"Captain America: Civil War" smashed opening weekend box office records with an astounding fifth-best all-time opening weekend $181 million in ticket sales and 90 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Some of the credit goes to the all-star cast and the slam-bang action and of course to the Marvel writers and artists who created the characters and story, but we have seen enough comic book movies fail to know that the director can make all the difference. In this case, it's two directors who are responsible for one of the year's most entertaining films. They are brothers: Joe and Anthony Russo, who also directed "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and are getting ready for the upcoming two-part "Avengers: Infinity War" films.
In an interview, the Russo brothers spoke about the challenge of telling a story with a dozen different superheroes, all with different powers, vulnerabilities, and loyalties. "The room that we worked in with [screenwriters] Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had the walls all covered with charts and cards and diagrams and flows. It's pretty crazy," said Joe. "It looked like A Beautiful Mind," added Anthony.
For the first time in an Avengers story, Spider-Man joins the team, played by newcomer Tom Holland. "We really got lucky because we were introducing him in an ensemble film," Joe said. "And it has a strong box office potential based on Marvel's track record which allowed us to cast a very young actor in the part. For me, being a comic book fan, it's always what I loved about Peter Parker. I've always identified with him because he was young and struggling with all these issues as a high schooler. And struggling with his power while he was figuring out his homework and girls and acting and living a John Hughes life. So it was important for us to be able to cast somebody very close in age which hadn't been done before. Each time that the character was introduced it was in his solo franchise. We require a movie star to help carry the film and movie stars tend to be older. So I think we're really lucky in that we were able interpret the character much younger by introducing him into a movie with this kind of ensemble." Anthony said that they learned from Captain America that "his character shines brightest if we ground him in some sort of premise of the real world as much as you can in a fantasy film. So we try to bring the patina of realism to the movies and that is another reason why we approached Peter Parker through a more grounded approach, partly by showing him as a teenager but also we tried to bring him into the modern age. Past interpretations are a little more referential to that early 60's era. We really wanted this kid to be a modern kid, living in New York City, taking care of his aunt who works and just making sure they feel very contemporary in their relationship. So we pulled him into the modern world like we pulled Cap into the modern world in 'Winter Soldier' and tried to ground him in something contemporary."
This is a welcome superhero story that is about more than some supervillain who wants total world domination or some bad guy trying to steal nuclear launch codes. The screenplay by Markus and McFeely craftily plays out the complicated question of finding a balance between action and accountability at three different levels. "That was the key in the movie for both characters, for both Tony and Cap," Joe said. "We really wanted to work hard to make sure that each character was motivated. We thought that the best ending for the movie would be a complicated ending. We don't want to ascribe a point of view to the film. We thought it would be better if you walked out of here arguing who was wrong and who was right. Plus these are questions that are unanswerable."
The most fascinating development in the film is that when it comes time to decide whether to support the idea of a world government commission overseeing the Avengers, the characters do not come down on the sides we expect. Iron Man, who has always been an individualist who hated any kind of authority, is so shaken by the damage they have inflicted he welcomes some bureaucracy. And Captain America, a rule-respecting soldier, has lost his confidence in structures following the collapse of SHIELD. So they end up not just on opposite sides but actually fighting one another. Joe explained, "I think we are in a position where we can surprise the audience and have these characters behave in a way that they are not anticipating, i.e. Tony feeling the guilt of Ultron. Cap goes from a patriot on the first film to an insurgent in this movie. Tony Stark goes from a narcissistic anarchist to somebody who is craving government oversight to put himself in check as much as anybody else. Storytelling is usually at its strongest when you're creating a trajectory where you can take a character to the opposite place from where he started. So now you have a nice healthy arc for the character and we dosey-doe the characters. We wanted to make sure that we put them each in a very emotional, vulnerable place. Hence Tony gets confronted at the beginning of the movie with his sins. Cap loses one of the two people who still connect him to his past."
Anthony said that they literally placed cards on the table for each of the characters to help them decide who would take which side and to make sure each fight scene had the best possible match of superpowers. "We have a bunch of cards on the table with the characters' names on them. We go okay, Cap is over here, Ironman is over here, now who would go to which side? So as we're moving cards we can look at their history in the MCU and come up with a reason why they would fall on one side or the other. What about Falcon? Clearly, because of what we've seen of him, his incredible loyalty to Cap, they have a very similar outlook. When we got to Natasha, the obvious choice would be to put her on Cap's side because of the emotional relationship that they have. But when you think hard about who she is, she's a villain, or she was a villain who converted into a hero and who carries a lot of guilt about her past. So she sees this as a redemptive moment for them even though she did tell the government to kiss her ass at the end of 'Winter Soldier.' She is admitting that they've made mistakes and as somebody who is trying to feel, she wants to feel culpability. And so we thought it would be interesting for her to move over to Tony's side. But when people pick sides in any conflict, some people have a stronger stomach for it than others. And her threshold is certainly not as high as Tony's. That's one of the things we got out of our conversations with Scarlett -- the idea that Black Widow was a survivor. She has survived a lot of difficult situations, a lot of different power structures that she had to figure out. She had to sometimes compromise her own ideals to survive. So she is a survivor and I think she realizes that the government has a little bit checkmated them in this moment as well. She is crafty. She's like, 'he's kind of got us here; we should probably do this for now.' She is pragmatic but then she reaches the threshold moment. She is the most mature character in the movie because she is trying to preserve the family and once she sees that this is only going to destroy the family she backs out. She wants out of it."
We talked about my favorite stunt in the film (I'll just say it involved a motorcycle) and the special effects in the big fight scenes, but the Russos said that the most difficult challenge they had was the flashback scene showing a 19 year old Tony Stark with his parents. After a lot of different approaches, Anthony said, "we just decided we have to make a 19 year old Tony Stark, not a 19 year old Robert Downey Jr. And that kind of freed us up to finally get the right look." It was important to have that in the movie because "we wanted to start him off in a vulnerable place, having the character a little off balance emotionally," Anthony said. "We know that they're fundamentally good people who have proven themselves over the course of several movies now. So how do you put those two guys in a position where they are going to fight each other in that way? They have to be unbalanced emotionally. The things that we are asking that character to do in that third act are difficult so he does have to be off balance. He does have to be in a place where he is ready for catharsis; he is ready to do something." Joe put it this way: "We had to activate him into an instinct of vengeance. We knew we needed to trigger him in a hard way. Having an unresolved relationship with your parents is a good trigger for that."