One of the most persistent rumors swirling around Avengers: Infinity War—Marvel’s new superhero-stuffed magnum opus—is that one of our beloved heroes will finally bite the dust. This is, after all, the culmination of the 18 movies that make up Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe, which means the level of stakes will be dialed to 11. And with Black Panther, Spider-Man and Captain Marvel poised to lead the studio’s next phase of films—not to mention the slew of expiring contracts, and the looming presence of the very menacing and very purple alien Thanos—this could very well be the last time we see Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. on world-saving duty.
The mere idea of developing a cohesive story that also gives Marvel’s entire roster of marquee superheroes their proper due would be enough to make even the most seasoned writers run for the hills. Luckily, this is wasn’t Markus and McFeely’s first rodeo. They also wrote the first two Captain America
films, Thor 2 and Civil War—the expansive superhero crossover film that served as fertile training ground when it came to writing Infinity War.
I spoke to the duo ahead of the Infinity War’s April 27 release to find out whether or not they finally solved Marvel’s villain problem, how Thor ended up on a spaceship with the Guardians, and who is it that dies, Iron Man or Captain America? Spoiler alert: One of those questions went unanswered.
We generated about 60 to 70 pages of alternate possible plot points, and laid out a million alternate futures, as far as we could divine them.
Christopher Markus: Don’t bring people in before the story needs them to come in. Spider-Man came in when we needed him. Black Panther came in when we needed him, and it worked. It works the same in this. We don’t have little catch-up scenes at the beginning where it’s like, "Let’s find out what the Guardians are doing, and then let’s find out what Tony’s doing." It’s all dictated by the story.
Stephen McFeely: We also gave ourselves permission to have varying sized arcs for characters. And since we have two movies to play with, we tried to reserve to try to tell the best story for each character, which might be over two movies. Hopefully, by the end of both, you’ll be satisfied with where your favorite character went.
Does Marvel give you a screen-time quota to hit for each character based on their popularity within the MCU?
Christopher: It was pretty much left up to us. Some of it’s obvious, but part of the fun of having this many characters is being able to move them into the foreground or the background so that some of the supporting characters could carry a little more weight than they did before, and some of the main characters can be put on their heels a little bit.
Stephen: It completely depends on what the story dictates. You would never be able to take into the editing room and say, “Oh, we should cut that scene. That’s guy’s got too much.” It would be super awkward.
I read that you guys used Robert Altman’s Nashville as a reference point?
Stephen: That was meant to be playful. I wouldn’t say this movie is quite as loose in tone. It’s closer to something like a season of Game of Thrones, where we’re moving from group to disconnected group, and we know they’re all connected in some way, but winter is coming.
Christopher: There’s a larger narrative thread, and there are smaller ones.
Stephen: Sadly, we know them really well because that’s all we’ve been doing for the last 10 years. And the characters we don’t write, we’re fans of, so we’re fairly well-tuned-in to their voices. We also got opinions from the other writers and directors, to weigh in and see if they had anything they could provide us. Thor underwent a big change between his second and third movies, so we needed to keep an eye on that movie and see how they were changing his pitch.
So for instance, you would pick Ryan Coogler’s brain about where he sees Black Panther going in this script?
Christopher: Depending on how much we needed to know about their movie. Captain Marvel and Ant-Man and Wasp come out in between the two movies, so we had to have a very solid grasp of where they were going to be physically and mentally in the universe. Panther and Guardians required us to consult Ryan and James, just so we didn’t pull some bizarre left turns that hadn’t already been set up.
When you started writing the film, Black Panther hadn’t come out yet, but I imagine you wrote the film keeping in mind that when it comes out, he’ll become one of the central figures of the MCU. Is that fair to say?
Stephen: We assumed that audiences would know Black Panther and the other characters in that movie better than they did when we were writing and they were shooting. It was weird. We just thought, "Boy, they better really like Shuri, because if they don’t, we are screwed." We did some test screenings, and certain scenes that had those characters in it were fine, and then two weeks after Black Panther came out, we would show it to another audience, and as soon as someone from that movie came on, they went nuts.
Christopher: It’s thrilling on many levels. It’s pretty remarkable. But the characters from that movie would be taking up the exact same amount of space had Black Panther bombed. We’re delighted, but we weren’t going to recut the movie had it tanked.
Based on the trailers we’ve seen, this film has some great one-liners. How important was it for you to maintain that trademark Marvel humor, despite the increased stakes?
Christopher: It’s essential, but we don’t inherently say, "This movie has to be this funny this often." One of the appeals of Marvel comics to begin with was that the characters were funny even in dire situations. That’s giving the audience more credit than if everyone’s acting very serious because something very serious is going to happen—people make jokes out of anxiety. But you also can’t help but make jokes when these characters encounter each other for the first time. We’ve all been anticipating Peter Quill meeting Tony, or Tony meeting Dr. Strange. You actually have to cut back on the jokes.
Stephen: And that’s a result of good characterization and audience investment. We’re very lucky that there are lot of eyeballs on this. People are eager to hear the smallest little nugget from one character to another because they’ve never met.
What was the process like figuring out Thanos, who we’ve only seen bits and pieces of?
Christopher: I think we realized early on that if this movie was going to work, it had to be to a large degree Thanos’ movie—not quite a biopic, but he is the protagonist, at least in his own mind. He has very well-thought-out reasons to do what he’s doing. We didn’t want just an anonymous threat from above, but rather something where you could almost sympathize with him for being annoyed that all these human insects are getting in his way. One of the things that Jim Starlin, and then James Gunn, have built into it is that Thanos has family, and a character with at least two daughters is automatically more complex than a maniac.
Stephen: The fact that even in a two-minute trailer, you are frightened or impressed by him, and then you see him gently take a little girl’s hand, it puts you on your heels. We hopefully do that throughout the whole movie. We went out of our way to make sure Thanos isn’t just on a shopping spree. When he comes for a stone, it threatens someone that you love. Tony is still swimming around from the attack on New York, which was Thanos working through Loki. God knows what happens to the Asgardians, but at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, it looks like Thanos’ ship is coming for them. Vision has a stone in his head. Strange has a stone around his chest. This process is personal to a lot of people.
We realized early on that if this movie was going to work, it had to be, to a large degree, Thanos’ movie—not quite a biopic, but he is the protagonist, at least in his own mind.
Christopher: Kevin is wide open to ideas. If they’re great, but they happen to scuttle a potential thing that might happen a movie or two in the future, he’s for scuttling it. He was very open to a lot of possibilities in these movies. Basically, we just came in knowing that Thanos is the bad guy, and there’s two movies. We generated about 60 to 70 pages of alternate possible plot points, and laid out a million alternate futures as far as we could divine them.
Stephen: The process is then going through that with Kevin, the Marvel executives and the Russo brothers until things start to coalesce, where we all think that maybe that’s a really good moment to chase, and given that, this falls away, this falls away and that steps up. It’s a very collaborative process.
So Kevin will never say to you: "We need to see Thor on a ship with the Guardians."
Stephen: Not at all. In fact, Chris and I are currently sitting in a conference room doing some work for Avengers 4, and we have all these little baseball cards in front of us with pictures of each character in the MCU. These have been the bane of our existence for the last few years because what we would do is we would spread them around the table and put that person next to this person and say, "Alright, I see that scene. Under what circumstances would those people meet? How would that go? Would they like each other or hate each other? What are the most delightful pairings we can come up with?" So the fact that Thor is in the same shot as Rocket and Groot, isn’t something that came from up high, but from the idea that we could get some strange alchemy going when we put two pieces together.
Christopher: We’d be developing the story, and say they go to a country or a planet, we would surprise ourselves and say, "Wait a minute, you know who’s there …” Now we can run these two strange characters together in a way that wouldn’t have, like Bucky in Wakanda a couple movies ago.
How challenging is it to figure out the massive action set pieces and translate them on the page?
Christopher: We write one version, and then far more talented people—in terms of the kinetic energy of a fight—come in. The stunt coordinators and effects supervisors come in and go, "You know where you had him punch him? What if he went through five portals and then backflipped and punched him in the
back of the head?" So while we want the scene do be exciting when you read it, we’re focused on writing the emotional beats.
Stephen: We’re the emotional coordinators, not the fight coordinators.
What makes the Russos uniquely qualified to direct a film like this?
Christopher: On a physical level, and ability to keep shooting and juggling and turning to one person to talk about movie two while you're shooting movie one—their background in TV has a lot to do with their stamina. The pace is faster, and the schedule is a lot more harrowing, so pounding away at this for over a year of shooting was more of a TV schedule than a movie schedule.
Stephen: That’s a great point. They’ve done hundreds of hours of quality television before they did Winter Soldier. Most directors who are on their fourth movie have done a whole eight hours worth of content, while the Russo brothers had done hundreds. The things that they’ve come up against, and
the solutions that they’ve created, really served them well.
I was reviewing a script page where something big happens, and my sister happened to be visiting the set. So I just tilted the computer towards her, and she went, "Oh, my God."
Christopher: The fact of the matter is, all of us die eventually.
In all seriousness, how hard has it been to keep the many secrets associated with this film?
Stephen: We’re off social media, so there’s not a lot of incoming stuff directly to us, and our families and friends either don’t care or know enough to not ask us.
Christopher: I will say that I did have a very satisfying moment. I was reviewing a script page where something big happens, and my sister happened to be visiting the set. So I just tilted the computer towards her and pointed at it, and she went, "Oh, my God."
Stephen: I really want this out in the world so I can let it go and talk about it. We have to be so cagey with you, I’d rather you talk to us on April 27.
Do you think the cultural impact of the Avengers movies and superhero movies at large is good or bad?
Christopher: Look, there have been people complaining about Star Wars and Westerns and musicals
and whatever is currently dominating the box office. But I would draw a distinction between Marvel and a lot of other things. Marvel really is one big episodic continuous story, which has never been done before, at least not at this level. If you’re honestly watching the movies, you can’t just say, "Marvel is flooding the market with sequels." They’re telling a great story.
Stephen: For those who think there’s a dearth of great storytelling, well, I guess they don’t have a Netflix account. Because of the disruptor that streaming television is, it has created a different model, and I suppose people who have been in the business for 50 years can lament that.
I think one of the main gripes is that studios aren’t making original films like, say, Wind River, for theater consumption. You now have to find those films on Netflix.
Stephen: Generally speaking, that might be true. But it’s fiscally responsible for a big corporation to make a lot of money on their movie. Wind River was a damn good movie, but what can you expect box office-wise from that? How many Wind Rivers do you need to make, or do you try and swing for the fences? I get the problem, but I certainly think more great writers and directors are working than ever before.