By popular demand I will let you know that this post contains the mildest of spoilers.
Back in January I told you that Captain America: Civil War was testing through the roof. This, I said, was good because the movie had a dark ending that made some at Marvel Studios nervous:
Further, my sources tell me that the movie doesn't pull any punches in the third act, and that if Marvel execs had been concerned about the film going dark places, these stellar test screenings have alleviated all those fears.
Having now seen the film (as many of our international readers have as well) I can say my sources were right about the ending. And having spoken with Joe and Anthony Russo I can say that the sources were also right about Marvel's response to that ending. From the very earliest pitch stages, the filmmakers met resistance about taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the places they wanted to go. Their secret weapon? The Empire Strikes Back.
"In our pitch to get this movie through the system we would reference Empire constantly," co-director Anthony Russo told me. "In our heads that was how you could frame it - as a necessary down beat in the saga. You need those down beats. I think it was deep in the DNA."
"This movie had a controversial ending in development," agreed Joe. "It was a difficult ending to get pushed through. Just in terms of Marvel there were people who fell on one side of the line, who wanted a more traditional structure for the ending of the film, and there were people - like Kevin Feige - who pushed for a more radical, deconstructive third act. So Empire did become a little bit of a flag waving movie for us. It’s the down beat in an incredibly successful movie series, one where you could point and say, ‘You’ve got to have a down beat.’ People can tell you they love chocolate ice cream, but if you give them chocolate ice cream five days a week by Friday they’re sick of chocolate."
Feige told me that changing up the Marvel formula was important to him. "The whole idea was to do something different, just as we had in Ant-Man," he told me at the Civil War junket. But while there were "some internal discussions" about making the ending more traditional, Feige said that this ending was always the one they were making. "We only shot this version of it, so there weren’t debates until the end. But we wanted to do something that left the characters in a very fractured place, but also that they are heroes, and that they are mature."
There were a lot of reasons why the Russos wanted to do something new with the finale of the movie, to get away from the ships falling from the sky/giant energy portal paradigm that has defined the climaxes of many Marvel movies, but most of all they just wanted a change.
"Frankly we were tired of the third act structure of Marvel movies, just speaking as fans," Joe Russo said. "There’s a big fight, and it’s a fight to the death between hero and the villain. You just have to change it up. This is an allegorical villain. He influences events in a very subtle way. He kind of rides the events until the moment when he strikes, and it has a lot of elements of a psychological thriller, where the characters are being led to a very grotesque reveal. Then you see how the characters react to the reveal."
And for the Russos that ending, the down beat on which they leave the saga, is important for what they're doing next: Avengers: Infinity War.
"There’s a lingering part of this that will impact Infinity War," Joe Russo said. "Civil War isn’t finished, and it may take a very long time for these characters to repair. If they are ever repaired. Should they ever forgive each other? That’s the question moving forward."
By the way, I spoke with the Russos more about their allegorical villain, Zemo, who I think is one of the best in the Marvel movie pantheon, but since that's all spoilery look for it next week, after release.
A note to international readers: please be aware that Civil War hasn't opened in the US yet and to be spoiler free in your comments.