Austin Film Festival: 10 Things We Learned From the Writers of Infinity War
Marvel scribes Markus and McFeely stay spoiler-free
By Richard Whittaker,
6:10PM, Thu. Nov. 1, 2018
After mega-producer Kevin Feige, it’s probably scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who have done the most to shape Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
Having written six entries in the behemoth franchise (all three Captain America films, Thor: The Dark World, plus Avengers: Infinity War and its upcoming, untitled follow-up – and of course creating the Agent Carter show), they know a thing or two about comic book movies. When they discussed their career with the massive franchise at Austin Film Festival on Saturday, they were suitably tight-lipped on even the tiniest hints about what will happen in the eagerly awaited (to say the least) follow-up to their mega smash Avengers: Infinity War – but they had plenty to say about the tricks and secrets of writing a Marvel movie.
1) It was their work on another Disney franchise, the Narnia films, that established them and set them up for Marvel. According to Markus, the earliest drafts of the adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were epic, but didn’t differentiate enough between the children. They were brought in because the studio saw them as having “a unique skill, as opposed to ‘we need the best blockbuster guys.’” Their draft was effectively a character punch-up, “[but] we proved to not be so bad at the epic giant stuff that they didn’t need to bring someone else.”
2) Credit the 2007 writers’ strike with them being free to take on Captain America: The First Avenger. They’d worked on the scripts for the first three films, but with the gates of Disney and Narnia closed, the pair was left with a lot of spare time on the picket line. That’s when they heard that Marvel was considering a period Captain America movie, which was exactly what they wanted – to take a comic character back to their roots. As soon as the strike was up, McFeely said, “We chased that movie.”
3) Iron Man taught them that you have to love the characters before they become heroes. In what is generally regarded as the keystone film of the franchise, Tony Stark is introduced at his humblest and most broken so the audience sympathizes with him – then the flashbacks kick in that show him as a technocrat douchebag hanging out in Vegas. They realized that without that opening flash forward, it would be a much harder path to make him redeemable or likable. So when they took over Captain America: The First Avenger, McFeely said, “We need[ed] you to love Steve Rogers, 97 pounds.” That’s a chance to see the man without the uniform, and that’s why the opening scenes aren’t Cap in action, but a scrawny Steve Rogers going to the recruitment office. A burly guy asks him if he’s worried about going to a battlefield, “and Steve goes ‘nope.’ … All he wants to do is fight.”
4) Cap may be a mainstay of the franchise, but he’s also one that would be easy to get completely wrong. Per Markus, “He’s a character who you can view as a stiff.” That’s why the first film had to be in period, because World War II is a point at which it’s easy to be unquestionably patriotic, and it makes sense for a hero to put on the Stars and Stripes. However, as the films progressed, their take was very much inspired by runs in the Sixties when the nation was in flames and Marvel Comics was stuck with a leading character wearing the flag. “They had him turn around an look at the country,” said Markus, and they did the same thing with The Winter Soldier and Civil War. Feige gave them permission to tear down everything they had built up, “and luckily Marvel had a ready-made spy organization that could be dirtied up and taken down.”
5) Everything comes back to Feige’s belief that a Marvel film can be anything – an action film, a spy movie, a period war movie, a broad comedy. McFeely said, “A lot of it is Kevin being confident in the franchise he is building.” Feige realizes that franchises fail because they duplicate what has come before, so reinvention is necessary, meaning Marvel writers and directors know there is incredible latitude. Plus, McFeely added, “In the comics they rip stuff up all the time.”
6) Writers are told not to hold plot elements back for future films. “Marvel’s policy is that the one in front of us is the one that gets our attention,” McFeely said. “When we go in to pitch Captain America II, we’re not pitching Captain America III.” The big rule is not to hold anything back, not least because there’s 80 years of comics material, plus their own creativity, to draw on. “If we’ve already eaten our lunch, we just find another ingredient.”
7) When it came to Infinity War, the story came first, rather than attempting to wedge the story around the characters. The central conceit of Thanos traveling the universe to find the stones means that, inevitably, he will come into contact with all the heroes. Markus said, “We didn’t have to gin up situations that weren’t relevant to the movie.” That means the audience doesn’t need to know where Cap has been hiding since the Avengers disassembled at the end of Civil War (also, that was a practical decision: If the script gave everyone a “previously … ” scene, a two-and-a-half-hour film would have been six hours).
8) For its scale, Infinity War had the least development time. Markus said, “Kevin had blithely gone onstage and announced the release dates. [We thought,] ‘What are you doing?’” It also had to fit into a much more complicated schedule. For context, there was a full year between The First Avenger and The Avengers; there will be about the same time between Infinity War and its follow-up, but Marvel will have released two other films, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel, in between.
9) The grand, top-tier planning is done by the producers, who meet in what is nicknamed “the parliament” to work out big themes and some specifics (such as the decision to have Cap defrosted at the end of First Avenger, rather than the beginning of The Avengers). As filmmakers on the ground on any particular project, Markus said, “We’re talking to the producer, and the producer is talking to the hive mind.” However, there’s a lot of informal communication between directors and writers that can have huge impacts (especially for Markus and McFeely, who had to politely suggest that other writers not kill off characters they were planning to use for Infinity War). One of the biggest and potentially riskiest decisions was to connect Infinity War so closely to Black Panther and use Shuri as such a major character (on Ryan Coogler's recommendation) when they were still working on Infinity War. After all, the two films only came out three months apart, and as Markus said, “There was a chance that nobody liked Wakanda.”10) One of the big successes for Markus with Infinity War was Thor’s arc. After the epic scale of Thor (Marvel's first cosmic film) and the grim mythology of The Dark World, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok leaned heavily into the comedy – another sign of Feige’s faith in the flexibility of the franchise. However, Infinity War opens with a bloodbath mere moments after Ragnarok’s happy ending. Markus said, “You can embrace the comedy that came before, but still move the character forward.” Their job was to keep Thor epic, but build upon the evolution. “[Thor’s] got a scene with a frigging raccoon that breaks your heart, where he talks about everyone he has lost and how if fate wills it, he’ll get some measure of revenge.”
Austin Film Festival runs Oct. 25-Nov. 1. Tickets and info at austinfilmfestival.com
For reviews, news, and interviews throughout the festival, visit austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.