Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus are hardly newcomers. They’ve won an Emmy (for THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS), have writing credits on all three of the NARNIA films, and are currently working on PAIN AND GAIN for Michael Bay. But when they landed the coveted CAPTAIN AMERICA gig, it kind of felt like they came out of nowhere. This wasn’t the splashy hire one might’ve expected for the first big-budget take on one of Marvel’s A-list superheroes. Why them?
Now that I’ve seen the finished film, it’s clear they got the gig because they understood how to incorporate the character’s earnest patriotism without getting too corny. They also seemed to get that a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie should play a bit like a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK homage, with Hyrdra agents getting knocked around like so many cartoon Nazis. Finally, and most importantly, they knew that Cap’s journey had everything to do with his emotional growth, rather than his sudden physical transformation. Steve Rogers has always been Captain America, but he’s still coming into his own as a man.
As has been true for screenwriters on all of Marvel’s pre-AVENGERS films, Markus and McFeely had to figure out how to write a satisfying standalone movie while also setting up the studio’s big superhero tentpole for Summer 2012. There are elements they needed to introduce, but they can only say so much about them. This could be frustrating (especially when you know the writing duties on THE AVENGERS are already spoken for), but it sounds like Markus and McFeely had a blast on CAPTAIN AMERICA. And why not? They got to write a Cap movie set almost entirely during World War II!
When I interviewed Markus and McFeely during last weekend’s CAPTAIN AMERICA press junket, I was most interested in finding out how they made Rogers’s journey interesting despite his paucity of character flaws. There aren’t many protagonists like Rogers anymore. He’s not tortured. At least, not yet.
Mr. Beaks: I guess the first question, because I feel like our readers are not familiar [with your work] aside from like the NARNIA films…
Stephen McFeely: They are kind of wondering “Who the hell are these guys?”
Beaks: Yes, Who the hell are you guys, and how did you get to write CAPTAIN AMERICA?
McFeely: We chased it. I mean, Marvel was open, but they probably had the same reaction other people did: “Why would I want the NARNIA guys to write my CAPTAIN AMERICA movie?” We were really intrigued by the period nature of it, because I think that solves so many villain problems: you don’t have to create a millionaire or billionaire publishing magnet who has designs on the world; you just say “Nazis,” and you don’t have to go very far for a guy who wants to take over the world, right? (Laughs) And it allows you to be very true to the character [of Captain America].
Christopher Markus: You can’t invent Cap now and have him be taken the same way. He is who you would come up with were you to become a superhero in 1942.
McFeely: He may not be now.
Markus: Right. If you stepped out of your garage dressed as an American flag in 2011, you’re probably something of a nut job.
McFeely: Yeah, you are making a different statement then you would have in 1942.
Markus: So to really give Cap the best possible shot of being understandable and likeable and as heroic as possible, you need to put him from whence he came.
McFeely: But the question was “Why us?” We were interested in May of 2008, and we chased it. We said, “Can you get us in a room?” When we got in the room we said, “Here is why we love [Captain America].” They said, “Why don’t you come back to us with some ideas.” And then we went to all of the comic book stores and loaded up on the comics.
Markus: We hung in there.
McFeely: Yeah we hung in there. We kept coming back to them, and they hired us late in 2008 around the holidays.
Beaks: Was Cap a favorite character of yours as kids?
McFeely: You were more of a comic book fan.
Markus: I was more of a comic book guy when I was a kid. I knew Cap from THE AVENGERS, but I didn’t really follow him much. I think because, in a way, he is less relatable to a kid in that he doesn’t have the Peter Parker anxiety of getting home on time, or the X-Men thing of feeling like a freak. He’s a little impenetrable unless you think about him for a while.
McFeely: But by starting with him in the movie universe as “Scrawny Steve” and getting on board early, I hope that people are going to be interested to follow him maybe more than one would have.
Markus: That’s sort of the thing with Captain America in the comics of the modern day: he’s more in disguise when he’s Steve Rogers than he is when he is Captain America. There is no “real guy” anymore, because that guy was completely transformed. He’s got his memories and he’s got his insecurities, but he can’t turn off being perfect, whereas Peter Parker pretty much goes right back to being a loser the minute the costume comes off. So I think one of the reasons this movie works is it takes a long time letting you get to know pre-transformation Steve. You know who is inside that body.
Beaks: That brings up an interesting point about Steve Rogers and his journey. Steve is already a very noble and very brave individual before he is injected with the Super Soldier serum. Once he’s Captain America, the danger is that his journey is a flat line. You guys address this by making him earn it by going on the road and doing the USO tour. How did you guys crack this?
Markus: We wrestled with it for a long time.
McFeely: We did. There was a temptation to make him less noble in the beginning, but that would just make him like many other characters. But it did occur to us, like “Do you rough him up in the beginning? Do you make him mischievous? Do you make him have to learn some sort of lesson?” He learns to take on the mantle of responsibility; his arc is about getting what he wants and how to use it correctly. It’s not about being humbled or learning a lesson.
Markus: Oddly, his arc is about staying who he is and not being corrupted by power or whatever he is exposed to. It’s sort of an anti-arc in a way, because he’s struggling to stay like that when everything wants to shove you aside. It’s tough. You can’t use your screenwriting tricks in a way, because if a character is dull you can make them funny or you can make them wily. But Steve is so aboveboard. He’s the kind of character you almost don’t get anymore, like Gregory Peck or something, where he walks on screen and you know “This guy is the moral center and he’s not going to break. And I don’t really need to explain why because he is.”
McFeely: That’s a good point, yeah.
Markus: That’s a tough thing. It’s not such a tough thing to have in a movie, but it’s a tough thing to get across to people when you are like, “No, no, trust me, he will be great.”
Beaks: So Captain America is the Atticus Finch of the Marvel Universe.
McFeely: And no one asked Atticus Finch to have a dark, dirty secret, or “How do I overcome my shame?”
Markus: Although when he shoots that dog in the street, he has unbelievably good aim, and you are like “Oh, there’s something bad there…”
McFeely: That’s true.
Beaks: So one thing is I sensed is that there could have been a love triangle [with Steve, Peggy Carter and Howard Stark].
McFeely: We experimented a little bit. We wanted to have a bump in the road between Steve and Peggy. It’s not a huge bump, but it’s a “Howard bump” because he’s so damn good looking and rich and fabulous and suave. But it’s not like there’s a ton on the cutting room floor.
Markus: It’s there because we wanted to emphasize that not everything changes when Steve gets the transformation. He doesn’t become great with girls you know? He’s still that guy from the cab ride who can’t talk to her; he’s going to be intimidated no matter how great looking he is. And he’s now affected by Mr. Suave over there, even if Mr. Suave isn’t actually doing anything with her. It’s like his self-confidence has not caught up yet.
McFeely: Right. And that was the thing, though, that’s not necessarily in the comics. That’s definitely a thing when you are practically making a movie. This guy was ninety-eight pounds, and now he looks like this. It’s like “Let’s talk about what that would really feel like, and what that would really do to your brain.”
Beaks: And that to me is the journey. That makes it interesting: to watch him fall in love with Peggy and not know what to do.
Markus: “Kiss her, damn it!”
Beaks: So whose idea was it to throw in the line about Der Fuhrer digging for trinkets in the desert? (Markus and McFeely laugh) That made me so happy.
McFeely: That was a bunch of us. Because its so clearly similar, this interest in the occult and what weapons [Red Skull] could use.
Beaks: But the spirit of RAIDERS is definitely present here.
McFeely: We were hopeful that it feels sometimes like that, because it certainly was an influence and a bit of a blueprint for us.
Markus: It’s been a while since there was movie that wasn’t schlocky that you could cheer in. Cheering is not an instinct I have very often, but in those movies, when [Indy] makes it across the gap and the John Williams music swells, you are like “Yes!” We’ve become so ironic and dark - and I’m all for that. But you don’t well-up and cheer in THE DARK KNIGHT. You go “Oh, it’s a scummy world we live in.” More power to that, but we wanted that kind of un-ironic swell at times, and Indy does that really well.
Beaks: I like that. Earnestness is really hard to pull off. How do you guys, as you are writing it… is there a sense that you both have of “Okay, that’s the wrong side of corny...”
McFeely: “The Right Side of Corny: The Markus and McFeely Story.” You know, I just keep coming back to character. I try to be honest with Steve and give him the reactions that a normal person would have. We were worried about tone all of the time. I still worry about tone. “Are people going to accept the rousing nature of this? It is not angsty, and it is not dark and ironic.” But you can’t put a Tony Stark sensibility onto a Steve Rogers story.
Markus: Again, World War II helps immensely with pulling off that tone, because it was a sincerely desperate time that called for heroism that really did happen. You feel more manipulated when it’s like “The hero stops the meteorite from hitting earth and they plant a flag in it and then go ‘That was for America!” Then you’re just like “Well, I don’t know if that was really for America so much.” In World War II, you know that there are cemeteries full of people who did this for real. It carries more weight.
Beaks: And then there’s the business of franchise building to take care of, to build into THE AVENGERS. As writers, you have to serve the studio in a way. You have to serve the product. But do you ever feel like these considerations are getting in the way of your screenplay?
McFeely: We didn’t invent Captain America. We’re still clearly being brought on to help shepherd this big, already-moving ship. So when you are working for any studio, but when you are working for Marvel in particular, there’s not a lot of room for your ego and your sense of auteurship you know? You are there to get the best Steve Rogers on screen as possible. So we checked out ego at the door.
Markus: It only seemed like an advantage, because…
McFeely: The depth of the Marvel universe…
Markus: Yeah, and the fact that we knew where this guy was going to go afterwards, as opposed to “Well if things work out, maybe…” He was going to get frozen, and then he was going to get defrosted. I actually think his dying at the end is what makes the romance work. If he didn’t, and they got together at the end, you would be like (Unimpressed) “That’s great. They got together.”
McFeely: And I’ve seen that a million times before. So in some ways we worked backwards, like “We know where this is ending. Do we want them to have gotten together at the midpoint?” It just seemed so much stronger to do it this way.
Beaks: In terms of which story you chose to tell, I think a lot of fans would have been just fine if you would have done [Ed Brubaker’s version] straight.
Markus: You mean in present day?
Beaks: Yeah. But would that play for like a modern audience?
Markus: So much of Brubaker works because you know the past of Cap, and you know the patriotism against this sort of new gritty layer that he’s brought to it. I think you can go Brubaker in the sequels or in THE AVENGERS, but you need to start earnest in a way and then put those layers on top of it. Otherwise, it’s not going to have the sort of resonance that it might.
McFeely: If you didn’t do a period Cap as a full-on 120-minute origin story, you would be doing some approximation. You either never do [WWII] and say “Oh we just unthawed this guy,” or you do half-and-alf and now you only get sixty minutes to tell each story. They certainly tried that, but [WWII Cap] is so clearly the right choice. As we were saying earlier, it’s the only way you make Captain America. You make him in 1941, ‘42, ‘43. You don’t make him now. You inherit him, but you don’t create him.
Beaks: Were there any things you tried to fit in to the script that you were kind of frustrated to have to cut out?
Markus: I don’t know about frustrated. I mean, there’s this embarrassment of riches. There are so many great WWII villains, and you can only have one.
McFeely: That’s it. You don’t want to load it with too many villains. There are certainly other movies that have made the mistake of cramming [their narratives] with too many villains.
Markus: There are things that I love that I don’t know if they are ever going to make it in, because there is a difference between movies and comics. Some thing don’t translate as well; they just take you out of the movie in some way or another. I still lobby that a MODOK movie would be…
McFeely: (Laughs) He’s talking about Modok, folks!
Markus: It would be terrifying if you pulled it off right.
Beaks: That is the great challenge of our time. Someone is going to nail that, and they are not going to just win an Oscar, they are going to win a Nobel.
McFeely: You’d like to see the MODOK biopic?
Markus: You know who it stars?
McFeely: You think it’s Dinklage.
Markus: I say Peter Dinklage is MODOK. It’s got to be.
McFeely: He’s got a great face.
Beaks: One thing you guys talked about at the press conference was the idea that the cube is a MacGuffin in this film. But while it’s McGuffin in this film, it won’t be a MacGuffin going forward…
McFeely: Not up to us.
Beaks: Well, the great thing with the Red Skull is he wants to rule the world. That’s all he wants, so what the cube actually does is not terribly important [in this film]. But were you ever tempted to explain more?
McFeely: Well, in the comics the cube can do a great deal. It’s a universe builder. But… you have to put limits on your object. If everything is possible, then nothing matters.
Markus: Yeah, I never know why in the comics, when the Red Skull loses he doesn’t just go “Do it over again.” (Everyone laughs) “Again! Until I win!” Or just “Kill Captain America!” So, yeah, in a way we could put it down to the Red Skull’s lack of complete understanding of what it is without changing the nature of the cube. I mean there’s been a million different explanations. The Cosmic Cube was created by AIM at one point, but it’s also like an egg for something…
McFeely: That’s the other thing about the whole process. Because there are so many versions of things… as people reintroduce and rewrite and bring back from the dead, you can sort of pick a new clean line based on the other ones. So whatever the cube has done in the last seventy years, it’s probably safe to say not all of those things are going to be in the movies going forward - if even the cube stays in the movies.
Beaks: Once the film was cast, did you begin writing for particular voices?
McFeely: We didn’t rewrite necessarily for actors - although we had great conversations with all of the actors, and, I think, in particular with Chris. Chris was really conscious of staying true to Cap, about not wising off - even to the point where sometimes we would go “This is a killer line”, and he would go “Maybe. But is it a killer line for Steve?” His detector was very good most of the time. There were a couple we snuck by him, but mostly he had a very good sense of the Cap and the Steve he was going to be able to portray.
Beaks: So final question, and I understand there are no specifics forthcoming, but have you thought about the tone of a CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel?
McFeely: The Cap we all know is, by and large, the Cap that Stan Lee brought back in ’63 and ’64; it’s this man out of time. So this movie is a Cap most people don’t know. It’s really a setting-up in a way. So we are looking forward - and certainly Joss is doing some of this in THE AVENGERS – to what is it to be Steve Rogers, a man out of time, a man who has lost everything and everybody he ever loved, who has just basically come back from war in the way other guys come back from war. He has a lot on his mental plate.
Markus: He literally had not come back. He hasn’t been in America since 1942. He hasn’t been out of the army since he was ninety pounds. So this is a guy who is really quite out of it.
McFeely: There’s plenty to explore easily.
Beaks: In the ‘80s, they would have had him learn to breakdance.
Markus: He’ll meet a mohawked bunch of punks with a boom box, where they are like “What’s with the outfit, man?”
I really would like to see CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE VOYAGE HOME, that’ll have to wait. For now, we’ve got CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER hitting theaters on July 22nd.