Maybe it's appropriate that Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Emmy-winning writers of an HBO biopic about Peter Sellers, would eventually wind up becoming the go-to guys for Marvel Studios to write the movie adventures of their man-out-of-time WWII hero Captain America. To some, Sellers himself was seen as an actor way ahead of his time, especially with his unforgettable role in Being There. That might seem like a stretch, but before being pulled into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the duo also spent years adapting C.S. Lewis' fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia," making them more than ready to bring one of Marvel's more relatable, grounded characters into a world full of billionaire playboys obsessed with reinventing their armor, irradiated scientists with anger issues and Norse Gods from another dimension.
Before Captain America could band together with other Avengers, Markus and McFeely's screenplay for 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger told the story of how wimpy Steve Rogers was turned into the government's Super Soldier with the surprising decision to keep 95% of the movie set during WWII. It worked and many moviegoers, whether they were fans of the comics or not, really dug their take on the patriotic hero. So did Marvel Studios, who immediately hired the duo to write a sequel even before "The First Avenger" was released.
With that sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be out everywhere sometime in the next 24 hours, the writing duo have upped their game, tackling a fairly dense and complex story involving S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra and a darker side of the U.S. government within the Marvel Cinematic Universe than we've seen before. Cap's now in the present day working with S.H.I.E.L.D. so we get to see more of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, as well as a number of new players including Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka the high-flyin' Falcon and of course, there's the title character, the Winter Soldier, who combines the old with the new to balance things out.
SuperHeroHype got on the phone with the two writers–who have already signed on to write a third Captain America movie–to talk about some of the developments in the new movie and some of what might happen next with Cap following the end of the movie, which ends in a fairly open-ended way. We also talked briefly about the "Agent Carter" pilot they wrote, which hopefully will be picked up by ABC, but more importantly… if the Serpent Squad ever appears in a future Marvel movie, you can all thank or blame us!
(Note: As with many writing teams, when you work together for long hours, you kind of start to sound the same, and while we tried hard to attribute everything said below to the proper one of the guys, we more than likely got a few things completely wrong.)
SuperheroHype: You both were signed to write this sequel even before the first movie came out, so you were already fairly involved with the character. "The Winter Soldier" is not the typical sequel where you bring everyone back and keep the same things that worked. This is a completely different movie. Knowing that you couldn't do another movie set in WWII, how much direction did you have three years ago in terms of what to do with Cap, knowing he'd be appearing in "The Avengers" as well?
Christopher Markus: "Avengers" is so collective that no one character is going to dominate that and no one's going to get such an arc that it's prohibitive for us to take him places.
Stephen McFeely: Certainly we get to read it as they were shooting it, so it was never a problem to incorporate what Joss has done into what we were planning to do.
Markus: We mostly were trying to figure out what the story to tell was, because you can do any number of Captain America movies—you have a bunch of films, you have a bunch of situations. Eventually, it sort of came down to, "Well, the guy is named Captain America, he's got to get into something political or he's not wearing the right outfit for the party." Then it came down to how would this guy who is ostensibly from the more black and white 1940s react to this ultimately grey world that we live in. Really, we really don't even pretend to be clear-cut anymore. In the ‘60s when Stan Lee brought him back in ‘63, that run of the next ten years, the Captain is dealing with all sorts of the same things that the country is dealing with–Vietnam, Watergate and all that stuff–so he gets to have opinions on that. Our Cap missed it all, he missed 9/11, he missed all of that, but we still wanted that flavor of what's it like for that guy to come face-to-face with questions of today.
SHH: I'm not sure if you've read "Marvel: The Untold Story," but I was reading about how Steve Engelhart was writing Cap including all the politics of the time, so it's interesting to see that crossing into the movie.
Markus: I have read that book, it's fascinating.
McFeely: The Brubaker ones stand out as particularly trenchant and serious, one because of that and also because Steve Epting draws in such a realistic style, but even when you go back and things were more cartoony in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the stories are still pretty hardcore and pushing Cap to make choices and decisions about what his role is in the national stage. The whole run where he steps aside and John Walker comes in and plays Captain America, it looks a little exaggerated just ‘cause of the way it's drawn, but basically, the USA says they own him and can do whatever they want with him, so he hands over the shield and the outfit and goes off and tries to figure out what it is he needs in this world.
(SPOILER WARNING: The next question and response touches upon the movie's last act and ending of the movie in case you haven't seen it yet.)
SHH: I don't want to spoil the movie, but it does end in that kind of place where it is very open-ended and you have no idea where Cap might go after this. He'll be in "Avengers: Age of Ultron," obviously, but as far as his own thing, he could just put the shield down and walk away.
McFeely: There's dread we're living, the last couple scenes that are pointing in that direction.
Markus: And even when you reach the level of destruction that he does in the third act of this movie. Three Helicarriers down, takes out a skyscraper, you can't go to a jolly happy ending after that. That fixed everything. He has caused chaos which is exactly what HYDRA were allegedly trying to avoid, but it's preferable, so you can't leave the movie tied up in a bow because he says, "No, better freedom than order," so there's this order at the end of the movie.
SHH: Not knowing the context, when I saw the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier crashing in the trailer that sold me right there. I feel that over the years, the Helicarrier is always being destroyed in the comics.
McFeely: It has a reputation for faulty wiring.
Markus: If you were going to design something, you might want it to be able to fly… but it's basically just a brick in the sky.
SHH: In the context of the film, it's not that amusing to me, but it was amusing in the trailer.
McFeely: They threatened to do it in "Avengers" and we just felt like, "Well, you gotta give them what they want now." You just have to plant this thing. There was this ongoing debate as the months of writing went on whether it was one Helicarrier, four Helicarriers, five Helicarriers and one day you'd walk in and they'd say that three is a good even number.
SHH: I was also pretty amazed by what the Russos did with this movie. Before I saw the movie I tried not to know much about it, and I was impressed with the action and the amount of destruction, which was on a much bigger scale than I imagined. How much of the action was written into the screenplay differentiating it from the hi-tech stuff in "Iron Man" and the magic in "Thor"?
McFeely: The very first draft of the screenplay looks a lot like the movie. That said, the Russos came in and had all the same and even better touchstones than what we were talking about. They came in and would say, "This feels like a William Friedkin section, feels like a Brian De Palma section," so like that elevator scene was something not quite as interesting as that elevator scene but the Russos came in and went, "Why don't we do this tense built-up elevator thing" and it was all very exciting the whole time we were working on the second draft with them. Chris and I would talk to each other and say, "They're talking a great game. If they can do what they say they want to do, this will be great," and then we had no idea whether the guys from TV would be able to do this. In a way, it was a really great mesh of that they really got the material and they elevated it. It was a real pleasure.
Markus: But also, we definitely wanted to drive down a much more grounded road. We had just done a little bit of work on "Thor: The Dark World" and we tried to ground it in whatever ground is around but there happened to be twelve different dimensions and space elves, and Iron Man is so in the rarified world of Tony Stark that we wanted to set it apart. Steve's a normal guy, despite all the extraordinary things that have happened to him, and that's all he wants to do. We really wanted to see how, not only in the action and plot stuff, but also in the pre-plot jogging and meeting Sam section, how does this guy attempt to live a normal life? Because that's really all he wants. You get on a spaceship, you can't live a normal life, but you go jogging….
SHH: I definitely liked that the movie had its own standalone feel even though it's come after all these other movies. It's very much its own thing, which makes it hard to compare to "The Avengers" or "Thor" or even the first movie.
McFeely: That's very gratifying, and also, it takes place over three-ish days and it allows you to make a very tight story where you don't call up Iron Man to blow some things up for you. That was kind of an imperative going in is getting it to stand alone so that in the back of you're head you're not going, "Wasn't he friends with a huge green guy who can clean that up for him?" That sort of necessitated the tightness and the really frantic pacing of it is that we didn't want time to get baggy and therefore raise some obvious questions.
Markus: That also has to do with theme, like he said, the theme of "I don't know who I can trust and I don't know where I fit in this world. That's not a story where you then expand it and call in more people. I trust Tony Stark so therefore I'm going to bring him in the story." This is much more (of a) "Three Days of the Condor," one guy on the run type story. That's another thing I really liked, the idea that we figured out a genre and a story that got the most out of the character. That's not always the case with blockbusters that are made in different ways, right? We know that they're made with a back-end release date and there are three sequences we want to see where some exciting action sequence happens. This one was made much more organically in terms of the script.
McFeely: To Marvel's credit, they rarely do it that way. They're very story-oriented. This one was always, being gender benders, you always expect to write the script and have people say, "Well we're going to cut out 50 pages of the movies, but we're fine. we don't need your help," but really it was very faithful to the original conception all the way through.
SHH: That's great and also that they're following through and having you involved with the next Cap movie as well because that rarely happens with sequels or franchises. It's nice having the continuity between movies even if they're very different.
McFeely: We've tricked them into thinking we're valuable. (laughs) So we get to continue to play in the sandbox and it's been a hell of a lot of fun to be with it from the first messy weeks of "Should we make a second movie and if so what will it be about?" all the way to the premiere and not get shunted away as writers sometimes do.
SHH: S.H.I.E.L.D. has played a really big in the Marvel Cinematic Universe throughout the movies up to "The Avengers," but in this one we learn more about Nick Fury, more about Black Widow, and you set up a lot of things that in theory could continue into another Captain America movie, but should they? Or should the next movie just be about Cap and what he's dealing with? Do you already have some idea where to go from here?
McFeely: Yeah, we have about a hundred ideas where to go from here and now we're finally deciding which one.
Markus: That was kind of the fun of this one is that everyone intersected organically in the story. We knew that it was a S.H.I.E.L.D. story. That would naturally draw in Fury and Natasha. I don't know if anyone is mandatory to come back aside from Steve, probably Sam, because they've partnered up.
McFeely: We're exploring the other possibilities now. You can see at the end of the movie we laid out the threads. We're tugging on those threads now and seeing if they turn into a whole sweater.
SHH: That's a great analogy. I don't want to try to influence anything with this conversation, but I'd be very happy if I see the Serpent Squad sometime on the big screen before I die. (This cracks both writers up.) Even if it's not until 2026… Serpent Squad.
McFeely: That's about when it would be.
Markus: (laughs) Yeah, would you want the actual snake body?
SHH: Honestly, I have no idea how you could fit them into the current Marvel movies, but I don't care. I just like them so much.
McFeely: I just imagine that they banded together not for any pure goals but they all had chosen a snake theme for their costumes and thought, "We look good together." (laughs)
SHH: They either met through some sort of support group or some sort of Email list and they all got together. Markus: That's what the internet does, right?
McFeely: And then they tell new members, "You only picked the snake theme so you could join the Squad. You're not really committed to being a snake man…"
SHH: They came up with a lot of crazy ideas in the ‘70s. Are you also developing more stuff for Agent Carter? I know the One-Shot was pretty popular.
McFeely: We're trying to.
Markus: We actually did not have anything to do with the "One-Shot" with Eric Pearson and Louis Esposito directing it. Once it was well received, Marvel came up with the idea that maybe there should be a pilot, so they got us to write the pilot, which seems to have turned out well. I just think ABC is now just deciding if and when they want to make it, but we'd love to do it.
Markus: Yeah, it would be a hell of a lot of fun to take this small slice of the Cap universe and really dig into it in a big way and also not have Cap in it. We want you to really know these people, but you can't explore them all. You can't go home with Dum Dum Dugan… but now we can! (laughs)
McFeely: You're not supposed to have this opportunity in movies where you can open the door and follow another character because the plot would stall.
Markus: With "Agent Carter," (Cap) is literally gone, everyone assumes he's dead, so it's not proverb exactly but it takes him off the table. There's no possibility of him walking back in the door and affecting the story; it's really a Sharon Carter-centric story.
McFeely: That's the other thing, that Haley Atwell is great.
SHH: And you introduce some new characters in "Cap 2" as well as developing some of the other S.H.I.E.L.D. characters, particularly Nick Fury who hasn't really had that much time in other movies. it's a really good mix of new and old.
Markus: Fury has been at the same level of his unique personality through the preceding movies, very deliberately, but this is not a guy who opens up. When he spent the first five or six movies assembling the Avengers that was his goal. Now that it's done we can find out who he is. We can crack the shell and see where he came from and have him make a mistake or two.
SHH: Before you guys go, I want to quickly ask about "Chronicles of Narnia," because I'm a huge fan of the books. Do you think there's a future for the movies as a franchise at this point and are you still involved at all?
Markus: They're trying to do a fourth one.
McFeely: Yeah, they're trying to do "The Silver Chair" right now but I don't think there's a studio.
McFeely: No, I think they switched producers, but "Silver Chair" I think is a good choice because it's a pretty coherent adventure that's not terribly tied to what comes before or after so you can make a really solid adventure movie and not get too bound up inside this other thing. It's three acts, it's literally a beginning, middle and end and it feels like a whole story. "Caspian" was harder because it takes place a thousand years later and "Dawn Treader" was really hard. We were kicked off that one. The problem with "Dawn Treader" is that it's a lovely book with no stakes. It's a philosophical exploration that needed to be turned into a heroic quest, but it basically just wasn't.
Markus: I look forward to them attempting to make "The Horse and His Boy" and "The Last Battle." It's an evil talking monkey!
McFeely: Wasn't there a donkey wearing a lion skin, something like that?
McFeely: We always thought that if we did "The Silver Chair," we'll crush that one, but everything worked out for a reason. If we stayed with that, we wouldn't be here.
SHH: Sure, you guys seem to be keeping busy in the Marvel Universe. Do you guys have anything else in the works besides Cap 3?
Markus: If I could write in my sleep maybe, but I don't sleep so therefore, I can't get that done. No, we're full on Cap 3 right now and if "Agent Carter" comes up we're going to find a way to fit that in.
McFeely: And that would be our life for the next three years.
SHH: I remember you guys wrote a smaller movie called "You Kill Me" in the between "Narnia" movies.
McFeely: If you look at our IMDb page, I kind of like it, but it's kind of weird, right? If "Cap 3" happens, there's a couple trilogies in there, there's a dark comedy that maybe not a lot of people saw and a biopic, and "Pain & Gain," it's a weird fit in there.
Markus: Yeah, it certainly is probably up next in the rotation to shrink the scope a little bit, so there's something about people and if someone drops a coffee cup, it has the same weight as crashing a Helicarrier into the Triskelion, but it costs a little bit less, although I'm sure it would be a CG coffee cup.
McFeely: But yeah that's the idea to go from big to small and blockbusters to indies.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now playing in select countries, but it opens in North America in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D starting on Thursday night, April 3, 2014. Tonight!