In Captain America: Civil War, the 13th film in Marvel’s connected superhero franchise, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes trigger a fatal international tragedy and then face off in their most existential battle to date: an internal war over how, why, and when the Avengers should use their superhero powers to protect humanity.
As they did in Captain America: Winter Soldier, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely load Civil War with pointed real world themes, further advancing the character’s ongoing struggle to reckon with his place in a government institution fueled by post-9/11 paranoia.
This time it’s not drones, the Patriot Act, and the president’s kill list that hammer Cap’s story home, but broader questions of American military might and accountability on foreign soil—a parallel that explodes in an inciting incident in Lagos, Nigeria, when an Avengers field operation turns deadly, incurs civilian casualties, and turns the world on Tony Stark and his superheroes.
As the leaders of the world pressure Stark and the Avengers to submit to government oversight, the rift between #TeamStark and #TeamCap rips a tear right down the middle of the team as they pick sides between two noble leaders—one who places the priority on accountability, and another who worries about giving weaponized peacekeeping decision power to the fickle politicians of the world.
The repercussions of Civil War’s central divide will carry through to the back nine of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Markus and McFeely call it “the most mature Marvel movie” yet.
“The slight parallel is our ability, or a powerful nation’s ability, to sort of pick and choose when they can send in a drone or send in a strike team and get out before the actual authorities know that they’ve been there,” McFeely told The Daily Beast. “And I’m not making a judgment one way or the other, but certainly we play by rules that other people don’t have to play by.”
“It’s certainly not a one-to-one parallel, but the last few years we’ve been dealing with this question of the police, and who polices the police, and are they out of control?” offered Markus. “What is too much force to exert in order to quote-unquote keep the peace? It was interesting to deal with that on this, you know, slightly safer platform—to deal with those kinds of issues without getting too deep into an incredibly political argument. Not that we’re backing away from it. But this is the field we’re playing on, and it’s nice to be able to touch on reality a bit.”
McFeely and Markus have now scripted all three Captain America films as well as Thor: The Dark World. They’re also writing the two-part Marvel Cinematic Universe capper Avengers: Infinity War, and have by extension become two of Marvel’s key architects, steering the franchise’s most significant world-building installments.
Civil War, they explain, flips the script on the typical superhero movie formula we’ve seen in countless blockbusters across the genre. For starters, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Co. get a new kind of villain to tangle with, when they’re not trading blows with one another—not an evil superbaddie pulling strings from the outer cosmos, but Zemo, a shadowy earthbound antagonist (Daniel Bruhl) with a secret agenda.
In other words, there are no mystical Infinity Stones granting otherworldly power, and no Thanos lurking in the background waiting for his shot at the Avengers. “Thanos who?” Markus quipped. “Never heard of him!”
“We didn’t want anything harder [for the Avengers] to beat than each other,” he explained. “We wanted Tony to be Steve’s antagonist, Steve to be Tony’s antagonist, and their disagreement to be the central problem of the movie.”
“Zemo is exacerbating it, he’s poking that sore spot,” Markus continued. “But we never wanted them to shake hands and go, ‘Why are we arguing about this when there’s something worse right over there?!’ That Civil War question always had to be the worst thing happening in the movie.”
The studio tinkered with the film until test audiences fell right down the middle, their allegiances torn between Captain America and Iron Man.
“It would be easy to make somebody a straw man,” said McFeely. “And when we finally hit upon the reason why Tony gets very angry, it solved all the problems. Certainly in the Civil War comic, as much as we liked it, it was too easy to pick Cap’s side. I think most people walk out of this movie pretty split. That’s my hope. That was the goal. Our last test screening was split right down the middle, and that’s when we stopped.”
“My sympathies probably don’t match who I would vote for in an election or something like that, to draw these parallels between various candidates and various heroes,” added Markus. “But we have different requirements for real life than we do with films.”
It’s a bold deviation from the bombastic stakes of your average superhero flick to kick off Marvel’s Phase 3, the third and final arc of connected films to unfold since the comic-based studios launched their cinematic universe in 2008 with Iron Man. And while it takes its name from the Marvel Comics’ series in which the Superhero Registration Act divided the entire superhero community, the writers didn’t borrow entirely from the comics.
According to McFeely, Marvel’s brain trust made a deliberate decision to go in newer directions in Civil War, a trend that will continue in the next Phase 3 films.
“We’re paying for the sins of the movies, right? When the first act is about, ‘You people all need to be controlled,’ it’s because we as a collective filmmaking group had looked at the third acts of the Marvel universe and said ‘Wow, they’re similar,’ he said. “And when we say ‘they,’ a lot of things fell down and undoubtedly innocent people got hurt.
“The formula’s a little bit different in this one, and very much by design. That was what we’re trying to be true to. We’re not looking at the world necessarily and saying, ‘How can we parallel a candidate or a philosophy or an event?’ but looking at the events of our own movies and saying, isn’t it time to address some of the things we’ve already done?”
“We don’t know the entirety of Phase 3,” said Markus. “But I think there is… maybe a shift toward more personal stakes, as opposed to ‘This giant bad guy is going to threaten everybody!’”
“Maybe because in the climax of Phase 3, and we all already know it, this giant bad guy is going to threaten everyone!” he laughed. “We all know Thanos is coming. It would not be a good idea to run up many mini-Thanoses prior to that. So I do think the dynamic is shifting a little bit.”
“And it’s the audience,” added McFeely. “Everyone is now familiar with some of our tricks. That’s why Deadpool destroyed the universe a couple of months ago. It was a superhero movie that didn’t look like other superhero movies. It just sort of gave the finger to them. It was great.”
Did the success of an outside-the-box studio superhero movie like Fox’s cheeky, R-rated Marvel risk Deadpool have any sort of ripple effect into the greater landscape of superhero cinema?
“Well,” Markus teased, “Cap swears a lot now.”
Markus and McFeely applaud the success of Deadpool over at rival studio 20th Century Fox—because it proved to suits everywhere that creative gambles can pay off.
“It might expand the freedom a little bit to try new things,” mused Markus. “I don’t think we or anybody else has any intention of copying the specifics of Deadpool, but they took a risk and it paid off. And any time anybody does that, other people are able to point at it and go, ‘Well, that worked!’”
Meanwhile, the #TeamCap endorsement of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders had Marcus and McFeely tickled, even though they developed Civil War long before the current election circus began: “Bernie Sanders was down 40 points when we made this movie!”
Our current climate of abrasive, invasive personal politics and increased xenophobia—particularly the violent outbursts that mar Republican hopeful Donald Trump’s rallies—only makes a hero like Captain America resonate more, says Markus.
“I think the more that people like him spout off and attempt to speak for other people when they so clearly speak for an extreme minority, characters like Captain America become more important,” said Marcus. “What might otherwise be viewed as kind of trite in what they say and the way they deal with the world, it’s important to have someone remind people that that is not what this country is about, and you’re being kind of an ugly fool, and reductive.”
McFeely made an important distinction: “Cap has always been a symbol of the country and not the government. There was a great run during Watergate where he really just in essence exposes the president as a liar and a criminal!” he laughed. “It’s great.”
As shepherds of Captain America and the future of the MCU, I asked, do the pair feel greater than usual responsibility knowing they’re writing a character that is also, in his very essence, representing an entire country to the outside world?
“It is not our place to necessarily inject our politics all over this movie, and it is not our place to say exactly what the nature of America is,” laughed McFeely, “but I’m also a knee-jerk lefty Hollywood screenwriter.”
“I’ve felt gratified, because it was always a fear when we rolled the first one out: Is the title Captain America going to hurt box office in foreign territories?” said Markus. “And to a lot of degrees it hasn’t. For one, I think people understand that the character is not a representative of the government. But also I think there is an understanding that America, the concept, is not represented 100 percent by the government, either.”
“People still have this quote-unquote dream of America in other places that doesn’t have much to do with foreign policy, and doesn’t even have all that much to do with whatever’s happening in the contemporary world,” he concluded. “It’s a concept that people everywhere still find very appealing. If we can align Cap with that, we’re good.”