Team Iron Man speaks from the set of Captain America: Civil War
Iron Man is real. There’s a running joke that there is no line between Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark, they are the same person. I believe it.
I’m seated in an uncomfortable plastic chair behind many of my colleagues in a cold corner at Pinewood Atlanta. The room we’re in is sectioned off by curtains. Things are quiet and then like a magician, Downey appears from behind the curtain. Making the type of entrance that if it were anyone else, people would have rolled their eyes, but not for him. He’s Iron Man, and we’re all just living in his world.
The movie may be called Captain America: Civil War, but Iron Man plays a pivotal role. What is particularly interesting is how the film takes this character we all met as a reckless playboy with a drinking problem and brought him to the side of oversight and control.
“To me it seemed like the most viable arc,” Downey says.
And he’s right.
Tony’s arc throughout the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has been about him maintaining and gaining more control over his surroundings, and the world at large. He took charge of his health in the first Iron Man, he took control of his image in Iron Man 2, he wanted control of the leadership in The Avengers, he conquered his fears in Iron Man 3, and he tried to control world security in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now he’s going to control Earth’s mightiest heroes.
“I think what’s interesting is not so much that he’s looking for more control but that he’s saying that as a group of individuals we all require a little bit more supervision than we might imagine,” Downey says after I point this out. “And that for me was just a really straight line, because I don’t like words coming out of a character’s mouth that I adore because not only is he a little bit duplicitous but he’s kind of practical in the way he thinks, and he thinks in terms of everyone’s humanity and how quickly we can go against what we think we meant when we said it or what we believe.”
Early on in the film is when the divide will happen. Something occurs that sends the MCU into a spiral and like the comic book basis for the film, it pits Tony and Steve against each other. There is a prime difference from the source material and the film though – you might find yourself agreeing with Tony Stark this time around.
“When we decided to do ‘Civil War,’ you read the books again and you realize, he really is the villain,” executive producer Nate Moore says. “He makes a series of decisions that all of us would go, ‘Well that’s questionable if not evil to do X,Y, and Z.’ So we wanted to kind of take those off the table. He’s not cloning Thor, those kinds of ideas that are really fun when you read them on the page, but I think in publishing, it took me a couple years before I was cool with Tony Stark again.”
The filmmakers are hoping that the divide in the MCU extends into the audience too. Captain America may be the title character, but you may think that Tony Stark is right, and then when it’s over you may think Steve was right.
“Obviously it will be easier for the audience to get behind Cap because it’s his movie, it’s his point of view and he has the most screen time,” co-director Joe Russo says. “However, Tony has the most emotional motivation in the film. The most human motivation. Cap’s is philosophical, we did that as a metric. It’s natural instinct for an audience member to want to get behind the person that has more screen time and somebody as likable and rootable as Cap, so you have to work really hard to make sure that this is not a protagonist/antagonist movie. Hopefully by the time we’re done, it’s a very complex film where you walk out of the film having a fight with your buddy or your boyfriend/girlfriend about who was right in the film.”
What is that emotional motivation for Tony Stark? Does he finally feel responsible for all that debris left around the world from The Avengers adventures? Does he learn about a metal-armed assassin that killed his parents, and just so happens to be friend with Captain America? We can’t say for certain, but it seems like that will at least be part of the reason Tony is so adamant about his position.
“It is implied that Hydra killed Howard Stark,” co-writer Stephen McFeely corrects us when we reach for the implication that The Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents. “I think that’s all we know, for sure, is that they did that. Bucky killed a lot of people…”
Executive producer Nate Moore elaborated on the full extent of Tony’s reasoning, saying:
“That was the most important thing: Giving Tony a reason that not only he can buy into and you can buy into, but other heroes who end up on his side don’t feel like chumps for going along. If Tony goes off the reservation and says something crazy, and other people end up on his team you don’t want the whole team to feel like dupes. You want to go, ‘They have a really good reason. I may or may not agree with that, but it’s logical, and it tracks.’ So that was a big challenge — not making him feel like a megalomaniac who sells out all of his friends for something that you and I would go ‘That’s crazy.’”
Speaking of the heroes on his side, Tony’s got plenty. Don Cheadle’s War Machine is naturally Team Iron Man, but so is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Paul Bettany’s Vision. Most importantly though is the new guy on the block, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther.
The day we’re on set is the first day that the Black Panther costume has been on camera, and you can feel the importance in the air. Not only is it an achievement to see this character finally on the big screen, but it’s flat out one of the coolest costumes Marvel Studios has ever assembled. I’ve talked to a lot of superheroes, quite a few of them in their spandex, and this is my favorite.
“When he came out on set there were some comic book fans who were just tearing up,” Joe Russo says. “It’s a real moment for people to see this character for the first time on screen. People who grew up and championed this character as kids and was a role model for them, their favorite hero. The sense of that as a comic book fan, there was historic nature of getting him on screen for the first time.”
The costume is slick, elegant, and exudes power. T’Challa doesn’t need a shield or repulsors or even extra weapons, his hands do all the talking for him. There’s also a literal silver lining running throughout it too, accentuating not only the features of the mask and the character’s body, but outlining his claws.
The cameras are focused on a fight between two other characters, more on that later, but in the background Black Panther and The Winter Soldier trade blows. Though they’re both out of focus figures in the shot, everyone’s eyes are Black Panther. He moves with grace and ferocity. Swinging the claws with precision and intensity. He moves like an actual panther, and he’s doing that on purpose, even out of the costume.
“Chad brings a certain movement, and it’s through his own experience with the martial arts that we hadn’t really talked about,” Nate Moore says. “The first day on set we were like, ‘Oh. Well, that’s kind of interesting.’ He has a very kind of slick cat-like walk that does feel like Kabuki trying to be a cat but is very much his own thing.”
Even more than the way he moves, Boseman is bringing a cultural anchor to the character and a fresh way of speaking, despite coming from a fictional country.
“He did great research on the very cultural aspects of the character,” Anthony Russo says. “Even though it’s a fictional cultural, figuring out ways to tether it into real African culture.”
“He found a regional accent based on where Wakanda would be,” Joe Russo adds. “Just an incredible, intense amount of detail.”
Boseman’s cultural and regional research isn’t all he did to prepare for the role, he found every Black Panther comic he could get his hands on.
“I’ve just tried to read them all,” he tells us. “Not like it’s really work. Don’t get me wrong — it is work, but it’s just sort of reading them like a kid, you know? Because when you just read it like it’s work, you’re just trying to get through it. So I think it’s putting yourself in that mind frame to go through the mythology in a fun way.”
Boseman tells us there is at least one particular version of the character that he really gravitated towards with his interpretation, but he won’t tell us which. He does maintain that the countless writers that have penned T’Challa have each brought something to the character that he wants to use.
“All of the writers have come up with different aspects of who he is. So you could take different things from each one, and they don’t contradict each other necessarily. The principals and essence of who he is are still there. He’s a little cooler in some of them. In Christopher Priest’s version, he doesn’t trust anybody. All of it is good stuff to use. There’s a sense of him searching for himself in some of the ones in the ’80s, which I think is really good.”
He reveals that in between trips to the comic book store, he went to Africa to further get into character.
“I’ve gone to South Africa, gone to some places, to see some things that I think relate to the character, and let those things sort of fuel your workouts, fuel your sessions when you work on the part.”
To an outisde observer it may seem like the inclusion of Black Panther is a shoehorned attempt by Marvel to launch their next big franchise, but the character is central in the film’s plot and would still be here even if he wasn’t getting his own movie in two years.
“Panther has a great place in the story, and Wakanda has a great place in the story,” co-writer Christopher Markus says. “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,’ but it’s too good. It’s just too good.”
Back on the set, the Panther and the Winter Soldier continue their tussle, but the cameras are close in on another fight: Hawkeye versus Black Widow. Both of them are sporting new tech, which they’re using to try and pummel each other into submission. Hawkeye’s new bow goes rigid and turns into a staff, while Natasha sports a weapon that at its base looks like a Billy club, but extends out like a retractable baton. New toys courtesy of Tony Stark.
“She’s not trained to take sides,” Markus says of Scarlett Johansson’s character. “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 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.’”
With a film full of characters it might be difficult to choose, but when asked which character was perhaps the most difficult to get down in the script stage, co-director Joe Russo had no qualms about outright saying Black Widow.
“We made some strong choices with Natasha in this movie and it’s a tricky arc that she has to play in the film… You always want to surprise people, you don’t want to make choices that are easy. I always said what I loved about ‘Breaking Bad’ is that Vince Gilligan always wrote himself into the hardest corner. I would watch an episode and go ‘I have no f***ing idea how he’s going to solve this next week,’ and he would solve it. That’s compelling narrative, that’s compelling storytelling to me. We made a similar choice with her on this film, but it’s tricky because you have to monitor constantly throughout the filmmaking to make sure you’re getting the subtleties of the arc and what she’s doing.”
There’s another member of Team Iron Man that presents a pivotal decision in the film – Vision. The android made his debut in Age of Ultron, in what Robert Downey Jr. calls an “ immaculate conception,” and proved to be a vital member of the team. In fact, it could be argued that the reason The Avengers were able to beat the title villain was because of the new hero. Some fans might think since the character is so powerful, that he should be able to end the Civil War in an instant, but that’s not the case.
“We like characters that have limitations to their powers, so there’s a cost for everything that they do,” Joe Russo explains. “If Vision is too powerful then what do you need everybody else for? So there are limitations to him as a character. His arc specifically in this movie is about him discovering his limitations.”
Not only are limitations a key element for Vision in the film, but also learning to live as a non-human in a human world. As a result, don’t expect to see him in his normal outfit and cape at all times.
“Vision doesn’t walk around the Avengers compound in his cape, he walks around in clothes,” Joe says. “He’s trying to assimilate. So you just make choices like that that try to pull the characters to as human a realm as we possibly can.”
When asked what his lounge clothes are, the Russos were quick to point out that what Vision chooses to wear is an extension of his trying to fit in, and perhaps trying too hard.
“That was a fun conversation because he sort of projects his own clothing so it’s an interpretation of his personality,” Joe says. “He’s rather dashing. It looks really good.”
“We always thought about it from the point of view, Vision is thinking about how does he make himself fit in to situations and fit in with people and connect to characters,” Anthony adds. “It’s a very interesting projection. It’s like how anybody chooses to dress, it’s how you want to be or who you think you are.”
The fights continue for multiple takes on the set. Hawkeye and Black Widow swing at each other while Black Panther turns the Winter Soldier into apple sauce. Don’t forget that this is still a Captain America movie though, and even though it doesn’t have “Avengers” in the title, it might be Marvel’s biggest film ever.
“It’s a sprawling film, no question,” Joe Russo says. “There’s a lot of characters, and characters are incredibly important to us, so we’re making sure as much as we can that everybody has a fleshed-out arc in the movie. You can see how many people we’ve got out here, once you start trying to trigger arcs for everybody it becomes a very, very big, sprawling, epic film. This is much, much bigger than Winter Soldier. I think it’s probably bigger than anything they’ve done to date.”
Captain America: Civil War debuts in theaters on May 6. You can view new Team Iron Man character posters in the gallery below!