Captain America: The Winter Soldier is held in high esteem by many Marvel Cinematic Universe fans, but Marvel Studios knew what it had on its hands before the film was even released. Indeed, after tapping the unexpected duo of Joe and Anthony Russo to helm the gritty, 70s-thriller-inspired Winter Soldier, Marvel went ahead and locked them down for Captain America 3 before Winter Soldier even hit theaters. Little did we know that the third Captain America movie would not only propel the story of Steve Rogers forward, but introduce two exciting new MCU additions and set the table for character dynamics that wouldn’t be resolved until Avengers: Endgame. This is the story of the making of Captain America: Civil War.
In January 2014, three months before the April release of The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios signed the entire Captain America 2 filmmaking team to return for Captain America 3. That included not only the Russo Brothers, but also screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and indeed this quartet of filmmakers would go on to become the architects of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, the two biggest MCU films to date.
As Markus and McFeely started work on Captain America 3, the film was originally going to be a more straightforward sequel. Markus explained:
“It never got to draft. We started out working on a Captain America 3 and what would that be, picking up the thread that had been left behind by Winter Soldier. So it was Bucky, it was Steve and the ramifications of digging deeper into that relationship.”
One day, as the two were working in their office, Marvel Studios president poked his head in the door and said two words: “Civil War.” This was of course referring to the famous comics arc that saw Captain America and Tony Stark fighting each other, with other members of the Avengers forced to choose sides. This would mark a serious yet exciting challenge for the filmmaking team, but while Markus and McFeely then set about crafting an entirely new story, McFeely maintains that some aspects of their original Captain America 3 story idea remain:
“A lot of that movie is still in [Civil War],” explains McFeely. “The central theme, even the way [Daniel Brühl’s character] Zemo is operating, are from that iteration.”
Adapting Civil War would not only necessitate the appearance of a lot of MCU characters, but also a renegotiation of Robert Downey Jr.’s contract.
When Downey was first approached about appearing in Civil War, it was for a smaller role that would only require about three weeks of work. It appears this iteration of the film was a bit more Cap-centric, but Downey countered that Tony Stark should have a more substantial role in the film’s plot. And while Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige was all for it, the notoriously cheap and prickly Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter balked. When Downey asked for a bigger role—and thus a bigger payday—Perlmutter reportedly ordered Markus and McFeely to write Iron Man out of the script.
In these early days when it was unclear if Downey would be a part of Captain America 3, Anthony Russo revealed that they considered adapting the Madbomb from the Captain America comics instead:
“There was a period where we did discuss a third act that revolved around the Madbomb from Cap mythology,” Anthony Russo said. “It didn’t have anything to do with Civil War, and if we couldn’t get Downey — in the very, very early conversations before we nailed him — somebody pitched the idea of a third-act that revolved around the Madbomb, which makes people crazy. It almost like zombifies them — but not literally… The charm of the Madbomb is that you turn hordes of people into berserkers. That was the physical challenge that Cap and company would have had to face.”
This Madbomb approach would have brought some aspects of Civil War in, as the idea was that Cap would have to fight his friends who were impacted by the Madbomb.
So while Perlmutter balked at giving Downey a co-starring role (and thus a co-starring salary), Feige, ever vigilant, kept working with Downey’s reps to make this work out, especially as he saw Civil War as a key waypoint on the roadmap to Infinity War and Endgame. The fallout from these events, and the ripping apart of the Avengers, would heighten the dramatic stakes when Thanos arrived.
Eventually a deal was reached that reportedly saw Downey earning $40 million plus backend participation on Captain America: Civil War, in addition to an added payout if Civil War outperformed The Winter Soldier at the box office (it did).
A few days after Downey’s casting was made official in October 2014, Marvel revealed that the film would be titled Captain America: Civil War, that it would introduce Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther (who was offered the role after conversations with Marvel—he didn’t have to audition), and that Marvel’s future slate of films included not only Black Panther but also Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 and Part 2 directed by The Russo Brothers (though those titles changed—but we’ll get to that). Suddenly, fans now understood that Captain America 3 would be a very important piece of The Infinity Saga puzzle.
Casting continued and MCU mainstays like Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Don Cheadle were all revealed to be joining the ensemble, with Daniel Brühl playing a twist on the comics villain Helmut Zero. Feige even revealed that Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp was in early versions of the script:
“She was included in early versions of Civil War but there are so many characters in Civil War that we didn’t want to do her a disservice, like she flies in, ‘I’ve got the costume now’, and she flies out. With Ant-Man, and I’m not saying thats what Ant-Man does in the movie, but we already know him, we’ve already seen him. We haven’t seen her as Wasp and we don’t want to rob the opportunity of seeing her in the outfit for at least almost the first time, and seeing her dynamic with Scott in a way it could play out, so we’re saving it. But it’s going to be in Phase Three for sure.”
But all the while development continued and the Russo Brothers barreled towards a Spring 2015 production start-date, intense work was happening behind the scenes to bring a surprise character to the table: Spider-Man.