CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is on the verge of tearing itself apart in Captain America: Civil War. Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr. and directors Joe and Anthony Russo warn things will never be the same again…
Mr. USA and Metalliguy get all up in each other’s primary-coloured grills. Empire watches and shouts, “Fight, fight, fight!”
THIS IS LIKE A DRUNKEN FIGHT AT a wedding,” says director Anthony Russo. “They dredge up all those horrible things that have existed for years, and suddenly somebody throws a punch.” The difference between what Auntie Doreen said about Our Sharon and the almighty feud that erupts in the third Captain America movie, Civil War, however, is that most nuptial knockdowns don’t involve enough firepower to reduce entire cities to rubble.
With some fans dubbing it ‘Avengers 2.5’, Civil War features almost all the main, terrestrial Marvel characters, with newcomers like Black Panther, Ant-man and the freshly rebooted Spider-man more than making up for the sizeable holes left by Hulk and Thor. Not merely a sequel to one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s finest films, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this will also prepare the ground for the twopart monster mash of Avengers: Infinity War (2018/’19).
No pressure, then, for the returning Winter Soldier directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, and third-time Captain America screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen Mcfeely. “The scale is enormous,” says Joe Russo. “From a character and storytelling standpoint, it’s by far the largest movie we’ve done.”
This won’t be a faithful adaptation of the 2006-’07 comic crossover with which it shares a name — any more than Age Of Ultron was — but it asks the same question: who watches the watchmen? Or, more precisely, who orders these superheroes into action after the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the disastrous self-policing attempted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Ultron? Marvel Comics’ Civil War revolved around a disaster caused by heroic irresponsibility as well as villainy. There, Iron Man led the subsequent drive to register superheroes with the government, while Captain America leapt off a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to resist this assault on personal liberty. Here, Iron Man remains on the side of the authorities, but it’s the international Sokovian Accords, following the Ultron incident, that will govern the superheroes’ deployment.
“Civil War, to me, was one of the coolest strings of the comic books,” says Downey Jr. of his decision to join the film as neither the lead character, nor Avengers team-player but, arguably, its antagonist. “They were doing a third Cap film, and this was a way to super-charge it. At first I was like, ‘Hey, I have plenty to do — I’m not trying to see how many other people’s movies I can be involved in.’ But honestly I have a creative fondness for Chris Evans — I was one of the voices in his ear when he was making the decision to join [the Marvel Cinematic Universe] — and it afforded an opportunity to get a glimpse at some of the future star players on the Marvel team, like Chadwick (Boseman) as Black
Panther. So I got really excited.”
The Russo brothers’ last film, Winter Soldier, “changed elements of the Marvel Universe,” as Joe puts it, referring to the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the revelation of Nazi splinter-group HYDRA’S continued existence. “But the consequences of Civil War will have an even more significant impact,” he says. “In Civil War, we’re going to change the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s psychology, and it’s an extreme shift. Winter Soldier was a political thriller; this is a psychological thriller.”
THERE IS DEFINITELY a weight to the drama Empire sees unfolding when we arrive on the Captain America: Civil War set in Berlin, during the summer of 2015. Today’s scenes are shot beneath the city’s Olympic Stadium, a stark neoclassical structure where, in 1936, Jesse Owens outran the Nazis’ racist ideology. It might seem like an odd place to find a character who knocked out Adolf Hitler more than 200 times, but returning Cap to Germany was a deliberate choice by the Russos, to “bring the character full-circle”, as Joe puts it.
Directly beneath what was once the dictator’s box, a refurbished car park that serves as a private entrance for dignitaries has been repurposed to play a government office where Steve Rogers, Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and one of Downey Jr.’s “future star players”, Black Panther, arrive to face Emily Vancamp’s returning Agent Sharon Carter and Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross.
In the comics, Ross is the US government’s liaison to Wakanda and a frequent ally of Panther. Here, he’s working for a ‘Joint Counter Terrorism Centre’, but it’s a solid bet that he’ll also appear in Panther’s standalone film. The scene is intense: Sebastian Stan’s Bucky is being rolled away in shackles for “psychological examination”. Captain America and Falcon also seem to be in the authorities’ bad books, and are led away to face person or persons unknown (our money’s on William Hurt’s Thaddeus Ross — no relation to Everett).
After wrapping the scene, Evans is the last one off set. He stands back to let others through the door first, a courtesy that echoes Steve Rogers himself. “It’s beautiful playing a guy who just wants to be a good man,” he says. “You can’t help but take some of that home with you.”
But somewhere along the way, the Captain and Iron Man have passed each another en route to the opposite ends of the spectrum of respect for authority. “We’re counter-culture guys,” says Joe Russo. “To take a character who’s that symbolic and turn him counter-cultural was, to us, a devious and interesting way to approach a movie called Captain America.”
Tony Stark, meanwhile, is haunted by guilt following that whole accidentallycreated-a-monster-called-ultron episode, and increasingly aware of the need to regulate extraordinary powers. It’s a huge shift for the character who, in his second film, refused to share his technology with the government. Now, he’s the one urging restraint and responsibility — and unlike the Civil War comics’ Tony, the writers have worked very hard to make him at least as sympathetic as Steve.
“This film is an extreme shift. It’s a psychological thriller.”
“Hopefully you’ll leave wondering if Steve and Tony are both acting in selfish interests,” says Downey Jr., and reports from early test screenings suggest audience loyalties are split. Anthony Russo describes Stark’s journey in the movie as “fascinating… Robert and Chris are incredible. The conflict between the two of them is incredibly emotional and it’s beautifully played out.”
Part of their animosity is down to a clash between the high ideals of Steve’s “greatest generation” mentality and the selfish Baby Boomer outlook of the narcissistic Tony. But more than that, there’s an element of near-sibling rivalry. “[Tony’s father] Howard Stark feels that Steve is one of the best things he ever did,” Mcfeely explains. “So there must be a great deal of pressure when you grow up as Tony, hearing about Steve Rogers as the person you ought to be and you’re not.”
Evans agrees. “There’s a history, no doubt, from Tony’s point of view,” he says. “I think that may be something Steve forgets at times, because to carry baggage from a self-serving point of view is kind of a foreign concept to him. But it is this sibling friction — and with families that’s where you have the most love but it’s where you have the most struggle, too.”
ROGERS IS DRIVEN, at least in part, by his friendship with Bucky Barnes, who resurfaced in the last Captain America movie as Russian assassin The Winter Soldier. “There’s a conflict between Tony and Steve, but the dynamic of Bucky pours gasoline on the open flame,” says Evans. “I love putting Steve in situations where he doesn’t know what to do. When you have a guy who refuses to bleed on people and puts himself last consistently, it can be a little dry. What makes these movies good is that they always try to give him a little bit of confusion — and in this movie there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that’s how the stakes have been raised.”
It’s the Bucky element that makes this, definitively, a Captain America rather than an Avengers movie. As The Winter Soldier, he may have murdered hundreds (including, the last film hinted, Howard Stark), but he did so while brainwashed.
“He’ll never just be Bucky Barnes again,” says Sebastian Stan, who plays the tortured veteran. “This movie, for him, is very much the good wolf and the bad wolf coming together — or maybe not coming together. So when is he triggered? When is he remembering things? He’s trying to find out about himself, his past, and what sort of world he’s in.”
Joe Russo describes him as an “incredibly complicated character. He and Steve have the emotional connection of brothers — even more so because Bucky was all Steve had growing up. Bucky was his protector, and that dynamic shifted [when Steve became Captain America], and now it has shifted again. The Cap-bucky story is a love story; he can’t let go of his brother. He can reconcile Bucky’s crimes, but other people have no emotional context for Bucky, and they need to point the finger. We have no idea if he’s a hero or a villain. People are going to walk out arguing about that, too.”
AS DOWNEY JR. PUTS it, the conflict between characters means “the call sheet is split down the middle.” The first big challenge for the Russos was handling what Anthony describes as “basically the cast of a Soderbergh movie” playing wildly popular characters.
“There’s a very tough, complicated sequence that involves a great number of characters,” says Joe. This was “the Splashdown”, the almighty airport clash we glimpsed in the trailer. “There was a lot of character interaction, a lot of character moments, and you need to dig them all out.” He and Anthony insist that figuring out everyone’s motivations was more important to this on-screen conflict than the nitty-gritty of the action. As Anthony says, “Spectacle can only carry you so far. If you don’t have character then it’s empty spectacle and the movie starts to run out of gas pretty quickly. You can only watch so many explosions and unmotivated car crashes.”
The second challenge, shared by writers Markus and Mcfeely, was that they needed to be careful, and inventive, about how they drew the battle lines between Team Iron Man and Team Cap.
Unsurprisingly, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon quickly sides with his fellow
soldier. “Sam and Steve have become close confidants and good friends,” says Mackie. “Steve is the leader but he definitely comes to Sam and bounces ideas off him.” But Falcon and Bucky, nicknamed “Cap’s two girlfriends” on set, are not his only allies. Vancamp’s Sharon Carter — who is actually Cap’s girlfriend in the comics, and perhaps in the future here — is, she says, “willing to go the distance to protect him”.
If we can trust the posters and the airport conflagration we glimpsed in the trailer, Paul Rudd’s Ant-man and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye also side with the rebels, as does Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, returning from Age Of Ultron. “She’s a complex person, and extremely powerful,” says Joe Russo. “She doesn’t really understand the depth of her power. I don’t think anyone does. That can make her a frightening character, especially to the government. In this movie, we find her at the beginning under Cap’s tutelage. He’s showing her the ropes as an Avenger.”
Siding with Stark, we find War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Ultron’s ‘newborn’ android, the Vision (Paul Bettany). He marries Scarlet Witch in the comics, but the pair are at odds here — victims of the Russos’ delight in rending apart traditional pairings. Though, as, Anthony emphasises, “We worked hard to figure out very specific reasons why these characters would get pushed to one side or the other.”
Black Panther also appears inclined to control the superhero threat (see page 74), and, despite her close allegiance to Steve in The Winter Soldier, so is Black Widow. “Our new challenge is that this universe is bigger than the Avengers,” explains Scarlett Johansson. “There’s a school of thought that it needs oversight and management, some kind of ground rules. That seems logical — though Cap and I have had a bad experience with ‘The Man’, so to speak.” The sticking point for Natasha is Bucky. “Barnes is a total wildcard. He can’t really be trusted because he’s been psychologically
compromised. He still poses a threat. I think that’s how Natasha would see it.”
The final key combatant here is Tom Holland’s Spider-man, returning to the Marvel Studios fold after a deal was struck with rights holders Sony. He comes in after the battle lines have been drawn, and forms a relationship with one character who, for now, the Russos won’t identify. “Tom’s unbelievable,” says Joe. “We’re very excited to present our vision of Spider-man to the world. He was my favourite character growing up, so for a comic geek like me this is a real moment.”
IF IT SEEMS LIKE THE RUSSOS, and Marvel, are taking a huge risk putting all these beloved characters at one another’s throats, it is a calculated one. “The only thing I ever have trepidation about is it getting stale,” says Downey Jr., who’s now been in the Marvel game for over eight years. “When I hear words like ‘radical’ and ‘risky’, that’s what gets me up in the morning. Past a certain point you just gotta say, ‘These are the basic tenets of what we’re doing,’ and then it’s a huge experiment.” Evans, portraying Rogers for the fifth time, agrees that the storytelling drives him forward. “It’s Marvel, they give good scripts,” he says. “I’d do this for free. Wait, don’t print that!”
When Empire caught up with the Russos recently, they’d already had riotously successful test screenings and were beginning five days of pick-ups to finish off Civil War, with Evans, Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper among those returning. Then, at some point in the next month, they’ll start focusing on Infinity War in earnest. Markus and Mcfeely have already produced a first draft of that script after spending months breaking the story.
“It’s an exciting time in the Marvel building,” says Mcfeely. “Peyton Reed is in one corner (working on Ant-man And The Wasp); Thor 3 is over in that corner. We’re taking up the middle of the floor, Panther will be in another corner. Spider-man, they’re around. Guardians 2 has already moved to Atlanta. It’s ridiculous!”
Markus says he’s especially looking forward to the broader scope of an Avengers film. “We’ve written three movies about a pretty stoic guy,” he says, “and now we get to write for all the gang. But Civil War was a walk in the park compared to these other two. We’re writing scenes for characters that haven’t been cast yet…”
Joe Russo assures us there are substantial threads connecting the wars Civil and Infinity. “We wanted Winter Soldier, Civil War and the Infinity War films to have a strong through-line,” he says. “We look at this movie as setting the stage for Infinity War, how it starts and what condition everybody’s in.”
That hints at significant fall-out from this battle, and Anthony Russo promises a “very dramatic ending that will be very controversial for a lot of people” — which hints at at least one character’s death, potentially, and certainly a sudden interest in solo projects for the artists formerly known as The Avengers. What could ever get them back together? Our money is on either a really lucrative reunion tour, or a megalomaniac from outer space with purple skin. Let’s see which turns up first…
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR IS OUT ON APRIL 29 AND WILL BE REVIEWED IN A FUTURE ISSUE.
Above: Team Iron Man line up for action. Above right: Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans on set with Joe and Anthony Russo. Right: These boots were made for walking, reckons Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff.
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Clockwise from above: Cap goes underground; Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman); Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan); Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
From top: Johansson punching low on set; Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)
and T’challa (Chadwick Boseman); Iron Man (Downey
Jr.), bruised but unbeaten.