By this point, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McNeely have proven themselves to be masters — along with directors Joe and Anthony Russo — of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having collaborated with them on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War and, most mind-blowingly, this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War. But before that, it this duo who first brought Cap to the big screen in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston.
At that time, an opportunity presented itself to sit down with Christopher and Stephen to preview the film that was soon to be released. That interview has never, in its entirety, been published before. What it reveals are their thoughts regarding Steve Rogers and Cap, and the challenges in presenting him to the audience in a way he’d never been presented before.
The natural place to begin is how you guys ended up on Captain America: The First Avenger.
CHRISTOPHER MARKUS: We toyed with the idea of doing a period superhero movie, like what if you did Superman when he actually came out? Then we merrily went on our way, figuring that would never come up. But then Cap did come up and we thought that the only way to do that well would be to do it period. So everything kind of fell into place.
STEPHEN MCFEELY: We learned about it in May of 2008 and pretty much chased it down for the next six months, finally wore them down and they hired us right around Christmas 2008.
CHRISTOPHER: That’s the key, not talent but perseverance! Their attitude was, “If we pay you, will you stop bothering us?”
Was Joe Johnston already involved as director?
STEPHEN: Just before we got hired, so he definitely had to wave his hand and say, “These guys are fine.” We had been chasing it before Joe got on.
CHRISTOPHER: Joe had had talks with them for a long time, but then he was off doing Wolfman, so we did a lot of the preliminary outlining and banging out initial bad drafts while he was off in the editing room.
STEPHEN: Not even drafts. He definitely got hired before we were hired, because he was in that meeting before we signed things and they said yes.
How did this thing evolve? You were kind of kicking around ideas. What did you start with?
STEPHEN: We went to the comic book store and read 70 years of comics.
CHRISTOPHER: That may sound like fun, but we read them in black and white and the really cheap version, and you suddenly realize why they’re in color [laughs]. Initially, you face the main first question, which is are you going to do this modern day or are you going to do this period? I think very early on period seemed advisable.
You laughed when you said that, and I’m just curious why you thought period was the way to go.
CHRISTOPHER: Some superheroes who aren’t particularly identified with a nation, you have them come up because their creation doesn’t matter when it’s set. Batman can be set any time, because, you know, bats are timeless. Dressing up as an American flag, you’ve gotta be a little… tactical… when you decide to have a person do that. If you have a person do that in the middle of Vietnam, he’s one guy. If you have him do that in 2012, he’s a completely other guy, and if you have him do it in World War II, it’s almost the last time where it would be completely undebatably good.
STEPHEN: That’s a bit of a controversial statement.
CHRISTOPHER: America became sort of split from the Korean War on in terms of foreign policy. There were plenty of people who were not in favor of the various things we’ve done since then. World War II — “Greatest Generation” – was the pinnacle of everyone in the universe thinking we were awesome except, perhaps, for the Axis Powers [laughs]. And it fits in with his character in that you can’t just have a guy decide to be Captain America in 2012…
STEPHEN: Context is everything.
CHRISTOPHER: … because it would remove all of his distinguishing characteristics, which is man out of time. He has the morals and rules of another time, and if you just have that guy now, he becomes sort of an oddball as opposed to having any justification for the way he is.
Back in ’78 when they released Superman: The Movie, there’s that bit where Superman says, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,” to which Lois Lane responds, “You’ll be fighting every elected official in the country.” Which goes to show the cynicism that was already there.
STEPHEN: In some ways, he’s the most DC of the Marvel characters. He’s Golden Age. The Silver Age guys are much more tortured.
CHRISTOPHER: He’s not racked by Stan Lee’s trademark existential angst. He’s pretty okay with being Captain America, having been unfrozen 70 years later does give him a bit of a complex. He’s not Joe-wisecracking-sarcastic Spider-Man.
He really does represent America at that time.
CHRISTOPHER: In a sort of very satisfying way, because you almost can’t get away… even outside of superheroes, it’s hard to get away with writing that kind of unironic passion about things. I come from a deeply ironic place, and I don’t think I could write a whole movie where someone is just a hundred percent behind this, “I’m doing it because I believe in it…” I would have to twist it somehow and make him look crazy. So it’s a perfect setting for doing a kind of writing that almost doesn’t past muster anymore; doesn’t sell tickets.
The thing I raised to Chris Evans and I’d like to raise to you as well, is that it’s great to have a character WHO is all gung-ho and saying, “Now I can really fight for my country, because I’m Captain America,” but doesn’t this guy have to be colored by what he experiences? Admittedly this is not Schindler’s List, but dealing with those enemies and the atrocities going on at that time. Is there ever a struggle for this guy who’s trying to be a true-blue hero facing this pure evil all around him?
STEPHEN: The thing we struggled with a little bit is, do you have to remind people why so many guys wanted to go to war in 1942? Right now, if war broke out it would really depend on the enemy, but we wouldn’t all get in line to get over there, but we did in ’42. The movie tries to put that in some context so that he’s not crazy for really, really wanting to do his part and sign up for his country. And he’s not square for doing that; he’s much like everybody else in the States.
CHRISTOPHER: I think that’s the key to him and the key to most heroic soldier figures is that they’re doing it because it needs to be done; they’re not doing it because they love fighting. The more he fights, the more I think, in his heart, he’s going, “It will be nice when this is over,” because this is not pleasant; I don’t get any pleasure out of breaking HYDRA men’s jaws, but it has to be done.” I think at the end of the movie he’s certainly weathered; he’s certainly seen a lot more combat and a lot more leadership than I think he would have ever factored in at the beginning.
STEPHEN: Again, it’s not Schindler’s List and it is a summer movie. Looking into the heart of darkness there will be light touches [laughs]. The Nazis do play a role in this and you can’t play them as comic foils, can you?
STEPHEN: You can’t, but they do a lot of work for you. They bring so much to it.
CHRISTOPHER: There’s Nazi short-hand; you don’t have to explain where they came from. That gravity is sort of the saving grace of the whole thing. If you had Captain America now with some guy deciding to shoot himself up with super soldier serum, you’d be forced to have him fighting gangsters….
STEPHEN: Or evil publishing magnates.
CHRISTOPHER: There’s no villain good enough that would justify him.
STEPHEN: That’s actually a problem for later movies.
Terrorists would seem to be the way they would go.
CHRISTOPHER: I’m not revealing anything, I’m completely speculating now, but do you need to invent a super terrorist or can he just go out and fight terror? Does your hero need an elevated villain to match him?
STEPHEN: You need a Red Skull for 2012.
CHRISTOPHER: But in a way, the Nazis were theatrically elevated in real life; they suit a superhero in a way.
You mentioned earlier that Captain America would come across as a wacko in today’s world, but what’s the opposite of that? How would Captain America go from being who he is the ‘40s and that world, and how he looked at that world then, and suddenly being confronted by this world? As much as we would laugh at a guy who would come across as a wacko like that, what kind of horror would he feel in the cynicism of today’s world?
STEPHEN: You’re asking us to speculate completely. What we did was we said, “We spent two years making sure we got Cap in 1942-1945 right.” Joss Whedon is the one who gets the first crack out of what the man out of time thinks of 2012.
But you guys have “lived” with this character for the past few years, so you must have some thoughts on it.
CHRISTOPHER: I imagine that to a certain extent if you’re just working on the surface, if you got jumped from 1945 to 2012 without knowing what happened in between, you might think you lost the war [laughs].
STEPHEN: Why do you say that?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, because that version of hometown America is so wholesome, clean, homogenized….
STEPHEN: And we make fun of it now.
CHRISTOPHER: And to come here now, where it’s more polluted, noisier, it’s got 200 times more buildings and people…I don’t think you’d think the Nazis won, but you might think, “This isn’t what I was fighting for in someway.”
Right, something went wrong.
CHRISTOPHER: Not that something went wrong, but you would have to then go out and re-find what’s good.
STEPHEN: It’s also specific. The story of Steve will be the story of people and the very specific people that he lost; the relationships that will come back or he regrets or culpabilities or whatever. I can’t really speak for how Steve is going to feel at the mall, but I can speak about how Steve feels about his experiences with Bucky in World War II.
CHRISTOPHER: Even Captain America, who is completely consumed by symbolism, in a way, is like everybody else, fighting for specifics; for what is specifically important to them, which makes him a good character as opposed to a cartoon.
STEPHEN: That’s the approach that you have to take, I think. You can’t write Captain America, you have to write Steve Rogers.
CHRISTOPHER: So Steve is going to effectively lose everything that is personally important to him and will have to find all new ones. You want to avoid that scene from every time travel movie ever made where they come out in 1984 and there’s a guy with a Mohawk and a big ghetto blaster and they’re, like, “Where am I?” You would like to avoid that.
How would you characterize Steve Rogers’ evolution in this movie apart from the physical transformation?
STEPHEN: I think he learns the value of responsibility. It’s one thing to be denied all your life and say, “I can do it, I can do it. Just give me a chance.” And then getting the chance to do it brings with it responsibility for others. Steve’s only been responsible for himself and people have only been helping him as he’s been a scrawny kid in New York. Now he’s responsible for other people, so without giving too much away, that will certainly haunt him, I think, ultimately, because you can let people down. If no one’s relying on you, then you can’t let anybody down. I would say that’s part of it.
CHRISTOPHER: And also the flip side of the same point is that he, aside from Bucky, has been alone for most of his life and has only had to fend for himself. Now although he’s Captain America and has much more power, it’s still a matter of learning that you’re not completely doing this thing alone. You’re Steve Rogers who’s an orphan, who has one friend, nobody behind his back, and who has to come to learn that it’s a collective thing. Which is also part of the army concept, that one man doesn’t win a war. Steve doesn’t go and win the war himself. He helps, but every single soldier collectively wins the war.
Images: Marvel Studios