Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely hone 70 years of comic book history to script Captain America: The First Avenger and dish on what Marvel told them about writing toward the upcoming Avengers movie.
Written by Denis Faye
Next time you’re looking to bring a fantasy property successfully to the big screen, drop a line to Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Not only has the writing team played a huge role in bringing all three Chronicles of Narnia movies to life, but they’re the writers behind Marvel’s latest superhero outing, this weekend’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to hire someone to write your “real life” biopic, you might want to seek out… Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely.
Yep, it’s true. The same guys who just wrote a movie about an invincible patriot running around in red, white, and blue underwear are also the writing team behind the Emmy-winning biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and are currently working with Michael Bay on the real-life crime story Pain & Gain.
Surprisingly, switching gears between these two genres isn’t all that much of a challenge to the boys. “We kind of treat both like true stories,” explains McFeely.
“In a weird way, we got into the fantasy side of things because we were good with true characters,” adds Markus. “We met [Chronicles of Narnia writer-producer] Andrew Adamson because he liked our Peter Sellers script. They brought us in on Narnia when they needed a character pass, not a fantasy pass. It was our inability not to take the characters seriously that got us stuck in these damn golden handcuffs.”
Fortunately, the team was unshackled recently and allowed to talk to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the craft of instilling a sense of reality to fantasy characters, particularly Captain America. In case you’re not in the know, “Cap,” as he’s called, is a WWII-era, 90-pound weakling named Steve Rogers who gains superpowers and uses them to fight the Nazis, particularly a grotesquely deformed scientist named The Red Skull. A true story? Hardly, but if anyone can make it feel real, it’s these guys.
Captain America is relatively obscure compared to other superheroes who’ve been given their own films. In your creative process, how did you make up for that?
Photo: © 2011 Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios
Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Christopher Markus: He’s not as sexy as your Spider-man or your X-men, but he has been around for 70 years, so something’s working there.
Stephen McFeely: People know the name certainly. They know what Captain America is, but once you get into 70 years of comics, he’s certainly a more interesting, complicated character. We just started with that. We just wanted to make the Steve Rogers story.
Christopher Markus: So basically, we knew we had to lead people very clearly into this guy and why he would want to become this superhero. We couldn’t just start with a man in an American flag suit running down the street. We had to take our time.
Speaking of the costume, there are a lot of tropes in superheroes comics that need to be converted to work on the screen. How do you go about that?
Christopher Markus: It was storytelling in that we knew that it was going to say something that we didn’t want to say if Stephen went into his bathroom one day and came out in a red, white, and blue suit and said, “I’m going to be Captain America.” So, by having the whole USO sequence and having the basic design of the suit come from the propaganda machine, it sort of makes the suit make sense, and it puts it within Stephen’s arc of never actually getting what he wants until a certain point, of trying to prove his worth, of trying to prove that he can fight like everybody else. So, the USO worked in that sense, but it also handed us this ready-made explanation as to why he’d wear a costume like that.
Stephen McFeely: It also nods to a theme that runs throughout the Captain America comics that he’s often being asked to do things and being misused as a symbol. There are great sequences right around Watergate where he gets really angry and puts the shield down and quits because he doesn’t believe in what’s going on.
Why do you think you needed to put so much thought into the costume? Why is it that in a comic book, a superhero can pick up some funny underwear, and it’s all good, but in the movies, you need that extra dimension?
Christopher Markus: Because in the comics, very quickly, you forget the metaphor and the symbolism and that’s just “that guy.” Spider-man doesn’t make you go, “He has the power of spiders!” He’s just Spider-man. Captain America is, by this point, just Captain America. You don’t say, “There goes the guy who’s really into Uncle Sam.” It’s just easier to accept them in these outfits when everyone else in the comics accepts them. They just say, “Yeah. That’s what we wear.”
Stephen McFeely: Comic books have a different set of rules and perhaps a different audience from major motion pictures. There’s a bit more realism required, and you’re dealing with a lot more people who aren’t just going to buy in.
But what you have done that respects that comic book audience is set the movie in World War II, like the original. Was that your choice?
Stephen McFeely: It was why we did it. We had heard in the spring of 2008 that they were going to do it that way, and we thought it would solve so many problems we have with current superhero movies. You could be a little more earnest, you could be sincere and your villain’s agenda gets taken care of.
Christopher Markus: It’s also the only time you could come up with that character and get him to be the guy we all want him to be – a relatively pure symbol of the values behind the country, as opposed to “Government Man.” To have a guy in 2012 go downstairs and come back up as Captain America, that guy is a much different mindset and probably not as positive as a 90-pound boy in WWII would be.
Do you think that kind of innocence is a realistic representation of history, or do you think that’s just how we want to remember it?
Stephen McFeely: That’s interesting. After Pearl Harbor, so many people ran down to the recruiting office and stood in line. It’s not the Greatest Generation for no reason!
Christopher Markus: Certainly, there’s ambivalence in every war, and there were conscientious objectors even then, but it was the peak of patriotism. It also works with the 90-pound guy. If you have someone who’s constantly trying to prove himself, that’s a good arena for him to do that.
Did you talk to any WWII vets in your research?
Christopher Markus: There aren’t that many of them left, but we read several first-person memoirs from the time.
Stephen McFeely: We also watched a lot of documentaries.
So your research was more than reading a lot of comic books.
Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely: Absolutely!
Stephen McFeely: My knowledge of WWII – well, in high school, we never got to the WWII part – we always crapped out in the 1800s.
Christopher Markus: And even the parts that don’t seem historical, like all the Hydra weapons and vehicles – that all came out of research because the majority of those things were things that the Nazis designed and didn’t have the technology to build yet or the war ended before they could get around to it. Like the semi-propellered jet device that the Red Skull escapes his factory with is an actual Nazi design. And the big plane in the end is an actual Nazi design. Research always comes up with weirder things than we could have come up with.
Those came from you and not the comic books?
Stephen McFeely: Yeah. That’s from this movie, although you could certainly go to the comics and find one that has a similar design in it, because there have been 70 years of them. There are a lot of Red Skull weapons.
What was it like collaborating with Marvel, given you’re setting up a huge multi-hero franchise? Did they have a lot of rules and a lot of input?
Stephen McFeely: They had a lot of input, but I wouldn’t say they had a lot of rules. Everything was as wide open as possible. In our story, it was, “You have to do the origin part, but you have to get him to modern day,” so we knew where we were going because we had to get him to the Arctic.
Christopher Markus: They were also not doctrinaire in terms of locking in a story and then insisting on it. They love throwing things at the wall, but not in an interfering sense. They love these characters. If they find another thing in another comic book they want to add, they’ll go, “Oh, we really need that because we like it.” Not because there’s a focus group that demanding it.
Stephen McFeely: Also, if something doesn’t work out after a couple weeks, they’re willing to let it go.
So they aren’t giving you plot points from future Avengers movies and telling you to write to those?
Stephen McFeely: No. We would ask that question, if we should save things for future movies, but the mandate was we’ve got to make the best movie we can right now, and we can’t be that creative about saving stuff. We have to get this one right.
Christopher Markus: Yeah, because if this one doesn’t work, there isn’t going to be a third one down the line where we can use those giant robots we saved.
They know they’ve got these characters that work. Cap’s been around 70 years. Iron Man’s been around 40 or 50 years at this point. They’re not out to re-invent them. They’re not out to modernize them. They’re very confident that this thing is working fine in another medium, so let’s see if it’ll work in this medium without putting him on a skateboard and giving him an iPod. They’re pretty loyal to what they got.
But didn’t you need to suggest where an iPod might work?
Christopher Markus: Not an iPod, but certain decisions. We’d have long decisions like, “Yes, I know he’s the most sincere man in the world, and he’d save anybody from anybody, but maybe he should do this one, specific thing for himself this time.”
You two are the go-to guys for fantasy, but you’re also go-to guys for true stories. I’m wondering if those are two different processes.
Stephen McFeely: Those two are very related. We’re adapting when we do both. When we jump on any project, we’re all sitting around a table trying to tell the best version of a story we all know.
Christopher Markus: What to include, what to cut out, honing the thing down to a single line instead of the mess of a 70-year-old comic that goes every direction or the mess of real life.
But what about the specifics? Writing about Peter Sellers, you just need to assume the ‘60s can be recreated, but when you’re dealing with talking lions or protagonists whose entire body shifts partway through the movie, you need to have a certain leap of faith.
Stephen McFeely: They all know what they’re doing! They nailed Aslan. They nailed the skinny Stephen effect. When we wrote for Peter Sellers, we wrote for Peter Sellers. We’d seen all his movies, and we just wrote things that we knew would come out of his mouth, and when we got Geoffrey [Rush], great. We worry about the stuff we can worry about and assume that people who are more talented than us at those things will do their jobs.