Avengers: Infinity War: How They Decided to Split Up the Characters

Photo: Film Frame/Marvel Studios 2018

In the first two Avengers movies, the powered-up ensemble comprised little more than a handful of characters, and they spent most of the plot fighting at each other’s side. Over the last few years, though, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has experienced a superheroic population boom, and that presented a logistical challenge for Avengers: Infinity War screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. “We didn’t want a movie full of 25 people going from room to room,” said McFeely. “We wanted threads that we could weave together and break apart.” That meant Markus and McFeely spent a lot of time brainstorming which character groupings would both service the plot and produce the sparkiest chemistry. Below, they tell Vulture how they decided to split up the Avengers.

Iron Man / Doctor Strange / Star-Lord / Spider-Man

One of the most notable pair-ups in Avengers: Infinity War involves two heroes with well-manicured goatees and prickly personalities: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). “Strange and Stark occupy similar spaces in their universes as guys with a vision but also an ego,” said McFeely. “Usually, they’re the smartest guy in the room, so what happens when you’re in the room with another guy like that?”

To differentiate between the two characters, Markus and McFeely leaned heavily on Stark’s decade-spanning story arc. “Tony has such weight on him now that he didn’t in the first Iron Man,” said Markus. “He went through the portal in The Avengers and saw the aliens. He’s the one guy on Earth who feels in his bones that something terrible is happening.” That’s why Stark is determined to go fight the universe-threatening Thanos, while Strange adopts a more defensive posture. “Strange can take a bigger, more adult view of things,” said McFeely. “Tony has a little PTSD about this: I saw it, I tried to do all these things to prevent this, and now it’s coming.” Added Markus, “Tony feels it’s his responsibility to fix it, but Strange may know there’s no fixing this.”

To add color to this standoff, Markus and McFeely grouped Stark and Strange with Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and, eventually, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). “Like Strange and Stark, Star-Lord thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room … only he isn’t,” laughed McFeely. “So you’ve got these two guys bumping heads with each other,” said Markus, “but suddenly they can agree that this other guy is the real problem.” As for the web-slinging Peter Parker, who’s taken Stark’s side in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, “Peter’s just fun to bring everywhere,” said McFeely. “He’s still wide-eyed, he’s still a kid. And we value that Tony-Peter mentor relationship that’s been built up over two films.”

Thor / Guardians of the Galaxy

After he’s dealt a big blow by Thanos in the first scene of Infinity War, a space-stranded Thor (Chris Hemsworth) encounters the Guardians of the Galaxy, and that character collision inspired some of the biggest rewrites from Markus and McFeely. “We changed a few scenes early on because Hemsworth had just done Thor: Ragnarok and was concerned,” said McFeely. “He was like, ‘Listen, guys, I’ve been in Australia and we’re doing crazy stuff!’” Though Thor was originally meant to be the straight man for Marvel’s most comedic team of characters, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi had just showcased a jokier side of the muscular god that Hemsworth was keen to keep, so the writers flew Waititi out for two days to pick his brain, then revamped Thor and his Infinity War arc to accommodate that funnier sensibility.

Since Markus and McFeely had to start writing Infinity War before movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Doctor Strange, and Black Panther had come out, they were in constant communication with those films’ directors. “We can’t know every character to the degree that the filmmakers know their characters,” admitted McFeely, adding that James Gunn, who directed the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, offered the most input. “We wrote many drafts, and then he read the scenes with the Guardians in them and made suggestions,” said Markus. “He came up with at least one hysterical riff that’s in there whole cloth, and their opening song came from him, too.” Like Hemsworth, Gunn took great pains to ensure that Infinity War would reflect the characters he’d helped bring to life. “There was a choice we had Star-Lord make in the movie that Gunn was adamant he wouldn’t make, and Pratt agreed with him,” said McFeely. “And so we said, ‘If you guys feel that strongly about it, we’ll do it your way.’ It didn’t alter too much of what we were trying to do, but it was a good example of how that kind of caretaking was a bonus to us.”

The Guardians are besotted with Thor and his muscles — “Pratt is normally the handsome guy, and then it’s like uh, no,” laughed Markus — until the group splits up further, with Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) accompanying Thor in perhaps the film’s most unlikely trio. “Some of that’s geographic, because they’re all space characters, but that’s a delightful group,” said McFeely. Markus noted that in their early brainstorming, the acerbic Rocket was thrown into many collections of characters — “There was a knee-jerk Rocket usage,” he said — but that it ultimately made the most sense to pair him with Thor: “Thor is so powerful that it’s fun to stick Rocket next to him. Rocket does not seem to have much he could help Thor with, but it brings out new things in Rocket that you wouldn’t have expected.”

Scarlet Witch / Vision

Much of Avengers: Infinity War hinges on the romance between synthetic Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), which posed a screenwriting risk, since neither character has had their own movie and only the barest hints of a connection between them have been established in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. For their relationship to work in Avengers: Infinity War, where Vision and Scarlet Witch are almost immediately beset by minions of Thanos trying to steal an Infinity Stone from Vision’s skull, the writers had to hit the ground running. “We allowed ourselves to take the two years or so since Civil War, since we didn’t want to start them the day after that movie,” said McFeely. “So we’re implying that a relationship has been building and flourishing between them, even though he clearly has a MacGuffin in his forehead that’s going to be problematic.”

As for the romance itself, Markus noted, “Chemistry-wise, he’s a robot, she’s a witch. It’s one of those relationships where you wonder, ‘Should this be working?’ But Scarlet Witch is alienated enough from humanity that she’s much more open finding a friend in a robot than a real human.” Added McFeely, “It’s also a testament to those actors. They’re great together.” And though the characters spend most of the movie on the ropes and on the run, their connection allowed for the rare bit of romance in this two-and-a-half-hour action spectacular. “We want you to walk out of there having run the gamut of all human emotions,” said McFeely. “So one of those threads is a smaller, personal, can-we-work-this-out story that gets threatened by bigger plot events.”

Thanos / Gamora

Figuring out a compelling arc for Thanos (Josh Brolin) posed the movie’s greatest problem: The filmmakers knew they wanted to ditch the comic-book plotline where Thanos woos a female manifestation of death, but that left few scene partners for the villain, since his minions spend most of the movie retrieving Infinity Stones elsewhere. The solution that Markus and McFeely came upon was to make his primary foil Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter who rebelled against Thanos in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie but had not yet shared any scenes with him.

“They had a lot of history we wanted to explore,” Markus said, and that unlikely bond helped deepen the film’s villain. “We didn’t want Thanos to be the big mustache-twisting bad guy who wants ultimate power just to take over the world and sit on a throne,” said McFeely. “Going into it, we said, ‘This guy has at least two daughters that we know of. For whatever reason, he has adopted children.’ So from the get-go, that made him kind of fascinating and gave him a layer you would have never voluntarily given your villain.”

“And Gamora’s also been a villain,” noted Markus. “She spent most of her life doing terrible things.”

Their brutal ballet is the plot the writers are most proud of, even if it’s far weightier than the franchise Gamora hails from. “The fact of the matter is that the funniest team, the Guardians, is also the closest related to Thanos,” said Markus. “So they can’t be that funny, because there’s a lot of ‘I wanna kill Dad.’ They’ve got stakes.”

Captain America / Black Widow / Hulk / Black Panther

Markus and McFeely also wrote the three Captain America movies, and for the most part, the grouping introduced in Captain America: Civil War survives into this movie intact: Captain America (Chris Evans) is on the run with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), then eventually links up with the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). “They’re all together as a result of Civil War, so you know that we’re taking that movie seriously and not just wiping it clean,” said McFeely. “That’s why Cap has a beard and Widow has blond hair — they’ve been on the run.”

Still, if you’re expecting Avengers: Infinity War to spend lots of time paying off, say, the Avengers: Age of Ultron romance between the hulked-out Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and superspy Natasha, the writers apologize: Because of everything going on in this movie, they could include little more than a loaded look between the two characters. “If it didn’t serve the Thanos plotline, we could only glancingly hit it,” said McFeely, though he says they tried. “We wrote scenes for a lot of things where we just felt, ‘Now is not the time,’” said Markus. “There were a lot of situations we wanted to follow up, but nobody in real life would be addressing those things with Thanos coming. There are far more pressing things than who may or may not have slept with who.”

Still, fans of Captain America might be surprised by how few scenes he has in this film, though he’s likelier to play a more significant role in the fourth Avengers movie next summer. “In that blue-sky brainstorming period, we’re doing everything we can and throwing all those scenes in there, but then you have an 18-hour movie,” said Markus. “So we distilled it down to the story of Thanos and the Infinity Stones.”

“We’d love a five-hour movie where we explore Steve and Natasha and Sam Wilson on the run,” added McFeely, “but we don’t get to do that.”

Avengers: Infinity War: How They Decided to Group the Heroes