Steve Rogers and Tony Stark confront some pretty irreconcilable differences in Captain America: Civil War, the third installment of Marvel’s Captain America franchise, out May 6. Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) believes that superhumans should be governed by a U.N. oversight body, their powers having proven to cause nearly as much destruction as they do good. Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) vehemently disagrees. But thankfully for writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the duo who brought their battle to the big screen—well, one of the duos, the other being directors Anthony and Joe Russo—their own differences tend to complement one another.
“I have more ADD and he is more OCD,” says Markus. In McFeely’s words: “Our neuroses dovetail nicely.”
And so they have over the course of a 20-year partnership, the output of which includes the previous two Captain America movies, Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s Agent Carter on the small screen and, out in 2018 and 2019, the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. In anticipation of Civil War’s release, Markus and McFeely talked to TIME about how to write a believable fight scene, why Spider-Man is a stand-in for the audience and the potential downfall of their Infinity War scripts.
TIME: The way the movie presents the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is a lot more even-handed than the comics, which side more with Cap. Was it your intention to make the audience feel conflicted over who to side with?
McFeely: Absolutely. Civil War the comic does a lot of great things. Because there is no villain, Tony Stark plays a darker, Machiavellian sort of role. We wanted to break the Avengers up, break the audience, and to do that we need you to choose a side. We always said at the very beginning, we want people walking out 50/50.
Did you side more with one character or the other as you were writing?
McFeely: I’m a Cap guy in general, but it was very easy to write Tony’s argument. A lot of me thinks Iron Man is right, even though I love Cap.
Markus: You do see the destruction that’s portrayed in these movies. I don’t want that to seem OK, you know? I don’t think Cap thinks it’s OK either, but it is a very arguable point that they should not be doing these things.
By bringing Captain America and Iron Man face to face, you have a blending of tones—Steve Rogers’ old-school earnestness and Tony Stark’s irreverent sense of humor. How did you balance the movie’s tone overall?
McFeely: For us, it’s treating everything seriously and treating characters realistically. Funny things happen in dark situations because people are nervous or scared or covering something, so when things get lighter, we do it based on character. Peter Parker comes into the situation excited and nervous and new to the whole thing, so that’s going to create a lightness, but he’s a different character than the Black Panther, who isn’t necessarily a bunch of laughs.
Markus: We’re dragging Tony Stark into Captain America’s world. Tony gets to still be funny, but it’s coming from a place of anxiety. He’s not behaving in a way that isn’t consistent with what you’ve seen before. I almost think it’s more effective bringing Tony into Cap’s world than it would be bringing Cap into Tony’s world.
As writers, when it comes to a major fight scene, how much are you actually choreographing who’s flying where and who’s attacking whom?
McFeely: We certainly do the first pass at this. But that fight scene goes through so many different versions in terms of what’s possible, structure, what the fight coordinator can bring, probably even more importantly what visual effects can accomplish. There are a whole number of guys with computers who can figure out interesting ways for people to fly and punch and duck. Our best contribution over the course of the many months it takes is to keep character and story focused, because it can go pear-shaped real easily as everyone says, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if…”
Markus: There’s the 10-year-old boy wish-fulfillment of, you know, “I’ve always wanted to see Black Panther hit Spider-Man,” but if those two characters don’t have a really good character conflict, it’s just going to seem hollow. What’s paramount in the fight scenes is us keeping an eye on where that person is internally when they get to that fight. Everyone is changed by every fight so that it is not, “He won, I lost, wait ‘til next time, I still hate you.” They have to come away and reconsider their standpoint every time, because it costs something to beat up your friend.
McFeely: Joe Russo talks about this all the time—that action without character is basically pornography. You absolutely need action to define character.
When you’re pitting all these superheroes against each other, how do you decide whose superpowers trump whose?
Markus: There’s a certain amount of canon that you have to respect.
McFeely: But it can still be surprising to people. They released a clip where the Winter Soldier punches and Spider-Man catches it easily and stares at his arm, and a lot of people go, “Well, he couldn’t do that, that’s the Winter Soldier!” But Spider-Man is like the most powerful guy in the Marvel Universe! The debate is absolutely part of the fun.
Markus: And there’s also, OK, so this guy’s stronger than that person. Can that person figure out a way to beat them despite the power disparity? Every fight is not just a question of bashing someone until their head breaks.
Speaking of Spider-Man, how did you guys approach reintroducing that character?
McFeely: In a section where you’re going to recruit new heroes, one side goes and recruits a guy who just had a movie, and hopefully you go, “Hey, it’s Paul Rudd!” And the other guy goes and gets a brand new kid, but let’s face it, everybody knows who he is. We assume that in that audience, you have seen one of those five movies, so when [Tony Stark] goes to Queens, to a teenager’s apartment, and says, “Hi Parker,” you’re going to get a giggle.
Markus: We just wanted to write the most realistic 15-year-old boy we could. And it’s really that youth and innocence that is what’s fun about him in this movie. You get to a point where he speaks for the audience. He’s going, “This is fun,” and not just an incredibly dour boxing match. This is the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, because it is to Peter Parker.
With Black Panther, by contrast, this is the first time he’s represented on the big screen. How much freedom versus responsibility did you feel in creating his character?
McFeely: We talked to Marvel a lot, because we knew there was going to be an upcoming Black Panther movie, and how much of that movie’s lunch were they willing to let us eat. But we needed someone with a direct connection to the events of the movie, who has been wronged by the Avengers, to have a stake in the proceedings, and to go into that airport fight with a different agenda. He doesn’t have the same angst about fighting his friends, because they’re not his friends. The only question for us was, is it OK to [reveal a major part of his backstory], is that something that the Black Panther movie can live without. I think it’s only going to help, because I think the Black Panther movie will resist the temptation to be a straight-up origin story.
Markus: It can have a really good plot, as opposed to a labored setup.
Where are you guys with the Infinity War movies? Those movies seem like such a tall order, wrapping up all these disparate threads from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Markus: We’ll be handing in the first drafts of both movies soon. It is a tall order and it’s a bit insane, but it’s a lot of fun. I’m sure once people read them and go, “That’s five times more expensive than any movie ever made,” it will need to be reined in, but at the moment there are literally no limits, both galactically and conceptually. We’ve had a great time writing these grounded movies in the Cap universe, but now this is really something quite different.