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How Marvel built such an impressive movie universe

We talked to the screenwriters of Captain America: Civil War about the challenges and payoffs of making sure all of Marvel's movies connected.

Marvel Studios

Captain America: Civil War is the third film in Marvel's Captain America film series and the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s as much a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron as it is to its direct franchise predecessor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And yet neither the title character nor the interconnected universe shows any signs of having peaked: Civil War has been greeted with nearly unanimous raves — it currently boasts a 90 percent "fresh" rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes — with some calling it one of the best films Marvel has ever created.

And it’s certainly in the top tier. It’s fun, funny, exciting, and dramatic, balancing genuinely spectacular action scenes with moments of quiet character development. It juggles a huge cast that includes three superheroes who've already anchored solo films and two more who are set to do so in the next few years. And it manages to introduce several major new characters while still giving proper attention to the old standbys. Although it is a blockbuster with mass appeal, it is also an incredibly ambitious commercial project. (It’s everything, in other words, that Batman v Superman tried and failed to be.)

Civil War is both a great movie on its own and a substantial expansion of both the Captain America franchise and the larger Marvel universe. It is perhaps the best demonstration yet of the success of Marvel’s intensely collaborative filmmaking style, and the ways in which it ensures both the consistency and quality of its offerings, across multiple characters, genres, and creative teams. It is a triumph of corporate filmmaking.

Marvel's film slate boasts an impressive — and extremely rare — level of both consistency and quality

One of the great, underappreciated virtues of the Marvel movies is their consistency — not in style, but in quality. Not all of them are great, but all of them are at least pretty good. There’s not a truly bad movie in the bunch (not even the mostly forgotten Incredible Hulk, which boasts a fine performance by Edward Norton and a handful of over-the-top action scenes courtesy of Transporter director Louis Leterrier).

That consistency is due in no small part to the way that Marvel develops its movies, planning multiple films years in advance and treating each story as a strand in a shared narrative universe.

Since the release of Iron Man in 2007, the company has run all of the superhero films based on its various characters (with the exception of a few, like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, where the film rights are held by other studios) through Marvel Studios, an in-house production studio run by Kevin Feige, who oversees the entire film slate. (Marvel Studios, like Marvel Comics, was bought by Disney in 2009.)

That singular point of ownership and creative control has allowed the studio to produce the sort of character-packed, continuity-heavy movies that in previous years would have been considered too expensive to produce, too difficult to execute, and too complex for audiences to follow. In particular, it lets Marvel coordinate and develop a larger cast of characters and interconnected storylines in ways that no other movie studio had ever really attempted before, allowing for a narrative sprawl in which stories are drawn out over the course of multiple films released many years apart.

The company's centralized approach to filmmaking is both highly collaborative and unusually streamlined

Civil War’s writers, screenwriting duo Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, tend to agree. And they should know; in addition to penning Civil War, they also worked on the scripts for the previous two Captain America movies and Thor: The Dark World, and they're currently in the process of scripting the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. They also created one of Marvel’s TV spinoff series, Agent Carter. At this point, McFeely and Markus are senior architects of the Marvel movie universe.

In an interview earlier this week, the pair likened the process of developing a Marvel movie to the process of breaking a story in a TV writers’ room. Each film begins with what is essentially a two-month brainstorming session, during which the pair — often joined by a Marvel executive and Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who directed both Civil War and its predecessor, The Winter Soldier — hole up and work through various story ideas.

Talking to McFeely and Markus, it’s easy to imagine how this process might play out: Even over the phone, they come across as a kind of joint mind, bouncing ideas back and forth as they answer questions and finish each other’s sentences while also making space for each other to speak at length. You can hear them collectively working toward the right response, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Even in their interviews, they are intensely collaborative.

The brainstorming process is extremely open-ended, and Marvel gives them a fair amount of freedom to develop the story as they see fit, with few (if any) guidelines or requests as the process begins. "There are no rules to start, generally speaking … it’s not like Marvel says, 'Here’s a list of preapproved characters we would like you to shove in here.' It doesn’t work that way," McFeely told me.

Ultimately, those brainstorming sessions are where the story is created. "The story definitely comes out of that room," he continued. "It’s not like a three-act structure comes to us from on high. That structure comes from us."

This story development process obviously breeds a kind of intense personal commitment to the Marvel brand. Civil War is the fourth Marvel film McFeely and Markus have worked on, and the aforementioned two-part Infinity War will bring the total to six. No other director or writer has worked on as many Marvel films; the pair may be the most consistent creative influence in the MCU aside from Feige himself.

"We feel a great deal of ownership over these characters," McFeely explains. "And we feel that we have a great deal of input," because Marvel "trusts us to do right by the characters. It doesn’t mean we can do anything. It doesn’t mean that Kevin Feige doesn’t have the final say."

But it’s also unusual for their ideas to be shot down. As Marcus explained during our chat, "It is rare to nonexistent, the times we are told, 'You absolutely cannot do that.'"

Connecting each new film to the rest of the MCU presents a unique challenge, but one that ultimately pays off

At the same time, there are significant challenges to this sort of highly collaborative, centrally managed system, where stories and characters are overseen by multiple creators, and high-stakes business deals can determine whether a filmmaker has the right to use a character at all.

When Markus and McFeely started working on Civil War, for example, Marvel had not yet finalized its deal with Sony to share the rights to Spider-Man, who makes his MCU debut in the film. That meant they had to start writing without knowing whether he would end up in the final script — and thus had to build a story that would allow him to be replaced if necessary.

At times, they were told that the character needed to be cut from the draft they were working on. "We had to periodically fill the hole" left by the removal of Spider-Man, Markus recalls. But he argues that uncertainty over whether he and Markus could ultimately use the character "was very beneficial to the growth of the story," helping them figure out the film's overall arc.

They ended up taking a kind of modular approach. "We were flexible enough so that if somehow the improbable deal between Sony and Marvel didn’t happen, we weren’t left having to redo the entire structure," McFeely says.

Other drawbacks of Marvel's filmmaking process include the inevitable hiccups and complications that happen anytime you bring multiple people into a creative process. Markus and McFeely must stay in touch with the creative teams of all the other Marvel movies to ensure that the franchise's continuity remains intact and characters stay consistent from film to film, and they have to do it all while sticking to release schedules that are announced years in advance, usually at high-profile events.

"I would say the most friction comes from going, 'Would you make a decision already!' Because we’re running late," Markus says. "We sometimes have to write placeholder scenes," McFeely adds.

But these are mostly just the challenges of working on any expensive, complex project, and of working with other people. And Markus and McFeely both argue that the focus on collaboration and cross-film coordination with other filmmakers helps prevent the movies from falling into a creative rut, because contributions from other writers and directors help keep the characters fresh and supply the system with new ideas.

"It’s the multiplicity of creators that give it that organic quality," Markus says, pointing to the diverging tones of the various franchises, from the far-out space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy to the comic clashes of the old and new worlds in the Thor films. "Because otherwise it would be, you know…"

"A factory," McFeely suggests.

"It would be tonally much more similar," Markus says.

The MCU is now structured more like a serialized television show than a collection of marginally related movies

There are a dozen superheroes in Civil War, plus a handful of significant supporting cast members and a number of Marvel heroes who are named but not shown. Even though it's technically part of the Captain America franchise, its extensive cast — along with the prominence of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man — essentially makes it the culmination of 13 films' worth of plot and character development that have played out over the past nine years.

That it holds together at all is more than a little impressive (witness how mightily Batman v Superman struggled to manage an even smaller cast). That it balances all of its characters with such wit and energy is, well, a marvel.

Yet as large as it is, Civil War is just a small-scale test run for the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, due in 2018 and 2019. That project will reportedly feature as many as 67 different Marvel superheroes, and Markus and McFeely will be responsible for figuring out how to corral all of them into two normal-length movies.

In some ways, it’s as much a management challenge as a narrative one, more like directing an orchestra than playing an instrument. "As much as we can," Markus says, the goal is to "not have everybody in the same place at the same time in the same scene so that we’re not juggling 60 characters a scene. It would wind up like some sort of press conference."

There aren’t many other models for a story so big, with so many characters — especially given that by the time of its release, Infinity's story will have to account for 18 previous films in the MCU.

Interestingly, the best example of how to pull off such a juggling act might not be in the movies at all, but on television. After all, on some level the MCU is something of a television show itself — a concept that's only become more clear with Civil War, which, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote, "is the fullest expression of Marvel's idea of essentially creating a giant TV show that we all tune in to every six months or so."

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that both Markus and McFeely say they look to one TV show in particular, the sprawling HBO fantasy epic Game of Thrones, for inspiration. With its dozens of characters and crisscrossing multiyear storylines, the show may be the MCU's closest onscreen cousin. And when I mention the show during our conversation, the two enthuse about its relationship to their work on Marvel’s movies.

"Game of Thrones doesn’t recap everything for you," McFeely says. "They’re comfortable with you being a little lost. We don’t want people lost. But we can’t spend 45 minutes on ‘Previously on the Marvel Cinematic Universe....’"

Markus concurs. "There are times when I’m watching Game of Thrones and I do not completely know what’s going on," he says, "but I’m having a great time. So I watch that show and kind of study it, because it’s like, how are they pulling this off? How are they bringing some characters to the foreground and letting [others] drop back?"

"For whole seasons!" McFeely interjects. It’s clear this is a problem he’s thought about a lot.

"For one, it’s audience commitment," Markus continues. "People aren’t going away. So they can tell this kind of story."

McFeely agrees. "We are sort of relying on that — the audience commitment."

The linchpin of Marvel's entire moviemaking operation is the trust and commitment the company has inspired in its audience

Although the idea of a sprawling, interconnected universe is rooted in print comics, the movie version began as a commercial ploy, a way for the studio to cross-promote its characters and regularize its schedule and its likely earnings. Indeed, as Adam Sternbergh recently wrote in New York magazine, the Marvel system has in recent years become "the envy of Hollywood. Not only because it reliably produces moneymaking films every year but because it promises a series of future moneymakers for years to come."

But in order for the studio to deliver on its promise to corporate paymasters, it had to deliver on its promise to viewers — and had to do so every single time. It had to consistently make movies that were always at least pretty good, and sometimes even great. Otherwise the audience commitment wouldn’t exist.

By organizing all of these films and filmmakers under a single brand, that’s what Marvel has achieved. The studio has generated a surfeit of audience goodwill that gives filmmakers like Markus and McFeely the freedom to be ambitious and expansive in their storytelling in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

That may be what really makes Marvel’s unprecedented — and now widely copied — moviemaking scheme work so effectively: It knows it has to draw in the viewers, that it has to deliver on its promise to them every single time. And in turn, the studio relies on those viewers to accept what it's doing, to keep up to speed, to follow along and not get lost (or to trust that if they do, everything will work out in the end). It is a system that couldn't succeed without the audience’s trust and commitment. Ultimately, it makes the audience a collaborator too.

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