Steve McFeely during a script review of Captain America: Civil War. He is seated near the lamp.
Steve McFeely ’87, an Emmy-award-winning screenwriter, has translated some of the most iconic stories into big-screen masterpieces.
With Captain America: Civil War out in early May to critical acclaim — the film was called a “damn-near-perfect popcorn crowd-pleaser” by Jordan Farley and “surprisingly fleet-footed” by Variety’s Justin Chang — McFeely and his writing partner Christopher Markus are now poised to take over The Avengers franchise, the crown jewel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
McFeely taught English at SI in the early 1990s before leaving to try his hand at writing screenplays. He honed his craft with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which won an Emmy for him and Markus, and they followed that up with their adaptations of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
His other films include You Kill Me with Ben Kingsley, Pain & Gain with Mark Wahlberg, Thor: The Dark World, the TV series Agent Carter and the first two Captain America movies, The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier.
Weeks before Civil War came out, he spoke with Genesis editor Paul Totah ’75 about his career and ideas surrounding the heroes he writes about.
PT: Many sources say that Captain America: Civil War is among the most anticipated movie of the year. How do you feel about that?
SM: I wish I could divorce myself from the hype and anticipation surrounding the movie, but so much is out of my control. I have learned not to attach anything personal to whether or not a movie is well received or buzzy or sexy. If I equated or connected my self-worth with any movie I write, I’m bound to be disappointed. Still, I’m happy to be working on movies that people want to see.
PT: What is it about Captain America’s story that you enjoy telling?
SM: I feel invested now, particularly, now that Markus and I have written three Captain America movies. Cap is a particular challenge, as he is old-fashioned in his heroism. He doesn’t go through dark nights of the soul. He’s not Rick from Casablanca. He changes the world around him, but the world doesn’t change him. That’s a challenge for the three-act structure, which, lately, calls for your character to overcome a personal failing. He has so few of them, so it can be tough. We will be dirtying him up in Civil War, however, and digging deep into him. I like being part of his story in this small way, as he is such an iconic figure.
PT: Are these super-hero movies divorced from current events, a mirror to current events or something else entirely?
SM: Movies are not divorced; they can’t be, as we are humans living in the world. Chris, the directors and I read the papers and watch TV. We aren’t trying to make confections that just go away. That’s not to say we lead with an agenda, but when your character’s name is Captain America, you know he stands for something.
In the 1960s, the reason Marvel gave him an African American partner, The Falcon, was to talk about race relations. In the 1970s, Cap uncovered a secret scandal in the White House. If you’ve never read his comics, you might assume he’s some kind of demagogue, but he is always concerned with his country and not his government. He can be on any side of any issue depending on what America’s side ought to be. In that sense, his movies are political.
The first movie in the franchise is a period piece, set in 1943. When he wears an American flag then, it means something different from what it means today. He’s not a mirror to society, but his movies should talk about what we currently are debating. In Winter Soldier, the debate is between security and freedom. It’s an old question, but what will you give up to ensure your security and how far down the road has the U.S. gone? Civil War is in the same ballpark.
If you follow these movies, Iron Man is a classic selfish antihero. He has told the government on more than one occasion to screw itself. In Civil War, however, Tony Stark sides with the government. If you don’t know Cap well, you would think he’s a company man. This time, he finds himself on the outside. We have found a way to move the characters along so that as they take opposite positions from what you would expect, you see their decisions as natural extensions of all that has come before.
The natural, next step for these movie characters is to honor the legacy of their comic characters. They go through all sorts of iterations. Comic book people understand this. If you’ve been reading hundreds of issues, you understand they take hundreds of steps along an arc. Casting with excellent actors, you see that you can take these men and women on multi-film journeys. The MCU, thus, is in many ways like a TV show that tells a story through several seasons.
What’s in the zeitgeist now is to write about hero versus hero. Why is everyone beating the hell out of each other this summer? I don’t know. Franchise movies in general do better and are more interesting when you move the ball down the field and don’t give people the same thing with a different roman numeral attached to it. Winter Solider is well received because we made hard choices. For example, we brought down S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s version of the FBI. You can skip the movies where not much happens — those are the films that invite “superhero fatigue.” As long as you take big swings with your characters and your story, you can forestall any of that.
PT: What makes super heroes appealing for me is their humanity more than any ability that seems beyond human. In thinking about your Narnia movies and the Captain America movies, what human qualities do you try to illustrate, especially the nobler ones?
SM: I think everyone thinks of himself as the little guy, even the most successful, powerful person. It feels more endearing when someone is up against long odds and obstacles. Just because a guy can turn green and jump a mile doesn’t mean he won’t come up against hard obstacles or long odds. It’s also wish fulfillment, as it’s fun to be the guy who can fly.
Captain America’s characteristics are all about loss. So much has been taken from him, yet he soldiers on. In the first movie, he got what he wanted: to serve in the Army. However, even when he first got his physique, he was made a show pony on the USO tour and didn’t serve like the other guys. He had to break away and do what was right despite what others said.
Then all that is taken from him. His best friend is killed, he loses the girl, and he sacrifices himself for good of country. When he comes back 70 years later, everyone he knows is dead. In Winter Soldier, we twisted the knife and gave him back Peggy, and then we took her from him, as she resets with Alzheimer’s. Then we gave him his best friend back as a killer cyborg who doesn’t know him. We are always playing with how loss affects him. That is also true in Civil War. He will go to great lengths to keep hold of the few things that he has left.
PT: What makes a good villain? What do you do to make them more dimensional, more interesting, even relatable at times?
SM: First, good villains don’t think they are villains. Movies don’t always allow for it, but the more you give your villain a journey, the more dimensions you can show, the better they are. It’s no accident that the best villains are on TV on shows such as Jessica Jones and Daredevil, where they get hours of screen time and are allowed to be multidimensional. Our villains appear in two-hour movies. There’s only so much you can do in that context. You have to hit bad-guy notes quickly, as you often have little time for complicated situations. Still, if you can relate to villains, if you understand why they do what they do, that’s half the battle. I’m proud that Robert Redford gives a speech that offers a reprehensible kind of logic in Winter Soldier.
PT: Why do you think superhero movies are so popular in general? Does it speak to something strictly American or are they more universal?
SM: My hope is that Captain America’s story and all of the MCU’s stories travel and speak to people all over the world. Inevitably, Cap’s story is the triumph of a good man over adversity. The popularity of these movies at the moment also has to do with how technology combines with our imagination. If you did a superhero movie 20 years ago, you were limited, and many don’t wear very well. CGI has allowed us to take leaps and bounds in manifesting our imaginations.
Also, some do well at the box office, leading Hollywood to keep rolling them out. All these executives have to keep their jobs, and they do so by making movies that make a ton of money even at the risk of repeating themselves. You’ll have fewer super hero movies if a few don’t do well.
In terms of the zeitgeist, I don’t know. It’s easy to say yes, that the world cries for a hero given all the problems we face. But the world has always had problems throughout history. We have always wanted heroes. Gary Cooper had a long career. I’m not sure it’s a modern trend.
PT: Are you already working on the two Avengers: Infinity War movies? Also, is there a hierarchy among screenwriters — you first start with the characters and then are moved up to the Avengers series?
SM: We were Cap guys, and then helped with the Thor movie. When it came time for this two-part Avengers epic, Joss Whedon, who had done first two Avengers, was clearly done. It’s heavy lifting to do those movies, and we were probably the obvious guys to take over, having worked in Marvel universe so well and so long.
PT: What motivated you to create the Agent Carter series? What does her character add to the Marvel universe?
SM: I really like that show; I only wish the ratings were better. Marvel produced a short featuring the character as an added bonus on the Iron Man 3 DVD. After coming home from World War II, she has to circumvent her misogynist bosses in order to go on a mission and stop the bad guys. People at Disney saw it and said, “That’s great. That could be a show.” Marvel came to us and said that ABC would consider a pilot, which we wrote. We now serve as executive producers, but we have less to do with the show in its second year. Her role in the Marvel universe is interesting. She is a human touchstone, as she is also in Ant Man, in Winter Soldier and in Avengers: Age of Ultron. She represents the life that Cap left behind and is an important draw for him.
It’s incredibly important to include people of color and powerful women in our movies. Audiences need ways in. Imagine if you are an Iraqi girl and see a Muslim girl doing something heroic on a screen 50 feet tall. It’s important to provide that experience for all people. I’ve spoken at length with Anthony Mackie, the actor who plays Falcon. He loves it when little Falcons come up on his doorstep on Halloween.
PT: Ever meet fellow wildcat Marvel Senior Editor Axel Alonso ’82 or follow the controversy surrounding his Sam Wilson Captain America series? I understand some people are upset that Captain America, in that comic book series, is African American.
SM: I didn’t know Axel was an SI grad. As for the other issue, I don’t have time to follow the modern runs of the comics that closely, though I understand that Cap is black and Thor is a woman right now. As film writers, we tend to take the things that interest us from all the comics throughout the ages and make a different soup out of it. There’s always room for everything. Marvel is good about letting different writers explore different things. As for any controversy about Captain America being black — I don’t see the problem, and I don’t listen much to the folks that do. About anything.
PT: You also have some very quirky movies that tell the tale of folks far removed from super heroes, such as those in Pain & Gain, You Kill Me and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. What draws you to tell the story of people on the fringes who sometimes make bad choices?
SM: I’m proud that Pain & Gain is on my resume, but it is the worst reviewed of my films. It is weird and dark. Chris and I are drawn to characters who think that making one weird choice will fix all their problems. Those choices inevitably lead to tumbling dominoes of awfulness. As long as you understand why these characters make those choices, you’ll follow them on the ride even if most people wouldn’t take the first steps these characters take. In Pain & Gain, weight lifters think it will be easy to commit extortion and murder. It isn’t. But we understand why they do it, even if we never would. Peter Sellers did terrible things to his family. He was a tortured genius, but we come to understand what was lacking in him.
PT: Working with Chris allows you, I imagine, to ensure that writing isn’t a solitary business. But it must get to a point where you want all the notes to stop from everyone who sees himself or herself as a collaborator.
SM: We collaborate really well, which is why we’ve had a long career. We’re not precious about stuff. We figured out a way to work. I won’t see Chris at all today, as we’re writing on our own now. We spent four months outlining Avengers: Infinity Wars I and II and then spent two months writing it, checking in and amassing pages. We revise when we get thoughts from the directors and learn where the movies will be shot. If it were just me, I would get stir crazy and lonely. If I were just taking notes all the time, I would feel resentful. The way we work makes it a full experience. Of course, I get tired of notes, but the reason we are still at Marvel is that the notes are good. I get notes from three people and receive fewer notes as we go on because we are all trying to tell same story. It will be different when I leave Marvel. I’ve been dealing with these folks since 2008. If they have a note, I listen to them. There’s a lot of trust there.
PT: What does the word “hero” mean to you? Who are the heroes in your world – the people who teach us by heroic example?
SM: I’ve always had role models, and they were often teachers, including Fr. John Murphy, S.J. ’59, at SI and Barry Lopez in college. They are why I’m a writer. When I had Barry Lopez in class, he walked in as a real living author. I had never seen one in the wild before. Dreams of law school faded when I met a man who wrote for a living.
A hero is a person who will do the right thing even though it will cost him. I’m a sucker for the noble sacrifice. If someone jumps on metaphorical grenade or says, “Leave me behind,” I’m always in tears. My mom is a ridiculous hero. I’ll actually cry thinking of her, as she has made big sacrifices in her life. She puts everyone ahead of herself. She’s at the top of my list.
Choose groups to clone to: