Even before one factors in the potentially baffling complications of Merlyn’s multiverse (ask a comic book fan then run away), the Marvelverse is an odd, shifting terrain.
Thus, Captain America: The Winter Soldier – or Cap 2 as the cast and crew insist upon calling it – revisits Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's radical 2004 overhaul of the Captain America sequence, refashions the material in the shape of a 1970s political thriller, resurrects two major players from Captain America: The First Avenger and reabsorbs popular Shield operatives Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Less popular operatives – take a bow, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye – are left on the bench.
"Everything is so interchangeable in the Marvel universe at this point," says Johansson. "When we first talked about putting my character in Cap, I wasn't sure that was the right place for her to be. Those characters don't really fit together romantically or whatever. So it would have been forced and strange. But the more we explored it the more we realised that they did have a lot in common. Unexpectedly.
“So it made sense. We have to be careful. The audience knows these storylines backwards. And they have a fans’ bullshit barometer for these movies.”
Got all that? You better have. How else can you hope to keep up with Avengers: Age of Ultron in May 2015?
More than any picture from the Thor and Iron Man sequences, Cap 2 feels like a midquel, a bridging film between the two more populous Avengers films. And yet, it manages something like a unique feel. Co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who both worked on Arrested Development and Community, maintain the humorous tone we've come to associate with the Iron Man films and Joss Whedon's Avenger s. But the conspiratorial subplots are a new development.
"I love the grey area in the new Cap film," says Evans. "How much do we as citizens have a right to know? And how much do authorities have a right to protect us? It's a really good topic to explore in the film."
“It’s interesting because my brother is a big conspiracy theorist,” says Johansson. “And we get into a lot of arguments about those things. I think I’m much more practical. But I do believe in conspiracies about stuff like the Food and Drug Administration. And pharmaceutical companies wanting to keep people sick.”
Also new is Robert Redford – just in case you missed all of Cap 2's other references to Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men. Hold up. Is that the Watergate Hotel in the background? Yep. Redford represents a nifty piece of casting, for reasons we can't discuss for fear of – sigh – spoilers. And also for Johansson, who first came to international prominence in Redford's 1998 film The Horse Whisperer.
“It was nice to see him as an adult,” she rasps. “And just as pleasurable as ever. He has a real natural way about him. In his life. And in his performances. So it was really easy to slip back into working with him. Of course, I never thought I’d be holding a gun to his head.”
Had they kept in touch over the years?
“I haven’t seen him in a long time. He lives pretty discretely. So he has this whole remote-via-satellite thing going on. I saw him several years ago for a little bit. And he was interested in what I was doing and all that kind of stuff. He was really happy I was doing theatre and we talked a lot about that. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man. I think everybody on the set was really happy on the days he was there. He exudes a nice calm and gravity. Which isn’t usually there with superhero movies.”
And so we come to the tricky business of the Marvelverse promotional tour. As ever, the stars don't want to answer personal questions. Nor are they permitted to discuss Avengers 2. Nor can they provide too much banter around Cap 2 for fear of the spoiler police bursting through the door.
Erm. What can we talk about exactly?
"I had a fitting for a new jacket for Avengers 2 the other day," offers Cap 2's titular hero, Chris Evans. "I'm very excited about the new jacket. One thing about Cap . You get a great retro arsenal . . . ". He stops suddenly. "That's the thing about the Marvel. It's very hush-hush. Any sentence you give to the press can be twisted and spun . . . Yeah, you."
The publicity materials chime along with the cast. Details on the plot and even some of the characters may be scant. but there is any amount of information about pre-shoot training regimes: Anthony Mackie ate 11,000 calories every day for his role of newbie super- hero Falcon; Chris Evans trained in parkour, jiu-jitsu and gymnastics for three months.
“Audiences are smart,” says Evans. “They know when it’s not you. This was the first time I got to ride a bike in any of my movies. So I got to go to motorcycle school.”
How was that?
“I thought I was going to love it. I thought I was going to become like a bike guy. But it turns out it’s not for me. If you’re going to take that kind of risk I’d rather be on a horse or something.”
Was the shoot just as demanding for Johansson?
“Naw. By now I’m kind of jaded. The secret is you have to drive it like you own it. The work that you’re doing isn’t always clean in terms of the choreography. So you have to punch with conviction. You’re not going to be perfect. But you have to sell it like you are. While you’re doing it, you look really goofy and floppy. But you’re surrounded by stunt people telling you that you rock and you look amazing. Even when you look horrible. Add some music and it works, right?”
The current state of the Marvelverse is shrouded in secrecy. As for future developments? Erm. There may or may not be a Black Widow stand-alone film. Someday. Perhaps.
“It’s something we’ve talked about,” allows Johansson. “The material is there. It would be nice to be part of a superhero movie that’s female-driven instead of just a character using every opportunity to pose and look sexy. Moving forward, I’d like to explore more of her back story. There’s an espionage element to her character that’s different. That could be nice and gritty and political. There’s the Widow Programme to explore. But when you work with Marvel you realise all the films are fan-driven.”
So Johansson is happy with a future in black leather?
“Yeah. My friends have kids who are really into it. And I love that they have female character they can look up to and identify with. She plays hard with the boys. She’s getting stuff done. She outwits everybody. It’s a nice character that way. So I get really excited to see women wearing the costume at places like Comicon.
“I always think ‘You go!’ Because it’s not an easy costume to wear. I know.”