Supporting S.H.I.E.L.D.: Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie and writers Markus & McFeely reflect on ‘Captain America’
Fighting Hitler during World War II, Commies in the ’50s, Nixonian politics in the ’70s and so on through the decades, it's no surprise that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier—a sequel to 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger and the latest installment of Marvel Studios' "Marvel Cinematic Universe" continuity—the super-soldier defender of the nation faces what may be his most invasive enemy: surveillance-state data-mining in which the government is accessing our private phone calls, e-mails, social-media trail and more in the name of post-9/11 "national security." As the central conceit of this subversively intelligent movie makes clear in a phrase delivered with a perfect cadence of matter-of-fact condemnation, "This isn't freedom. This is fear."
Following the events of Marvel's The Avengers (2012), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—who in the first Cap film metamorphosed from a scrappy but puny 1940 Army private to the peak of human physicality through a winds-of-war scientific experiment—is living a quiet life in Washington, D.C., still acclimating to the present after spending decades in suspended animation. When needed, he's gone on missions for the U.S.-based international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.. But disturbing revelations from his latest mission make him question his trust of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). And when he learns of the agency's new project, Operation: Insight, in which three airborne aircraft carriers with data-satellite linkage can proactively eliminate perceived future threats, Rogers is justifiably horrified at the thought of punishment meted out before any predicted crime.
(In-joke fans will be interested in knowing that in a late cut of the film, screened for feature writers before the final cut, one of the threats visibly listed in the targeting system's screen array was "Joss Whedon"—writer-director of The Avengers and the May 2015 sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. That was removed, though a line of dialogue still mentions another threat named "Stephen Strange"—as in Dr. Strange, Marvel's master of the mystic arts.)
Already having opened to more than $75 million in its first week of international release, and garnering excellent reviews respecting it as more than a superhero film, Captain America: The Winter Solider is projected to top the $194 million international box office and $370.6 million total of its predecessor. We spoke separately with Jackson, Anthony Mackie—who plays former combat parajumper Sam Wilson, pilot of the winged and jet-powered "Falcon" flight exoskeleton—and, jointly, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the first installment and have already been commissioned for a third.
Film Journal International: [to Samuel L. Jackson] You were active in the Civil Rights Movement and you know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was wiretapped by the FBI. What does that make you think about playing the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency that goes way beyond wiretapping?
Samuel L. Jackson: Well, it's not a foreign concept to me. I'm not as surprised as the American public seemed to be last year when they realized the NSA was listening to their phone calls. It was kind of like, 'You didn't know that?' I always close my computer and put my phone in my pocket, so you may know where I am, but you won't see what I'm doing. Nick's the kind of guy who deals with necessary evils. So for him, having the gun pointed at us is as important as having the gun pointed at the enemy. Because he is an island—he doesn't trust anybody.
FJI: Still, and granted you're an actor playing a role, do you have any ambivalence about embodying a character who does these kind of things?
Jackson: Uh…no. Nothing to do with who I am or what I think. I'm as subversive as I ever was, but I also know I can't duck every surveillance camera, and I'm not trying to. I'm actually not doing anything that they should be concerned about.
Anthony Mackie: I would find it reassuring [to have such S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance in real life]. I recently had an experience where there was a guy who was working out at my gym [in New Orleans] and the FBI came to our gym one day, shut down the entire gym and questioned everybody about this guy. Later we found out that this dude had been doing online research about how to build a bomb, and when they went to his house they found that he had a trailer where he was building literally a six-foot by six-foot bomb. They found it because he was online ordering stuff that didn't add up right, and so they traced his emails and discovered that he was up to some crooked stuff. So for me, Anthony Mackie, I feel that to be effective they have to have the same resources and abilities that the bad guys have.
Christopher Markus: Really? Interesting.
Stephen McFeely: I myself just want to talk more about these things. I'm not naïve enough to think that we don't need some of this stuff. But the more it's not talked about, the more it bugs me, because the less transparent it is. Certainly, it's ripe for corruption but also, certainly, I don't pretend to know where that line of transparency should be. But when [U.S. senator] Diane Feinstein has to go on the floor of the Senate and call out the CIA, it's getting cloudy. We're dumbass screenwriters—we don't have the answer. But it was nice to be able to ask some of the questions in the context of a superhero story.
Markus: We were certainly influenced by the drone situation when it started, and it was on the front page of newspapers. But the [Edward] Snowden thing didn't come along until May of 2013, and by that time we were six weeks into shooting. Once we were shooting, certainly, any decisions that we made, we ran at [the idea of Snowden-like revelations]. But the script was already well in hand before Snowden ever revealed his stuff.
People—frankly, Republicans—like to forget that before all this NSA stuff we had the Patriot Act, which was a perfectly invasive system to have set up. This kind of thing has been in the public consciousness since, well, since Watergate. As far as I know we don't have the ability to kill 20 million [perceived threats] at a time… cross your fingers.
FJI: How has Nick Fury changed since the events of Iron Man, back when there were only a couple of these superhuman characters, to the person he is now?
Jackson: I don't think he's changed. The amount of things you see him do has changed, but he's always been the same guy, a super-patriot who has his own agenda. He's moved forward with the Avengers Initiative, he's finally proved to the council [that oversees S.H.I.E.L.D.] that the threat from on-world is great, but there's an even greater threat from off-world, so you see in this film that he's finally gotten his toys and he's putting his plan into motion. For some reason Nick knows there are things from other worlds and other places that are presenting a danger to the planet and we need to have a contingency for that. And he's about the business of finding the people we have on our planet [who can be used in the planet's defense]. It's kind of amazing he hasn't cut into the X-Men or anything, to deal with mutants in that particular way.
FJI: Which makes me wonder: When do you think Nick Fury started thinking about the Avengers Initiative? There really would have been no point to his going to Tony Stark [at the end of the 2008 Iron Man] saying he was organizing this group if it were only Iron Man and the highly unpredictable Hulk. So it seems only logical Cap would have had to have been revived before Fury made his pitch.
Jackson: My feeling? I think that he was thawed out before there was [Bruce] Banner [becoming the Hulk].
FJI: [To Mackie] I understand you accepted the role before reading the script. That sounds like…not the usual way it's done
Mackie: The Russo brothers [Anthony and Joe, the film's co-directors] sold me on this movie in a way that I've never been sold before. They pitched me the movie for ten minutes, and I was like, “So…who's the character?” And they said, “Well, we can't tell you.” ''When do we shoot?” “We can't say.” [laughs] “So, uh, what are we meeting about?” But we had lunch for about an hour and I realized these guys were going to do something really special. For the whole meeting they stressed to me that they were making a movie about character—they weren't [just] making an action movie and they needed actors to bring three-dimensional characters to life. And when you hear a director say that, you know he means business.
FJI: So you didn't have to audition…
Mackie: Yeah, well, there's a story behind that, though. I had been e-mailing Marvel for about six years trying to get into a Marvel movie and it came to the point where I got an e-mail from Marvel saying, “Don't call us anymore. We'll call you.” My manager got the e-mail and I was like, “Damn…I don't know if that's good or bad!” Then about six months later, they asked me if I would fly out to L.A. and have lunch with them.
FJI: When Natasha calls Wilson "Falcon" over a comm line at one point, it feels natural since the winged suit was developed, as we see from the title of a dossier, as "Project Falcon." And that kind of code-name terminology really exists in the military. Was that dossier there the whole time or was it something the production designer added?
Markus: Oh, no, no, no, that was there the whole time, because from the minute we knew he was going to be in the movie, we set out to figure out how is this literally not a guy who puts on a bird outfit? And once we figured out that he was a vet and that this was a flight suit…
McFeely: If someone called him "military lackey," that was Chris…!
FJI: The movie does, finally, call Rogers' World War II squad [in the first movie] the Howling Commandos, which was the name of the group in the comics.
McFeely: Yeah, in the first one we never said "Howlin'."
Markus: I guess it's the same way that it's hard to use the superhero's name. Like, they've finally taken to calling him "the Hulk" to his face [in The Avengers]. Usually it's just something like, "that great big green guy who's so…hulking."
McFeely: Because it's just weird to tag people with their comic-book titles.
FJI: For Agent Rumlow, who's Brock Rumlow in the comics, you don't give his first name. Any reasons?
McFeely: No, I think that's just natural dialogue. In fact, I think the only time you get names is maybe in the Quinjet at the beginning. You just don't give an order to "Brock Rumlow"—you give it to "Rumlow."
FJI: But in your minds, his first name is Brock.
McFeely: Yeah. We weren't running away from the name Brock or anything. I don't call Chris "Chris Markus" every time I talk to him. [laughs]
FJI: And yet they always say "Charlie Brown," never just "Charlie."
McFeely: You're right! It is never just Charlie! It's always Charlie Brown! [laughs]
FJI: [to the actors] Are you going to be in [the upcoming] Avengers: Age of Ultron?
Jackson: Well, Age of Ultron is more about guys with powers and I don't think Nick can help resolve that conflict between people who have them—that's why he's looking for people who have them, so they can deal with it the way he did with the Avengers. I don't have a lot to do with the resolution of the conflict in that particular film, I don't think.
Mackie: I don't know yet. They haven't told me I'm in it, so I'm guessing I'm not. But given the way Marvel works, I'm keeping my summer open, just in case they call me and say, “You. London. Now.”
FJI: From the speech pattern, it sounds like the Incredible Hulk calling you up.
Mackie: You never know, man! If they tell me to go, I'm a go!