Returning tonight on ABC is Marvel’s Agent Carter starring Hayley Atwell as the fan-favorite secret agent and paramour of Steve Rogers. The series takes places after the events Captain America: The First Avenger when the boys have returned home from the war and Peggy is sidelined to a secretarial position at SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve). When Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is framed as a traitor Peggy gets back in the action, and teams up with Stark’s devoted butler Jarvis (James D’arcy) to clear his name.
While at the ABC portion of the TCA 2015 winter press tour I joined a small group of journalists for a chat with series creators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the same screenwriting duo who are currently penning Captain America: Civil War. They talked about balancing their Marvel projects, keeping the timelines straight, why they love the eight-episode season structure, how Peggy and Jarvis tie into the modern Marvel films, adapting Civil War, their first impression when they read the comic, where they’re at in the script-writing process, Chadwick Boseman’s casting as Black Panther, and more.
Question: Given how much Marvel stuff you’ve got going on, how much have you been able to be involved with Carter beyond the pilot and charting out the rest of the season?
Christopher MARKUS: As much as we can be. They’re very good about placing them, geographically, very close to each other so we can run across the alley way. Steve, perhaps more than I have, has been in the room as much as he can.
STEVEN MCFEELY: Because they put it all in the same spot, we can just walk across the alley and take Cap 3 meetings and then sit in the Agent Carter writers’ room and try to break each episode. So it’s been really gratifying in that way.
MARKUS: And a little discombobulating because you’re like, “Wait, that guy’s dead…Oh no, he’s only 30 years old!”
Can you talk about playing with the greater architecture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and being able to know what’s happening in Avengers, to know what you guys have planned for Cap 3 and some of the other movies, and then weave that into what you’re doing here?
MARKUS: It’s fun.
MARKUS: Yeah, but you really only need to drop the tiniest bit of hint and its connected. You don’t have to go, “Howard Stark’s wearing the same pants that Tony wears!” It is a crazy kind of – Everything is enhanced just by the knowledge that its all connected. What will be a completely undisclosed scene in Cap 3, and a perfectly good scene, suddenly, with what I know about this and this… It’s like, “This is a great scene now and we didn’t have to write it any better.” It’s just because of all the connections.
We can see echoes of Howard Stark in Tony, but as he comes back into the show and we get to know him a bit more, might we see some ways he’s different from Tony?
MARKUS: Oh I think so. He’s burdened in a different way. I think Tony’s burdened with Howard, in a way. Howard raised Tony and that had all its own effects on him. I think Tony is much more flippant than Howard. Howard is a playboy but he’s quite serious about what he’s doing.
MCFEELY: Partly, that’s a function of the Iron Man movies, where Pepper becomes important and he’s not a cad. We’ve not met Maria Stark, so Howard can be as caddish as we’d like him to be. They’re different in that way too.
Can you guys talk about working with only eight episodes. That can cause really accelerated, great storytelling. Have you enjoyed that and if you move forward to a Season 2, are you hoping to keep the same?
MARKUS: I would love to keep it small because, god bless them, the people who make 22 episodes… I don’t know how the hell they do it. That’s like the Bataan Death March. I don’t know how you’re alive at the end of that. But also, there’s no way – you have to become episodic at that point. One thing we definitely didn’t want is for her to finish a mission this week and wipe her brow and the next week another goon comes up. Everything gets slightly generic when you’re hitting a new story every week. So this, we could tell, in the least possible success, if it never came back, we’d have a tight little story that we could say, “This was an eight-hour Marvel movie” instead of a failed TV show [Laughs].
Having shown her at the end of her life in The Winter Soldier, showing her very young now, how much of Peggy’s life, in broad strokes, have you mapped out in your mind?
MARKUS: Very broad strokes.
MCFEELY: It’s not – I can’t hand you twelve scripts tomorrow.
The Jarvis connection to present day, did you guys have that mapped out in your heads, that character?
MARKUS: I mean, that was in the first Iron Man movie and it sort of got extrapolated backwards from that.
Do you guys know the through-line yourselves or are you still finding your way?
McFeely: We are not allowed to specifically talk about the complete through-line [laughs].
MARKUS: But I do think Jarvis is huge in Tony’s life. I don’t exactly know the math of when Tony was born….probably 1970-something?
McFeely: It depends on how old Robert thinks he is.
You mentioned the short was the framework and inspiration for this series. Are you using that as canon? Is that going to be where it ends or is that sort of scrapped?
MARKUS: At the moment, we’re saying that’s where it ends but we all agree and understand that it’s going to get tougher if we continue.
MCFEELY: It’s also my hope, but that doesn’t mean that things couldn’t reverse. She could have a bad Wednesday. I don’t know what the official policy is, but clearly the short was an inspiration. We all said, “Wow, we could have a whole series of this.” Are we bound to exactly that? I think the jury’s out. I’ll say that.
You mentioned Jarvis is in Tony’s life, as you’re writing a movie right now that will have both Steve and Tony in very prevalent roles, have you thought about who Peggy was to Tony Stark?
MCFEELY: Yes. We have. [Laughs] As we have not started shooting and I’m on my fourth draft of many, that question has been in and out all over the place. So, who knows. So many things can shake out. We’ve had conversations, and we have scenes; some stay, some don’t. But we know Peggy – we saw her in Winter Soldier, so I know she’s around.
When she’s working with Howard it makes you wonder.
There was some indication that you guys might have been able to be the ones to bring Spider-Man in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
MCFEELY: I read that as well.
Once that got out there what did you think of this concept?
MCFEELY: Sounds like more problems for me.
Which side would he have ended up on?
MCFEELY: More problems for me.
There are these larger questions of Peggy building a family at some point in between where she is now and The Winter Soldier. Is that something, if Agent Carter gets future seasons, you plan to answer in the show?
MCFEELY: We like to raise the question… Well, I find it funny – this is a bit of a tangent – because I read a bunch of reviews over the first two weeks but it was all, “What a great, empowering show.” And the whole feminist conversation, I really like that. And then the next week was, “Who is she going to marry?” And I was like, “Is that the same publication?” We always knew that if people really caught it in The Winter Soldier, and we introduce enough candidates in Agent Carter it would come up. I’m perfectly happy for it to come up now. But if you told me we had three more seasons, we’d probably get closer.
So you cast Chad Michael Murray to be-
MCFEELY: We didn’t cast ugly people!
[Laughs] You also, with Winter Soldier, put in this history of Hydra, that is going to make people have a lot of questions about everything going on in Agent Carter. Obviously, that’s going to be in your mind as well. Is that something where you toss around a lot of ideas about, “Well, this could happen”?
MCFEELY: Absolutely. Hydra is a blessing and a curse, because as soon as we say, “There they are,” and we show them to the audience, we either have to have Peggy deal with it and then get knocked on the head – because clearly she didn’t know about it – or we have to hide it from Peggy. It’s a storytelling question that we are playing with and considering.
MCFEELY: Good question. I guess the question’s open. We live in the Marvel universe. We’re also on television, so what can we do well? Is the Whizzer stopping by any time? I’m not positive. For now, what you’re seeing in the show is certainly the flavor of the show for this season, but who knows.
With Winter Soldier you guys and the Russos were so much on the same page with the throwback ’70s thriller. Now that you’re on Civil War do you feel like it will be in that same vein or do you want to make another turn?
MCFEELY: Every Captain America movie has a genre and Civil War is the musical. [Laughs] No, I think part of the reason for bringing back us and bringing back the Russo brothers is because Marvel is very pleased with Winter Soldier aesthetically. I think it’s a really adult movie. It’s very well made, the brothers know what they’re doing, and that’s partly the texture of the movie. You can argue it’s the most realistic of the Marvel movies, whatever that is to you. I think it’s fair to say that a Russo brothers movie will stay in that vein.”
Is there another character in the Marvel Universe you’d like to write a TV show for or a movie for outside of this Captain America realm?
MCFEELY: Not necessarily, no. It sounds sappy, but I’m just really thankful to find – as a screenwriter you’re used to knocking your head against the wall, morons giving you notes, and then you get fired. That’s the life of your career, then you go to a different studio different people give you notes, you get fired there, you keep going, and then you retire. The idea that we have found people who are not morons, who are people who will let us play in a very rich sandbox is very gratifying. So it’s not like I have my eye on other characters. It’s kind of all consuming. For god’s sakes we have the movie and TV show we’re trying to keep up in the air, it’s really all-consuming. My eye doesn’t wander.
At the Marvel Phase 3 event we saw a scene from Age of Ultron that really sets the stage for Civil War where Steve and Tony fight. Did you have any involvement with Joss to put that scene in there?
MCFEELY: No, obviously I’m glad they put that in there, but I don’t even know the relationship between when we decided to Civil War and when that scene was put in, so it could just be good tension,a good scene, but it’s a clean set up. It’s a good intro.
MCFEELY: Yeah, that’s pretty cool!
And you have an actor you’re already writing for.
MCFEELY: Who is amazing, yeah, it’s really cool.
Can you talk about the approach to the character and knowing that it’s a big deal?
MCFEELY: I’ll keep that one close to the vest, but I’m very gratified that they went with Chadwick and that he said yes because he’s a good get.
When did you first read Civil War?
MCFEELY: Within the last five years. I did not grow up a comic book guy, I grew up a Star Wars guy and a bit of a Dungeons and Dragons guy, but I wasn’t a comic book guy. Chris was an X-Men guy, and I’ve really only thrown myself into it since the summer of 2008 when I desperately tried to get the Captain America job.
What was your first reaction when you read it?
MCFEELY: That there’s a depth of myth. People asked this earlier at our other panel, why now? Why are comic books so prevalent? Why are these movies doing so well? In some ways, we’ve become a genre that you can do well now given the world of computers and perhaps it’s also just a time in the sun. You went to the movies in the 50’s and 60’s you went to a western. So at this point, you’re going to a superhero movie. It’s taking over that same black hat, white hat myth-making surface. I don’t have a much smarter answer than that.”
From our point of view with Civil War there was a lot of back and forth between “oh, they’re definitely going to make it”, “there’s no way they’re making it”, “they might make it”. How early did you know this was the direction you were headed in?
MCFEELY: It’s been on and off the table for a while, let’s put it that way, and it’s a challenge to do it and make sure that all the characters that we’ve established, and everyone’s established in the MCU are serviced and sound correct, right? Because there’s a difference between the characters in Civil War, which was written in 2006, 2007. The MCU didn’t exist. There isn’t a Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans who has helped create the character, so we need to make sure that that template gets adjusted and what have you in order to make sure it services these characters and not just sort of rip off their parts and make them look like them.
Can you talk about what it’s like writing for Chris Evans this time around?
MCFEELY: I might be repeating myself. He’s Gary Cooper for me. Him as Cap is Gary Cooper. He can do a lot with stillness, and because Cap is usually right and usually held up to be right, people want to be lead by him. So, that’s one of the things I like about Chris is that he brings – remember the parts he played before this. He was uber charming. He was hilarious. He still has that. You still like him. But it’s the fact that he’s holding that back that makes you lean in to him. It’s a different chapter for him and I’m not sure any of us said, “That’s the perfect guy because he was the Human Torch!” Turns out he was the perfect guy because there’s a depth to him.