Over the past decade, Marvel Studios has dominated the box office, innovating the superhero genre and reshaping the way in which we participate in blockbuster films at large. Two people who have been at the helm of that success are Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This past October, I was able to catch up with them at the Austin Film Festival Writers Conference to talk about their careers, their process, and their road to writing the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War which released this past April and is undoubtedly, one of the most ambitious projects in movie history.
As the screenwriters behind all of the Captain America films as well as Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Infinity War and the untitled Avengers film releasing next year, they’ve spent most of their careers devoted to these heroes and have, in turn, helped create one of the biggest films of all time. Most likely two if Infinity War is any indication as to how the next film will be received. But long before all of this success were two young writers who at one point, hadn’t even considered that writing films was a possibility. Like Cap and all the rest, they have an origin story of their own, one which led them to where they are today.
Growing up, both knew early on that they enjoyed writing, more so than any other subject. After doing some creative work during their undergraduate careers, each decided to attend graduate school for fiction writing and see what they could do, which is where they were first introduced to one another and eventually became a writing duo. They went into grad school with the goal of writing a novel or something of the sort. Soon after starting grad school, however, that all changed.
“At one point, during my first year, I got a book from my uncle on how to sell your story to Hollywood. And none of that made any sense to us.” McFeely explained. “That Hollywood existed and you could get money for it. You could eat food as a result. So we joined forces and started writing little things and got a professor to give us credit to write a script. It wasn’t very good, but it was encouraging enough to say ‘lets move to LA.’”
From that moment, they gave themselves four years to get an agent and get to a point where they felt validated in their writing. Eventually, their dedication and hard work paid off, and the two have been writing together ever since.
While the whole writing partner life isn’t for every screenwriter out there, it seems to have really worked out for them. Both enthusiastically expressed the benefits of working together, and how much further down the line their first drafts are than they would be if they wrote separately. Even being two of the most lauded and successful screenwriters on the planet, there are still times when one feels discouraged or the other kicks down an idea before its even developed, which is where being in a writing partnership also really helps.
“Having another person there, one who can hear the idea, but who can also legitimize the fact that we do this for a living, it makes it very real,” Markus said.
Early in their careers, the two wrote the script for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which won them an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special. Soon after that, they wrote the first three Chronicles of Narnia films. Adaptation is a difficult skill that not everyone has, but it’s where the pair have found great success. Having done it for most of their careers now, they’ve got a pretty solid process down for it at this stage in the game.
Of course, that doesn’t exactly make tackling the entire backlog of Marvel comics any easier, but just like writing most anything else, they start with the source material and go from there. McFeely explained that “Whether it’s a biography or a bunch of comics, we roll around in it for quite a while and we each pick the things that are resonate to us. A lot of times they will overlap because we’ll both go “ah” that’s really obviously an important moment. That’s gotta be in the movie.”
But, it could go even further than that.
“Or those cards are all the same,” Markus commented. And therefore, “I think that might be the theme of the movie. This thing kept happening. That’s the point we’re trying to make, right there.”
After this, they spend time talking and organizing their cards before jumping into the outline, which they stressed, must be quite organized so that they’re on the same page.
“We split it up the outline, and I might be writing scenes 6-10 and if I don’t know what scenes 1-5 are, then I’m screwed,” Markus explained. “It’s not like he’s gonna improv for 5 pages and then I’ll pick it up, you know? So, it’s the most organized at the beginning and then we can, once we have our assignments, kind of freestyle with it. And then we put it together and see how it all works and then we’ll read it.”
But how does all of this work when writing within such an interconnected universe like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The process is a little more complicated, but surprisingly not as different as you might think, other than a handful of extra people to consult.
“Whenever you’re writing a Marvel movie there’s a movie shooting, there’s a movie in post-production, and there’s a movie being written,” Markus said. “So you’re always in the middle of this life-cycle and you have to know what they’re doing and they have to know what you’re doing.”
Throughout this process, along with Kevin Feige making note of certain points that should be met in each of the films, they mentioned there is quite a bit of creative freedom allotted to them when writing a Marvel film.
Most recently, the two faced one of their largest writing challenges yet in developing the story for Avengers: Infinity War and the untitled Avengers film releasing next year. 20 something characters and more than a dozen films to connect is more than enough to make any writer get overwhelmed. They had to narrow things down, see where different characters left off, and get to the heart of what everything was essentially building up to. Everything had to somehow come together without inducing a plethora of different stories.
Knowing their ending for Infinity War definitely helped with this, and from there, it all clicked. Or should I say snapped?
It was Thanos.
“I think at one point we thought he’s on a hero’s journey. He’s the main character. Everyone else is responding to him.” McFeely explained. “This is how everyone can come in just enough. He forces the action. Once we decided that, the movie got really manageable. It wasn’t manageable before.”
But while the culmination of ten years of movies and characters wasn’t easy, there was also great fun to be had with it. Perhaps a little too much fun for them when it came to pairing different characters together because initially, they set out to pair loads of people who had never met before, like say, Pepper and Captain America. This is until they slowed down a bit and realized they weren’t making the first film in a series, they were making the 19th and 22nd. Not exactly the time for a dozen new introductions.
Even still, while many pairings had to eventually be altered or cut out, there were some too perfect to toss away.
“We have to acknowledge what came before, so some people got placed back with their partners because it made much more emotional sense. You could get places that way,” Markus recalled. “But then again it was like Rocket and Thor? That’s funny. And I think the inevitable one was Tony and Dr. Strange. Just wind them up and let them go.”
A trend to take away from all of this, though is that it’s clear when developing a Marvel film, there’s a lot of time and focus placed on characters, and their needs, desires, goals, relationships. It’s a big deal to them, to Kevin Feige, and the rest of the studio that these characters feel fully fleshed out, and they want to get it right.
To this sentiment, McFeely remarked that “Certainly digital effects have influenced Hollywood but there are many, many franchises, movies that have made money, that are very light on character. And as expensive as it is,” he explained, “as much as the digital effects are cutting edge, they [Marvel] are more than willing to throw out finished shots to service story and character.”
And to them, that’s part of the magic of Marvel Studios. “If it ever feels like spectacle over story, it goes,” Markus noted.
This means that beyond just one of the biggest crossover events in film history when setting out to make Infinity War, the duo had to really consider the emotional impact of it all. Writing a story that takes place in space and on Earth, there were loads of cool technical opportunities that could have driven their focus and got carried away with, but for them, it really all came down to the emotional journey and that gut-punch ending specifically.
“If it didn’t work emotionally, if something didn’t happen at the end of that movie that made you really feel some impact, then it really would just be the silly story about the monster from space with magic stones,” Markus said. “Especially if he was thwarted at the end.”
Beyond the emotional gut-punch that it is, the choice to have the film end on such a note, with Thanos winning was a bold choice. According to Markus and McFeely though, it’s the kind of bold choice that Marvel Studios has been fostering all along.
“You know it’s us but it’s also Kevin. We go to him and say, “here’s a risky thing to do, what do you think?” McFeely explained. He went on to note that, “I would say the Marvel movies that take the biggest swings and blow up their own mythology are the best ones.”
But now that Thanos has triumphed, where do we go from here? What can we expect to see after such a tragedy?
Well, of course, we’ll have to wait until next year. But they did mention that there will be much more Cap involved in this next film. As the writers who practically helmed the Captain America series alongside the Russo Brothers, Cap is a character who will always have a soft spot in each of their hearts, but as McFeely said regarding his character, “we had a definite story we wanted to tell that frankly was more interesting after the snap than before.”
Explaining their thoughts on this a little further, Markus continued to say, “…when there is a big moral shift going on, he [Cap] is a very interesting guy to look at it through.”
With the untitled Avengers film releasing next year and more films from the MCU lined up to come after that, some wonder whether or not the superhero film genre can keep up its success for another few decades. So I asked them their thoughts on the matter.
“I mean, everything has a lifespan of some kind,” Markus said. “The MCU has handled it in a very interesting way to where you know because it’s all connected you can’t reboot one…They’ll introduce new characters, they’ll phase characters out. Any kind of crazy idea can happen. But as long as they focus on people, I would hope that it just keeps rolling along.”
McFeely also wanted to emphasize the difference between the MCU and the superhero genre. “Superhero movies are a genre, they help define it. But it has a life because of what Chris said,” he explained. “…People will tire of this only if the stories themselves in this particular universe are no good, are repetitive.”
On that note, if Marvel Studios continues to hire innovative and creative writers like Markus and McFeely, who dedicate such time to making these characters memorable and special to audiences everywhere, I can see the MCU most likely continuing along for many years to come.