Inside the room where Captain America: Civil War was born
With great power comes great animosity.
After eight years and 13 movies spent fighting aliens, robots, madmen, monsters, and other planet-imperiling mayhem, Marvel’s heroes are doing what most burned-out, overworked professionals do when faced with unrelenting crisis: They’re turning on each other.
In Captain America: Civil War, out Friday, it’s #TeamCap vs. #TeamIronMan in a battle over who has control over the superpowered, the collective governments of the world or the individual’s own conscience, and what the consequences should be when their best efforts go awry.
But that disagreement is just the fuse that ignites many other long-buried secrets, betrayals, and jealousies that, once the credits roll, will forever change the way fans look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
EW sat down with the red, white, and blue hero himself, Chris Evans, as well as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo – for a conversation in the very place where Civil War was born: a story room in the Marvel Studios headquarters.
HOLD THE ELEVATOR
Marvel HQ is located in a glass and steel building on the Walt Disney Studios lot that looks like it could be the West Coast branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As Evans gets into the elevator to ascend to Marvel’s floor, he politely holds the door for other passengers hurrying back from lunch. All of them recognize Cap, even in his civilian clothes, but nobody geeks out.
Pretty soon, the elevator is packed, shoulder to shoulder. As the doors close, someone says: “Now he’s going to beat all of us up.”
Evans laughs and turns around to break the taboo of no eye-contact. “I think about that every time I’m in one of these things,” he says.
THE DELIVERY ROOM
Marvel Studios is quieter than you’d expect. While writers and producers are plotting the destruction of the world, the galaxy, the universe, it’s pin-drop silent. In the lobby, a life-sized Spider-Man statue with his left arm outstretched in a web-squirting gesture is holding a smaller Spider-Man figure. The receptionist says they dress up the statue for different holidays.
The walls are lined with framed comic book art, concept art, and posters — although nothing spoiler-y about future movies. A large sign indicates that the taking of photos is basically punishable by death.
Feige, the producer and mastermind of these interlocked series of movies, and the Russo brothers are waiting for Evans outside a conference room with a plaque that designates the room: “Stark Tower.” This is the place where the team spent weeks breaking the story for Civil War with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the duo who wrote the previous Captain America films.
The table is big enough for a banquet in Asgard, and a sculpture of The Hulk fills a back corner of the room. The long interior wall is bare — for now. “The walls eventually morph into A Beautiful Mind,” Feige says. “We could walk you into Infinity War but we can’t. That room looks insane, we have so much stuff on the walls.”
“We put up comic images that are really inspiring or represent a critical moment in the storytelling,” Joe Russo says. Bits of dialogue are scrawled out and taped up. Connections between characters are drawn.
During the story meetings on Civil War, the vast table top was covered with photos of superheroes that were pushed back and forth across a dividing line — Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man — as the braintrust debated which alliances might generate the best drama.
Some team alliances were easy to decide: Don Cheadle’s War Machine is best friends with Tony Stark, and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is never going to leave Cap’s side. In addition to Black Panther, the man in the metal suit also scored Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Paul Bettany’s Vision, while Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man went with Mr. Stars and Stripes.
“This is an argument and a struggle with your family, for your family, and against your family,” says Evans, who has now played the super-soldier Steve Rogers in six Marvel films (counting a cameo in Thor: The Dark World.)
Normal people may not settle their quarrels by hurling each other through walls, but the actor says the emotional deathmatch in Civil War is just an exaggerated version of an ultra-tense holiday dinner. “I think it’s much more relatable, much more akin to [disputes] we have in life,” Evans says. “Arguments with your family can be far worse than struggles with your enemy.”
How did they ultimately settle on who chooses #TeamCap or #Team Iron Man?
“Coin toss,” Joe Russo jokes.
“Pin the tail on the donkey?” Evans suggests. “Magic 8-ball?”
“There were some that went back and forth a number of times,” Feige adds.
“I think the most complicated choice was Natasha,” Joe Russo says.
“I was just going to say I love her like ambiguity, her decisions,” Evans says.
#TEAM BLACK WIDOW
“What we did with her was like it was a two-step process,” Anthony Russo says. “The first phase we went through thinking about the characters as pairs. What were their relationships? What were the predictable choices that they were going to make that we had to service? And then how could we subvert those predictable choices?”
Falcon and War Machine were never going to be question marks, but Black Widow is nothing but a question mark. “We found a way to put Natasha in an awkward place, to sort of subvert her where she would normally go,” Anthony Russo says.
“In a way that was substantiated by her journey over the last few movies anyway,” Joe says. “Even though you know she had told the government to kiss her ass at the end of Winter Soldier, this movie presents a very complicated problem and she has an emotional response to what they’re being asked to do.”
So while Black Widow is #TeamIronMan, she’s not that committed to the accords that lock heroes under the control of others. “She’s a character who understands it on an intellectual level. She wants to make amends for some of the mistakes that the Avengers have made,” Joe says. “But she’s only willing to go so far with it.”
The movie is loosely inspired by the 2006-07 Civil War series of Marvel comic books written by Mark Millar. “Civil War had been a dream now almost exactly 10 years,” says Feige, who felt the hero vs. hero narrative would only pack an emotional punch if the characters had an established history. Thirteen movies in, the time seemed right., although they explored a lot of other options first.
“Every time there was a plot or a bad guy, “ Feige says, “There wasn’t, it wasn’t…”
“It wasn’t sticking to the ribs,” Joe Russo adds.
“It wasn’t beating Winter Solider. I thought it was now or never,” Feige says. “We love Chris Evans as Captain America, we love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. They’ve both done a number of movies, so we have that foundation now.”
But there were still some missing pieces they needed first.
“WHEN DID HE TELL YOU THAT?”
The biggest hurdle was Robert Downey Jr.’s participation. While most of the other actors were still under contract, Downey’s Marvel agreement had been fulfilled and his team played hardball before finally signing on. Without Downey, without Iron Man, Civil War wouldn’t have happened.
Another wild card was Black Panther. The film needed a neutral third party to disrupt the battle between Cap and Iron Man, but Marvel wasn’t sure it could introduce him without disrupting the character’s own stand-alone film planned for 2018.
Then there was the remote, outlandish, extremely unlikely wish that they could strike a deal with Sony Pictures to share the Spider-Man character, which the rival studio had exclusively licensed years before Marvel started making its own movies.
“We would have done this story with or without Spidey.” Feige says, looking at Evans. “But certainly that was part of the dream when I first pitched you on the set of Ultron.”
“Yeah, you came in and it was such a great reveal,” the actor says. “You had an envelope and you slid the Civil War comic book out. You know, I was hoping but I knew what it required — and you never know if that is going to work out. It was really exciting, and Downey came up to me on the set and was like, ‘I think we’re going to do this movie together.’ I was like, ‘Don’t play with my emotions.’”
Joe Russo sits up in his chair when he hears this. “When did he tell you that? How early was that?” he says. “Because that’s not what his agent said.”
Evans shrugs. “I don’t know, it might have been even before you came and told me,” the actor says. “Well, he seemed kind of into it.”
ON THE PROWL
Black Panther was a lot easier to get onboard once they figured out a way to introduce the prince from the fictional African nation of Wakanda in a way that would lay groundwork for his stand-alone film, coming in 2018 from Creed director Ryan Coogler.
“We thought it would be interesting if we could find somebody [in Civil War] who didn’t side either way except for this very personal thing that happens to him,” Feige says.
Panther harbors a family vendetta against The Winter Soldier, which places him in opposition to Captain America – but not necessarily on the side of Iron Man and his superhero sanctions.
Then it was just a matter of casting the right actor to portray the historic first black Marvel superhero: Chadwick Boseman, best known for playing the Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues, in the biopic 42. “The way he plays the [Panther] is very different than anybody else in the Marvel universe,” Joe Russo says. “He’s very quiet with a certain intensity. It differentiates him.”
“He really does have a very unique thing,” Evans says. “I’m used to doing scenes with Downey, who is just huge and kind of blows you back in your seat. And Chadwick really makes you kind of lean in a little bit.”
“I think we were in this room on this phone when we called Chadwick and offered him the job,” Feige says, pointing to the speakerphone. Boseman was in Europe, heading to a premiere. Feige flashes his eyebrows and grins: “He was surprised.”
The biggest surprise of all for the team was that they’d get a chance to choose a side for Spider-Man.
More on the webslinger Friday on EW.com…
For updates on the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, follow @Breznican.