In a competing superhero franchise, the wisecracking sidekick might have summed up “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” with a well-timed “Holy meta-narrative, Batman!”
Drafting the sequel to 2011’s hit comic book movie adaptation “Captain America: The First Avenger,” screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely faced challenges above and beyond delivering the kind of slam-bang action-adventure associated with a nearly unstoppable super soldier dressed in star-spangled fatigues.
“Cap 2″ (as the project became known) needed to fit squarely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That is, into a narrative continuum established by the movie’s production company Marvel Studios where costumed heroes such as Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye and the Hulk have turned up in one another’s tent-pole movies since 2008.
Encompassing future films and TV shows whose plot lines and outcomes are all, to varying degrees, contingent on what happens in “Cap 2,” the cinematic universe has already been broadly plotted out through 2028.
Hence, a more complicated mandate for the “Winter Soldier” writers.
“You have to think, ‘Is Iron Man going to cover this territory?'” explained Markus, the more expansive of the two. “We had Hawkeye in ‘Cap 2′ for a while, but it was becoming arbitrary that he was in it. Eight or nine movies in, a lot of ideas have already played out on screen. You gotta dig deeper.”
On the blockbuster heels of “Marvel’s The Avengers” — 2012’s highest-grossing film, which features Captain America among a dream team of superheroes battling to save Earth — McFeely and Markus’ deep dig into the Marvel universe paid dividends with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” arriving as the most successful April movie opening of all time. The $170-million sequel topped box-office charts for a second consecutive week, beating out the animated movie “Rio 2’s” theatrical debut and grossing more than $159 million in its first 10 days of domestic release. It’s also cruised past $475 million worldwide, having opened in 32 markets internationally a week before its U.S. premiere.
For Markus and McFeely, “The Winter Soldier” represents a different accomplishment. It’s the third consecutive hit the duo has delivered for Marvel — after “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which grossed more than $370 million, and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World” — as well as the payoff for an unusual genre mash-up that broadened the parameters of what audiences can reasonably expect from comic book-based fare.
The writers grafted elements they admit they “stole” from 1970s conspiracy movies such as “Marathon Man” and “The Parallax View” onto a plot line from a 2005 “Captain America” comic book by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting that regards the Winter Soldier, a character who first debuted in 1941.
Then, working closely with Kevin Feige — Marvel Studios’ president who orchestrates the conglomerate’s multi-franchise big picture — McFeely and Markus added familiar Marvel characters the Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie in the film) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) into the mix. And they pitted the Captain/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) against a corruption conspiracy inside S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage organization that employs him.
The result? A rollicking movie centered on a muscle-bound patriot who can jump out of planes without the aid of a parachute but has to adjust to present-day realities after awakening from an ice-entombed, seven-decade slumber. The film also manages to exhibit surprising contemporary resonance in an era of NSA over-reach, when the CIA stands accused of spying on Senate staff by Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein.
“How do you dunk superheroes into gritty reality?” Markus asked, seated in the hillside guesthouse of his Silver Lake home that he and McFeely use as a writing room. “Once you decide on murk, the present day is going to play along with you.”
“Our good guy’s on the run for half the movie, he doesn’t know from whom or why,” McFeely said. “He figures out why. Then he can go on offense. That’s the screenwriting thing it took us watching ‘Three Days of the Condor’ four times to figure out.”
The “screenwriting thing,” however, was hardly the writers’ original aim. Now both 44, Markus and McFeely met at UC Davis 20 years ago where both were matriculated as masters candidates in fiction writing and experienced something like a “Eureka!” moment while watching basic cable. The experience led them to weigh the Great American Novel against the siren song of Hollywood.
“We were watching ‘Baywatch,’ and it occurred to us, ‘Somebody wrote this!'” McFeely recalled.
“Somebody got paid for that,” continued Markus. “That’s a writing job!”
After years of churning out “spec” scripts and holding down low-level production jobs, the duo finally broke through with the 2004 biopic “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” starring Geoffrey Rush. On the strength of that film’s characterizations, McFeely and Markus were hired to tackle the big-budget adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ kids-lit classic “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (as well as its two sequels).
“We didn’t get the job because of our love of epic battles,” Markus said. “We’re good at making humans believable in a ridiculous situation. And it has spun from there.”
After 2010’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Dawn Trader,” the two didn’t work for a solid year, turning down a number of YA-skewing fantasy films — including the blockbuster first installment of “The Hunger Games” — for fear of being pigeonholed. But now, with an eclectic filmography that includes three hit superhero movies as well as “Pain & Gain” (last year’s crime comedy about bodybuilder criminals starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Michael Bay), McFeely and Markus are past being categorized as one-trick ponies.
Instead, they find themselves in an enviable position as architects of the Marvel cinematic universe.
“We’re all just playing in the Marvel sandbox. The people that stay in that sandbox have the most fun and can play well with others. They do that incredibly well,” Marvel chief Feige said. “Chris and Steve are as in the loop as anyone across all the films because we value their input. They’ve read most of the drafts of all the films that are in production or going into production. That helps inform the films they’re working on. They also happen to have an affinity for our universe and our source material.”
Testament to the studio’s faith in McFeely and Markus sat in an overstuffed folder on a coffee table in the writers room: a jumble of pages for “Captain America 3,” the next film they’ve been hired to write, due out in May 2016.
Never mind that the release date pits “Cap 3″ against one of the most eagerly awaited movies in recent fanboy memory — Warner Bros.’ untitled Batman-Superman project — which was moved into the coveted date a month ago, setting up a summer superhero smackdown bound to captivate Hollywood watchers for years. Rather than sweat the competition, though, the writers have chosen to stay true to their mandate: upholding the Marvel meta-narrative.
“The attraction of the whole thing is this interlocking universe,” said Markus. “There is an inherent fascination to the way this cloud of story lines works. It’s the reason the comics work. And the genius of getting this project off the ground is, they knew from early on —”
McFeely cut in: “— that the sum is greater than its parts.”
— Chris Lee | @LATHeroComplex
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