Captain America: Civil War: 5 tips for writing an ensemble film


Marvel's Captain America: Civil War L to R: Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War
L to R: Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)
Photo Credit: Film Frame
© Marvel 2016

Captain America: Civil War is populated with more superheroes than we’ve ever seen in one movie. Most characters are old friends, like Iron Man, Hawkeye and Black Widow, but there are some new additions, like Black Panther and King T’Chaka. When Tom Holland appeared as Spider-Man for the first time in Civil War, the audience literally cheered because half the fun in watching a Marvel film is seeing who shows up to the party.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did an excellent job of managing all the Spandex-clad men and women while keeping the conflict strong and the story moving. They even found places to add humor. Given how much money this film made at the box office ($765 million worldwide and it’s not even the weekend yet), it’s likely that superhero ensembles will continue to appear on screen, so let’s take a closer look at how they did it.

No. 1 — Have them at ‘hello’


With any Captain America, X-Men or Avengers movie, the audience has certain expectations. They want to see the comic book characters they know and love, but they also want a few surprises. It could feel overwhelming for some writers tasked with the job of getting this many characters into one film, but there’s no need to rush.

Markus and McFeely took their time introducing the characters one at a time. In one of the early scenes, we find Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, sitting at a café on a stakeout. The camera then reveals that Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, is also at the stakeout.

While both characters are in the same scene, they are introduced separately to help the audience make the connection and bond with them. You can do this with your ensemble. List out all the characters in your film and then decide how each will be introduced, when, where and how. Introductions are important. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, they used to call it “making an entrance.” This means the first time you see a character on screen, he or she has to make a splash. And not only did Markus and McFreely write great introductions, they also gave us a taste of what to expect from each character, by teasing their talents and abilities to prepare us for the upcoming adventure.

No. 2 — Make each character visually distinct 


One of the first rules of screenwriting is “keep description lean.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t put a little emphasis on your characters to make sure each one stands out, especially in an ensemble. Superheroes typically have brightly colored outfits that really pop, but they also have props that reveal their backstories.

Because Tony Stark was a wealthy businessman, he’s used to having the finer things in life and has a suit that is extremely technologically advanced and also cost a fortune. Captain America was created during World War 2, so his technology – that famous red, white and blue shield – is pretty basic but says a lot about him, since he doesn’t carry a gun or other overt weapon.

His shield tells us he’s all about protecting America. Spider-Man’s suit covers his face, so we know it’s important to him to keep his true identity hidden and that he’s a young man who deals in secrets. Think about your characters and what props or costuming can help the viewer understand them more.

No. 3 — Use ‘em or lose ‘em


Each character must add value to the story or there’s no need to have him or her on screen.

With superhero characters, each one has their own skill, talent or magical power long established in the comic book, but Markus and McFeely had to figure out ways to showcase their talents while moving the story forward. Another old screenwriting adage seen here is “conflict comes out of character.”

Scarlet Witch tries to use her powers of telekinesis to move Brock Rumlow’s explosion away from people, but her actions result in destroying a nearby building, killing innocent people. This sets up the main conflict in the story: should superheroes be reigned in? Conflict comes out of character and then character builds to theme.

No. 4 — Teamwork makes the dream work



Once the central conflict is established – Captain America and Iron Man disagreeing on whether or not to be regulated by the Anti-Hero Registration Act, the other characters chose sides, some standing by Captain America and some standing by Iron Man.

Now, there are two teams that can function as a group protagonist or group antagonist for a good portion of the story until Iron Man and Captain America must duke it out, man to man. This is the basis of all good screenplays, two sides pushing against the same goal.

No. 5 — Mine the characters for their individual gold


One of the reasons we love movies with comic book characters is because they feel like old friends, especially for those of us who read the comics or watched earlier incarnations on film or TV. We know Tony Stark, particularly as he’s played by Robert Downey, Jr., will bring dry, sarcastic humor. The best place to showcase this is in dialog.

The line where he tells Captain America, “Sometimes I’d like to punch you in your perfect teeth,” is an excellent example. But to reinvent Spider-Man with a new actor, the screenwriters knew they had to find his specific place in the group. Their brilliant move was to mine the one thing Peter Parker has that none of the other superheroes have – youth. Along with youth comes naivety and the joy of experiencing things for the first time.

So, when he asks the other characters if they’ve seen an old movie called The Empire Strikes Back, the writers reveal his unique point of view and the audience gets a good laugh.

Captain America: Civil War not only made for a fun night out at the cinema, it also whet our appetites for a few upcoming Marvel films, like the new Spider-Man and the long awaited, Black Panther movie. While handling this large of an ensemble can be tricky, the writers managed to accomplish high-stakes storytelling while still staying within the confines of a fictional universe.


Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

5 Replies to "Captain America: Civil War: 5 tips for writing an ensemble film"

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Sorba May 16, 2016 (12:34 pm)

    Fun, OK. I like super-heros and I like the movie. But engaging ? You lust be kidding. As much engaging than a circus spectacle. Most Marvel are great and fun spectacles but have poor storylines, with no emotion.

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly May 16, 2016 (5:04 pm)

      Great point, Richard! Would love to hear how you think they could improve that. Any tips or thoughts?

      • comment-avatar
        Trevor Mayes May 16, 2016 (7:15 pm)

        Crickets chirping.

        LOL! Nice one, Jenna.

        CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR was an exceptionally engaging movie… Especially due to items 3 and 5. Each character had a purpose, was well developed, and had something that drew you to them on an emotional level. We don’t always see that in these types of big ensemble movies. This one is best of breed.

  • comment-avatar
    KTC May 20, 2016 (4:39 am)

    I loved Civil War although I prefer villains to be more menacing or cynical like Loki.

    I also have a few thoughts. Perhaps The Scarlet Witch can help The Winter Soldier get his mind right. She certainly was capable of reversing the effects of Loki’s staff on the Dr. in Age of Ultron.The Regeneration cradle in addition to the Black Panther’s technology could certainly bring back a fiercer Bucky.

    And for the love of God and moving forward, can Stark or someone upgrade Cap’s weapons! It’s time. At least provide him with a shield that others can use against him that in the wonderful world of Marvel is calibrated somehow.

    • comment-avatar
      KTC May 20, 2016 (4:41 am)

      Others CAN’T use against him. Swype…SMH

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