If you remember the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you might recall going into that initial Captain America movie — the one with the subtitle The First Avenger — and thinking, wow, they’ve made a superhero movie that feels like an old WWII adventure. Then, if you happened to have caught Thor 2: The Dark World during the fall of 2013, you’d have noticed elements of sci-fi and fantasy added to the first God-of-Thunder movie’s Shakespearean drama. And let’s say you plunked down hard-earned cash to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the spring of 2014; you’d have caught the overall paranoid, 1970s political-thriller vibe from the get-go. Each of the movies were proof that Marvel movies didn’t have to be the same carbon-copy comic-book movie every single time out. You could slap a genre skin on these costumed-crusader stories. And for that, you largely have screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to thank.
The duo, who’d cut their teeth in franchise filmmaking by working on the first two Narnia films in the mid-2000s, have been a secret weapon in the company’s arsenal over the last five years thanks to their ability to switch things up. More importantly, as Captain America: Civil War proves, they can balance a full-to-bursting line-up of superheroes and what is essentially three different movies — an extension of Winter Soldier‘s espionage vibe, an Avengers movie in everything but name, and a PTSD psychological drama — while still delivering something coherent, character-driven and more satisfying than the a series of things-blowed-up-real-good set pieces.
“Some people may think that they’re simply being pounded into the ground by superhero movies with explosions regardless,” Markus says. “But for most people … they need meat on the bone, even in terms of entertainment, or they’re going to go elsewhere. You can certainly make a superhero movie that does not deal with moral or ethical issues, but if you’re going to do this many movies of this type, you’re going to have to say something significant eventually — or just stop.”
“The great romantic comedy about first-world power has yet to be written,” McFeely jokes. “But as a genre, these types of films can support bigger ideas — or for that matter, smaller, more intimate moments. They do not have to be just one thing. You can get creative with them.”
Here are five tips from the Civil War screenwriters on how to write a great superhero movie:
Always Write About the Character, Not the Costume
Christopher Markus: We never have a character slug line in the script that says Captain America or Iron Man — it’s always “Steve Rogers” or “Tony Stark.” Because it’s people in these situations, and icons. It’s important to remember that, even when you’re writing a big all-out action scene.
When Writing a Comic-Book Movie … Don’t Write a Comic-Book Movie
Steven McFeely: I know that if it’s an origin story, he and she is going to put a costume on at some point. I know if I’m writing about, say, the Winter Soldier, he’ll have to confront his past at some point. But if you start worrying about branding or fetishizing one aspect of the comics or another … that’s not what it’s about. Like Chris said, concentrate on the character, first and foremost. Make it a story, not a commercial.
Structure, Structure, Structure
SM: It’s like what they say about real estate and “location, location, location!” When you have a candy store of possibilities with something as big as Civil War, you need to figure out what your big plot points are, and don’t waver from them. So we knew that the end of Act Two would be what we called the “splash panel,” which was the big airport fight. We knew what the midpoint would be, and we knew that we wanted to go smaller and more intense near the end of the movie. We knew that’s what it needed to keep it grounded and keep it personal.
All Humor Should Be Situation- or Reaction-Based
CM: Don’t just have your characters tell jokes because the jokes are hilarious. It will take viewers out of the movie and make them feel like they’re getting elbowed in the ribs. You know, it’s like: “Hey, so how about that Spider-Man, huh, you having a good time, now here’s some jokes you having a good time, right? Right???” I mean, this applies to most movies in general, but especially superhero movies. Personally, when I watch a movie like Civil War, I don’t want to be thinking about how clever the observations of the people making the movie are. I want to be thinking about the superheroes themselves.
Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Mold
CM: If Deadpool did nothing else, it was prove that this is 100-percent true. When you look at something like the first Captain America movie, it’s a pretty straight-ahead origin story with a traditional third-act. A lot of Marvel movies have pretty traditional third acts — and no one knows this better than the people who run Marvel. So when we started working on Winter Soldier, and later on Civil War, we knew we wanted too switch things up and not repeat ourselves. We knew we didn’t want to end these movies with things simply raining down from the sky; that had been done. Joe Russo says this a lot: “You keep giving people the same flavor of ice cream, they’ll learn to love ice cream — and then they’ll stop eating it.” Hopefully, that’s why we’ve been getting some pretty good marks on this so far. Hopefully, people feel like they’ve seen something that feels fresh.