Captain America: Civil War: inside Marvel’s $4 billion toybox – Telegraph.co.uk
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It’s a crisp August morning in Berlin, and I’m in what must be the most exciting underground car park in western Europe. Overhead is the International Congress Centrum, an abandoned, asbestos-poisoned, concrete and aluminium monster, glinting in the heart of Charlottenberg-Wilmersdorf, like the hull of a helicarrier that fell to earth in the finale of a superhero movie.
The car park is of the same retro-spaceship vintage: pale, glowing globes for lighting, and a distinctive tangerine tiling on the walls that should give anyone who’s seen The Bourne Supremacy or the final Hunger Games film a tingle of movie deja-vu.
This car park isn’t just a car park: it’s the concourse of Sheremetyevo International Airport, and the subterranean tunnels of the Panem Capitol. As of this morning, it’s also the Bucharest underpass where Captain America and Black Panther have their first public tussle in the forthcoming Marvel blockbuster, Captain America: Civil War.
“Can I even say that?” grimaces Cap himself, aka Chris Evans, in his trailer after lunch, after outlining the premise of the scene he’s just shot. “I don’t want to give too much away. Interviews for these films are hard.” Earlier, Evans was in his full white-and-blue regalia, brawling with co-star Chadwick Boseman on the tarmac, while they were encircled by a swarm of police cars. But now he’s back in mufti: dark tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt tight enough to confirm not every piece of eye candy in the Marvel franchise is computer-generated.
Captain America: Civil War is Evans’s fifth Marvel Studios film – or seventh, if you count cameos, and he does. The suit feels like a “second skin” now, the 34-year-old actor says, but admits his confidence is a recent development.
Captain America: Civil War
He arrived on the Avengers set two months before his 30th birthday, and remembers the relief he felt halfway through the shoot, when his debut Captain America film, The First Avenger, was released and “wasn’t a horrible bomb”.
“I was so nervous about the character not being well-received by the fans that I just let Marvel do what they do, because they know the character best,” he says. Spool forward two years, and Evans was on the set of Cap’s second solo film, The Winter Soldier: a fan-favourite released in 2014 that strayed from the familiar superhero template into surveillance thriller territory (they even cast Robert Redford).
The Winter Soldier took three quarters of a billion dollars, almost two thirds of which came from non-US audiences. That’s not bad for a character conceived amid the star-spangled patriotism of the early 1940s, and which the Hollywood Reporter described in 2008, with understandable scepticism, as “perceived as a tough sale overseas”.
Evans cheerfully admits he can’t personally account for the series’ success. “I don’t really understand it,” he says. “There have been plenty of superhero films that have had trouble hitting the mark.” He’s just happy to be back on set, chasing franchise newcomer Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), saving old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and punching Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the hashtag-friendly ideological title fight that’s at Civil War’s core.
Are you #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap? The answer depends on whether you believe, a la Stark, that the Avengers should be kept in check by a superhero registration act, or whether they should be left alone to fight for truth and justice in the Captain American way.
Evans’s ground-level bewilderment at the Marvel enterprise is understandable (he’s not even sure if the scene he’s just shot takes place in Germany or Romania). The studio has gone from Hollywood upstart to $4 billion Disney subsidiary in a breakneck eight years, with 13 films in the can, only one of which – 2008’s The Incredible Hulk – wasn’t a decisive commercial hit. This isn’t easy to replicate: just ask Warner Bros, who spent a reported $400 million on Batman v Superman in order to tee up their own superhero franchise, only to end up with a divisively dour, commercially unconvincing white elephant that whetted few people’s appetites for four years of more of the same.
It’s still a good seven months before the release of Batman v Superman, so the various Marvelites I meet on set are talking only in general terms. But Stephen McFeely, one of Civil War’s co-writers, tells me over a mid-morning bottle of water on the ICC forecourt that he’s uneasy with Hollywood’s obsession with darkness.
“I suppose Civil War is dark in that it has people you like on both sides fighting,” he says with a twang of reluctance, “but ultimately there’s nothing more cartoony than two superheroes fighting. It’s what you do when you’re eight years old: you have two action figures and smack them together. So we hope this film does not feel laden down with self-importance.”
If anyone here has a grasp of the bigger picture, it’s Nate Moore, Marvel’s 37-year-old vice-president of production and development, and a Civil War executive producer. He’s hanging around on set to check that CivilWar’s two-brother director team, Joe and Anthony Russo, are staying on schedule, “planning for contingencies”, and fretting about what’s going to happen tomorrow in Leipzig, where the final shots for the film’s crowning action sequence – a 12-person #TeamCap vs #TeamIronMan showdown, featuring the hotly anticipated debut of the new Spider-Man, played by 19-year-old British actor Tom Holland – will be captured at Leipzig/Halle Airport.
Moore talks about the Marvel operation in a way I’ve never heard a studio talk about their output before – he makes the films sound like fast-food Pixar. They may be rolled out fast for mass consumption, but each one is hammered and burnished to a golden gleam, with constant planning meetings, meticulous micro-management and a fix-at-all-costs mindset. Joe Russo will later chucklingly refer to the “endless dialogue” between writers, directors and producers and “the famous Marvel reshoots”.
It can evidently be gruelling. Joss Whedon, the director of the Avengers films, recently said at the Tribeca Film Festival that he was “beaten down by the process” during the making of the second, Age of Ultron, and “came off it feeling like a miserable failure”.
On Civil War, says Moore, even the film’s centrepiece battle royale was endlessly torn down and rebuilt “so that each character would have a proper moment, a proper story beat, and people who love any individual character would feel like their character was serviced. That’s pretty difficult.”
Moore joined the studio in 2010 via their now-defunct Writing Programme, a kind of screenwriting hothouse where five writers tore through as many Marvel comics as quickly as they could, scouring them for ideas that might somehow work on screen. One of his pet projects was Guardians of the Galaxy, a then-unknown 25-issue series Marvel turned into a $775 million summer blockbuster in 2014; he still harbours hopes that another obscure and short-lived series, Runaways, might eventually follow a similar route.
Moore was hand-picked by Kevin Feige, the studio’s elusive but all-powerful president, to shepherd The Winter Soldier through production: after that film’s success, Feige was keen to bring back the same “family” for the sequel.
That includes the Russos, and also co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who are lurking on set in case of last-minute rewrites. “Sometimes you get there on the day and the door you’ve written about turns out to be a window, and you have to adjust a little bit,” says McFeely. Sometimes, too, the cast want to tweak their dialogue – most often Downey, who’ll often rework his dialogue with the two writers to make it “more organic”: i.e., more Downey-esque.
“He has Tony’s entire trajectory mapped out in his head,” says Markus. “So he’ll say, ‘I think this is why I do these things,’ and we’re like, ‘That’s very interesting.’ So we’ll turn a wheel or two and his idea falls into place.”
Anyone familiar with Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s original Civil War comic-book series will be aware that the story ends with what should probably only be described in the vaguest, spoiler-skirting terms, as a ‘tragic event’. That would have made for a heck of a cliffhanger in the film too, but Markus and McFeely think that a major character’s death in a film has to count for more than it does the comics, where it’s rarely ever final.
“The audience’s instinctive reaction is ‘they’re not really dead’,” says Markus. “It’s not as powerful a card to play as you think….If you’re going to do it, you have to be fully committed to never seeing that character again.”
But, adds McFeely, that’s not to say it’ll never happen. “It’s a question that will come up a lot more on the next Avengers movies,” he says. “Because that could the the end of one person’s story – or a lot of people’s stories.” A sideways glance to Markus. “But we don’t know who.”
And Feige has to sign it off too. “We talk to him when we can get him,” says Markus. (Today, he’s at Marvel Studios HQ in Burbank, California.) “He’s a very busy man, but he’s deeply involved in story. He sees – and has seen, since he was the only one working for this company – how the whole thing is going to play out.”
It was on Feige’s instruction that the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. was revealed to be riddled with Nazi-sympathising Hydra double agents in The Winter Soldier: “Occasionally, he’ll just come and drop a bomb like that and leave,” says Markus.
Feige’s “singular vision” is the Marvel secret, says McFeely. “Very often at other studios, this person has a final say on one thing, that person has the final say on another, and they may or may not be talking to each other.”
“But it’s also a complete faith in the properties,” picks up Markus. “There is very seldom somebody saying, ‘We’d get in a lot more 18-24 year olds if Captain America rode a skateboard’. You get that at other studios, where they’re just trying to dial up the knobs.” But Marvel’s confidence, he continues, is “purchased with its own success”.
“If there had been five bombs in a row, you can bet Cap would be on that skateboard,” he darkly adds.
By mid-afternoon, the Russos have a moment to talk. The Captain America/Black Panther clash is in the can, and the brothers look so tired, you might think they’d been stunt-doubling for both. The Winter Soldier’s success notwithstanding, these Italian-American boys always seemed doubly counterintuitive choices as Marvel helmsmen: one-time protégés of Steven Soderbergh, they’re midcentury European art-house buffs (their favourite film – this goes for both of them – is Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player), who made an unplanned swerve into comedy in 2002 with the Soderbergh-produced ensemble caper comedy Welcome to Collinwood. That in turn led them into the sitcom business: first Arrested Development, then Community, with the Owen Wilson rom-com You, Me and Dupree in between.
What’s in it for them, they say, is the sheer scale of the canvas they’re working on. The Winter Soldier allowed them to play in the 1970s conspiracy-drama sandpit, and in Civil War, they’ve indulged their love of Brian De Palma and David Fincher psychological thrillers.
Anthony, the older of the two, says the one thing they’ve always tried to avoid is making a superhero movie, with the familiar three-step arc: gain powers, learn to use them, battle monster. “We’ve seen those,” he says. “They’re just not interesting at this point.” Instead, they enjoy grafting comic-book characters onto more venerable genres – “mad-scientist-style,” as Joe puts it.
“Kevin [Feige] enjoys it as much as we do,” he says. “It’s become necessary to make these movies distinctive. You have to find something new to do.”
“And if you’re not a high quality film,” continues Anthony, “you’ll be dead by Friday 6pm. Social media alone will kill you. There’s nothing to hide behind any more.”
Given Batman v Superman’s 38 percent Friday-to-Saturday box-office tumble on its initial weekend, the Russos’ words seem eerily prescient – but the early enthusiasm for Civil War (the latest tracking figures suggest the fifth-biggest opening of all time) suggest they won’t be bitten by them just yet. And should the predictions come true, who knows what’s next? The wait for the first ever Truffaut-esque superhero film starts now.
Captain America: Civil War released on April 29
Captain America: Civil War: inside Marvel’s $4 billion toybox – Telegraph.co.uk