Over the past decade I’ve felt a difference within myself. A change, a pull, a stirring. And as the Zoom call connects and my face pops up between Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, my suspicions are confirmed: I’m a nerd.
Of course, I’m not alone. The slope to Marvel fandom is not only slippery, it’s one that’s claimed millions around the world in the last decade-and-a-half. It’s the original pandemic, a wave of nerd culture sweeping up millennial males, driven for the most part by the creative forces behind Marvel Studios.
Over the course of 23 films, the Disney-owned studio has brought the comic book heroes of our childhood to the big screen, intricately weaving together a saga that culminated in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time. Beyond their box office clout, these films have had a profound impact on popular culture. They’ve created superstars of their casts, spawned a new generation of fitness idols and provided a great deal of fodder for this very magazine.
Here and now, I find myself positioned between two of the linchpins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (what us nerds call the MCU), trying my very best not to geek out. Maintain professionalism, don’t be a dork, do your job.
“How are you, boys?” I say, intentionally lowering my voice to mask my delight at the situation.
“Chillin’, ” says Mackie, stirring a tea in his mid-century-fitted living room. “Very, very excited,” adds Stan, juxtaposed in a cabin-style living room.
My inner geek stirs. So well cast are Mackie and Stan, that even their homes are reflective of their onscreen alter egos – Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson and Bucky ‘The Winter Soldier’ Barnes respectively. To my relief, they’re both equally excited to be here, clearly relishing the opportunity to once again be back saving the world, and many others, in the process.
“They brought me back! I’m not fired!” says a jubilant Mackie. “Just don’t get fired, bro,” he urges Stan, as if immediately realising the fragility of their future. “Just don’t get fired.”
“I just wanted to keep going,” reassures Stan. “I always want to keep going. I’m happy we got another round at it, however we got it.”
Mackie and Stan have once again joined forces as the titular characters in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, taking on villains in their very own Disney + limited series. This time around the stakes are higher, for both the characters and the real-world players backing the project.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an ambitious move for Marvel, a studio renowned for taking large, and often extremely profitable risks within the comic-book genre.
The show extends the MCU beyond the big screen, a moved planned well before COVID-19 shut cinemas worldwide, although the current appetite for on-demand, short-form content has only built excitement for the delayed release of the series.
If the early buzz and the popularity of its first limited series, WandaVision, are anything to go by, success for Mackie, Stan and the entire MCU seems all but assured. The critically acclaimed follow-up to Avengers: Endgame has even provided an opportunity for more work for the two leading men, with the possible introduction of a ‘multiverse’ (an equally exciting prospect for MH, with the promise of infinite cover men).
“They keep me so in the dark about what possibly happens with these dudes,” says Mackie, on what he hopes for Falcon’s future beyond this particular project. “I would just be happy to be in another movie.” That should be easy enough. Just don’t get fired.
Maintaining gainful employment is a legitimate concern for both Mackie and Stan, as their franchise’s future within the MCU hinges on the dynamic between their characters and their chemistry as actors. After all, what would The Falcon and The Winter Soldier be without one of the titular characters.
Much like the cultural behemoth they’re a part of, though, their union seems to grow stronger as time rolls on, with the workplace challenges of COVID-19 serving to bring the team closer.
“It was hard,” Mackie says of production shutdowns and changes to shooting schedules. “I mean, you’re talking about people who’ve known each other, some of us eight, 10, 12 years. And we work with each other once a year, once every other year, for that period of time. So, it’s difficult to say, ‘Hey friend, stay over there’.”
Over that decade, said team has fought intergalactic battles, saved the world multiple times over and shined a light on a host of issues plaguing modern society – the abuse of power, the fight for justice and the difference between right and wrong. In their new series, however, Mackie and Stan explore a theme unique to their dynamic within the MCU: adult male friendship.
Often dissected in these very pages, the forming, maintenance and role of male friendship in our lives is something many men struggle to navigate, yet its importance, particularly in times of isolation and distancing (and hostile world takeovers), can’t be overstated. “It’s much more difficult because, as an adult, you’ve already had your friends for a long time,” says Stan. "So, it’s like, how do you make a new friend unless you have something drastically in common, or you guys are part of an experience that brings you together in a certain way? It’s work, right! And then maybe it ends there. It doesn’t go beyond that. But fortunately, we’ve been able to have a different experience with Marvel because we keep coming back and we see each other again. There’s a camaraderie.”
Just like their onscreen personas, Mackie and Stan come from vastly different backgrounds. Mackie was born in New Orleans, honing his acting chops on the sets of hard-hitting dramas like 8 Mile, The Hurt Locker and Tupac Shakur biopic Notorious. Romanian-born Stan’s journey to the MCU involved a trip through cult TV hit Gossip Girl. Yet it’s clear that the camaraderie and respect the two forged on set translates off-screen.
It’s a friendship that’s benefitted both players. Throughout our chat, Mackie and Stan lift each other up. They’re each other’s biggest fans. Besides me, of course.
The health benefits of workplace friendships are backed by science, with a recent Israeli study finding that men who formed friendships with coworkers lived longer than lone wolves.
In this case, in yet another parallel between the actors and the characters they portray, each party reaps dividends from the friendship that are not only mental, but physical as well.
“Sebastian and I are very competitive people,” Mackie says, a quick flash of his trademark grin alerting me to some incoming trash talk. “So, if I see him off set doing 10 push-ups, I’m going to do 20. That’s just how we roll.” “I mean, that’s really what it’s about,” Stan shoots back. “You [Mackie] just do your best and then you keep going.”
There’s no doubt the popularity of the Marvel films is largely due to their leading men and women. But the parallels between the scripts and reality also contribute to their resonance, with plots often mirroring current events. Freedom, surveillance, globalisation and sustainability are all undercurrents to choreographed car chases, death-defying stunt work and the more-than-occasional explosions. Heck, even Thanos, the big-bad of the Infinity Saga, was an intergalactic Greta Thunberg-esque eco-warrior. And while his plan to eliminate half
of all life in the universe is obviously diabolical, his motive for hatching it is not entirely batshit crazy. He was right: the universe (well, the one he occupies, anyway) can’t sustain the demands placed upon it without major change.
More complex still are the films specifically released under the ‘Captain America’ banner, notable for their real-world political themes. The plot lines are more earthly than intergalactic, rooted deeper in our current shared experience than their contemporaries. Removed from the MCU, they could comfortably serve as stand-alone homages to ’80s spy thrillers stylistically, with the political undertones of more weighty fiction. Indeed, Stan’s own titular movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, boldly tackled America’s post-Cold War role as ‘global policeman’, with the lines between good and bad deliberately blurred.
Early previews of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier indicate that the showrunners plan to continue exploring these types of moral dilemmas in their own style. It’s an action buddy-comedy in the vein of Lethal Weapon with 21st century CGI. “The world is upside down,” Stan’s Winter Solider can be heard saying in the very first trailer for the series. “People need something to get behind”.
It’s a sentiment that certainly rings true given the current state of the world. However, with the global political landscape ever shifting and constant production delays due to COVID-19, audiences may wonder if a script written in 2019 can hold up in the charged climate of 2021. “I think [it reflects society] in a huge way,” Stan says when pushed on the topic. “I think it’s going to resonate so much more with audiences because we will dive deep into all those themes that we’ve already experienced, so it will feel relatable, and scary how relatable at the same time.”
While coups at the Capitol, state-border closures and pandemic-related mayhem won’t necessarily take centre stage, the broader themes of political and social unrest amid a time of global upheaval, previously explored by Captain America and his colleagues, are all on the table.
Yet despite the thematic similarities, Mackie is quick to point out that this is not, in fact, a Captain America series, despite the obvious marketing tie-ins, notably Cap’s shield and trademark insignia. Nor is he Captain America.
“When I read it, I was very excited,” Mackie says of the script to Avengers: Endgame, where Steve Rogers gifts his shield to his character, Sam Wilson. “But then I realised what they did was they wrote it so he gives the shield back. Sam never accepts the shield. Sam never becomes Captain America in Endgame.” I’m quite happy to be out-nerded by Falcon himself, as he clocks my confused expression. “That’s why, at the end of the movie, he tells Steve, ‘The shield is yours, not mine’. That’s why the show is called The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
“I thought it’s more interesting this way, to be honest,” agrees Stan. “It’s a whole other thing.”
Stan is right. This latest outing for Marvel Studios really is a whole other thing. And mighty as they may be, there’s one crusade even the Avengers themselves may not be
able to win: the battle to save cinema. One of many industries ravaged by the pandemic, multiplexes are shuttered across large parts of the globe, with moviegoers still reluctant to return in places where they’ve reopened.
While the decline in cinema attendance (and, of course, box-office takings) is being keenly felt by studio bosses, it’s a cultural shift Mackie suggests was always coming, albeit accelerated by the effects of COVID-19. “Streaming has always been the future of cinema. It’s just with COVID, it was forced into our reality.”
His outlook for big-budget blockbusters beyond global lockdowns isn’t entirely positive, and surprisingly his reasoning extends beyond the virus. Instead, it rests with the industry itself. It seems that much like the movies Mackie appears in, there’s not much separating the heroes from the villains in Hollywood.
“Sad to say, I think most films will be more streaming platform-based productions,” he says. “It’s sad. I think about the movies I loved when I was a kid. Those movies would never get made now. One, because going to the movies is too expensive for a regular family. We’ve priced ourselves out of our own market. And two, we’re playing to markets that have a different sensibility to America. So, you’re making movies that America isn’t interested in. And that’s when it gets confusing and you’re going for the dollar instead of the art.”
It’s an interesting and surprisingly self-aware summation from a man who continues to play a pivotal role in the highest grossing film series of all time – those co-starring Mackie and Stan grossed a combined US$2.56bn in the US alone.
According to Screen Australia, cinema attendance in Australia peaked in 1996, with both total attendance and the frequency of cinema visits in steady decline ever since. Perhaps isely, Mackie thinks, Marvel will distribute its content evenly between the big-screen and streaming platforms. “I think streaming will support the Avengers movies. But in between those movies, you’ll get the sequences that lead you up to the big movie.”
It’s Stan who closes out the topic with a slightly more philosophical outlook. Once again, it’s one that applies equally to the wider world.
“Who knows what’s going to happen next? Try to figure it out. Good luck.”
This feature was published for the April 2021 issue of Men's Health Australia, on newsstands Thursday March 11.