandable guy in the movie sometimes.

Does he have an arc in this movie?

Stephen McFeely: Yes, one of the big challenges is how to make sure he's not just a relentless machine collecting stones like he's going shopping. So we want to give him a full weighted emotional story. You can kind of say this is Thanos' origin story so that he will get the weight of any of the previous heroes in terms of the decisions he has to make in order to get what he wants.

Christopher Markus: I mean the big thing about all of these movies, but these two. You know, all the way along the line we wanted to give people choices and make them continue to have to sacrifice this decision for this decision and not just have it be like, "I have no choice in this matter." Aliens attack New York City, what are you gonna do, not fight them? No you have to. So not criticizing that, but in order to sustain this long of an epic, to keep the waters a little muddy, to keep them going like, "Interesting, he did that. I might not have done that." And to do that for everybody, heroes and villains alike, until you get to the end and you go, "Huh shouldn't have done that."

We see a bunch of Avengers here, but there's no Iron Man or Hawkeye. Can you talk about their roles?

Stephen McFeely: As I said earlier, it's Nashville, so everyone's in a different bubble. Some bubbles come together and break apart, some bubbles come together for the third act. That kind of stuff.

Christopher Markus: Other people are uttlery CG, so what are you gonna do?

[laughter]

Stephen McFeely: That's right.

Christopher Markus: Oh, he's in the scene.

Stephen McFeely: Sure you just didn't see him. Ant-Man's all over that. [laughter]