USA TODAY – ATLANTA — Tony Stark is really irked, and it’s not just because someone has left used coffee grounds in the official Avengers coffeemaker.
The ultra-modern Porsche building outside downtown Atlanta has been turned into the headquarters of Earth’s mightiest heroes on the set of the new Marvel movie Captain America: Civil War (in theaters Friday), and Robert Downey Jr.’s playboy billionaire philanthropist, who’s huffy about his state-of-the-art kitchen being “a bed-and-breakfast for a biker gang,” has one serious headache that a cup of joe won’t fix.
His team has just been told that 117 countries have ratified the Sokovia Accords, which will put the Avengers under a United Nations oversight committee in just a few days’ time. It’s the result of one too many global disasters, and the cracks in this superhero family are starting to show even in the luxury digs.
At least all that internal strife won’t have an adverse effect on the group’s box-office power. The 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Civil War was voted the most anticipated summer movie in a recent survey by Fandango, and according to the ticket-buying site, the film is outselling every other Marvel effort in advance sales. “The guaranteed amount of repeat viewing will propel the film to what I believe will be one of the top opening weekends of all time and off-the-charts long-term playability around the world,” says comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Over the successful course of three solo Iron Man films and two Avengers movies, Tony Stark has seen some seriously bad stuff and is OK with being put in check. He tells the team of a bright young man who wanted to spend the summer building sustainable homes in Sokovia, but “we dropped a building on him” when the Avengers battled the evil robot Ultron in the fictional European country (see: last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron). “If we have no boundaries,” Stark figures, “we’re just as bad as the bad guys.”
This isn’t the kind of freedom Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has been fighting for as Captain America since World War II, and he lets his disapproval be known. “I’m not saying we’re perfect,” he says. “But the safest hands are still our own.”
There’s a very good reason why Civil War is in the title, says director Joe Russo, who with brother Anthony also helmed 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. “There’s no misdirect going on where you’re going to show up and it’s a fight against a giant space alien. It’s a film that’s about a family at war.”
Adds Anthony Russo: “How do these very powerful people who’ve had an interesting, complicated, challenging road together resolve essential problems that could tear them apart?”
Where Winter Soldier was inspired by 1970s political thrillers, the Russos pulled stylistic elements from Seven, Fargo and even Sergio Leone Westerns for Civil War. Yet at its core, it’s a psychological thriller with a mystery surrounding the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who has spent decades as a brainwashed assassin and now is a wanted fugitive.
Steve Rogers believes his pal is still in there somewhere, though others around Cap aren’t as sure. The extra conflict only exacerbates the escalating tensions between him and Tony and the factions that have split the Avengers in half: Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) join Winter Soldier, Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) on Team Cap, while Team Iron Man includes War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany), the debuting Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), a wild card who holds a personal vendetta against Winter Soldier.
But even when the two groups engage each other in an action-packed extravaganza at an airport, “nobody’s wrong here,” Evans says. “No one’s promoting evil. No one’s the bad guy. We just have different ways of being the good guy, and that can get fiery. And that’s what this movie is rife with.”
There are so many characters running around, it’s hard for even the Russos to keep track. (They believe Civil War is a good precursor to the brothers’ potentially jam-packed Avengers: Infinity War, a two-part epic arriving in 2018 and ’19.) British actress Hayley Atwell, who played Peggy Carter in the two previous Captain America movies and stars on ABC’s Agent Carter TV series, shows up for a surprise visit on this day and genuinely throws Anthony Russo a bit: “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, did I forget she was in the movie?’ ”
Peggy and Bucky are the last vestiges of the past for Cap, who spent a good several decades on ice before becoming a modern-day Avenger. “He’s still looking for a sense of stability, a sense of home,” Evans says. There has also been a lack of romantic attachment for the straitlaced hero, though that begins to change in Civil War, the actor teases. (There is the question of his virginity as well: “A couple of people on set were like, well, maybe on the USO tour some girl dragged him into a broom closet or something,” Evans laughs. “But I don’t think he’s a one-night-stand kind of guy.”)
When it comes to the politics at hand, there has to be a group consensus, though it has “always kind of screwed him,” Evans says. “This is something he’s seen and been burned by multiple times and said: ‘You know what, there’s too much at stake. I’ve seen aliens come from portals from another planet. I handle some of the most powerful people in the world. I can’t hand this over. I’ve seen the weakness of men.’ ”
On the other side, Tony Stark has had a tumultuous history with the government, first announcing himself as a superhero and then telling Congress off when it wanted his technology. Since then, though, he has suffered PTSD from an extraterrestrial invasion of New York, watched loved ones get put in danger and, with the best of intentions, unleashed the genocidal Ultron on the world.
“He’s always been a man with the mind-set of a wounded boy who’s been given a lot of power and toys and then has to transcend that and try to actually have a moral psychology,” Downey says. “Part of that is continually examining and re-examining.”
The same goes for other heroes such as Black Widow, who has in previous Captain America films sided with the star-spangled Avenger but in Civil War agrees with Stark’s logic — much to the shock of Stark.
Johansson’s character continues to be her own woman even when making the hard choices, the actress says. “She could have her ‘Oh, the humanity’ kind of moment, watching all this crumble around her. But it doesn’t make any sense. All of a sudden she’s really needy? There’s a softness about her, but not that.”
Cap has always put the community of his fellow do-gooders in front of himself, but the Russos even put that to a test in one crucial point in Civil War.
“The nature of the character is goodness and honesty and morality. That stuff is only valuable we feel — or maybe it’s just our cynical Cleveland upbringing — when it’s threatened,” says Joe Russo, who adds that he and his brother thought of Cap as a Rocky Balboa-style underdog in Winter Soldier.
So is Tony Stark his Apollo Creed now? “They share a certain panache, that’s for sure,” Anthony Russo quips. His brother chimes in: “The first Infinity War is Tony training Cap to beat Clubber Lang.”
While the characters are at loggerheads — and the Russos promise that the effects of Civil War will linger into the next Avengers project — at least the actors are all on the same page.
It’s a team effort in many ways: While filming the aforementioned headquarters scene, Downey pratfalls off a couch for a little comic relief. And in between takes, after the android Vision states that he has an equation in regard to how collateral damage has increased over the course of superheroic missions, Cheadle tests whether to tell him, “Hey, Siri, the human beings are talking” or to instead call the synthetic hero “Tootsie Pop.”
Starring in a Marvel movie now is like joining the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s for Downey, though “the misconception is that the longer you’re around, the more of a veteran you are. (But) everybody’s the same on Day One,” says the actor, who by the time he finishes doing the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Infinity War films will have played Stark nine times — more than Sean Connery starred as James Bond.
“We’re all performers, so we’re a little cuckoo to begin with. We need to look after each other.”
Marvel president and Civil War producer Kevin Feige remembers a time 12 years ago when people wondered when comic-book movies would wear out their welcome. Now, with Marvel movies scheduled till at least 2019, it’s more about keeping them fresh for everyone, especially the actors.
“If it were ‘Put on that costume, punch, punch, duck, punch’ and that was it, they would have tired out halfway through the first film,” Feige says. “But it is the new players they get to interact with on each story, the new places, the character arcs and emotional places they get to go that keep it very fresh for the people watching the movie and people making the movie.”
Just clean out the damn coffee grounds, you guys.