When you get up close, superhero movies are never quite as cool as they look on screen. To bring a comic book to life, as Marvel Studios has done nine times now (with Guardians of the Galaxy on the horizon), it takes work, patience, and a lot of imagination. Film sets like The Winter Soldier prove to be not so different from a summer in the suburbs, where intrepid kids scavenge materials to build makeshift superhero costumes before running off to save the neighborhood. The filmmakers just have a smidgen more resources—in this case, an estimated $170 million.
That’s almost modest for a tentpole movie these days. Many of them run into the $250 million-plus range. Clever filmmaking techniques save money, but they can make for a bizarro on-set experience. That state-of-the-art helicarrier Cap is battling on? It’s made by what you might call the world’s biggest LEGO set: shipping containers, stacked in a half pyramid three stories tall and draped in a bright Kermit-green sheet. On the asphalt in front of it are a handful of armored crates and deck cannons. Further down is a metal door that is the only practical part of what will become, in the hands of digital artists, a conning tower.
Just off camera, Anthony Mackie (Real Steel, The Hurt Locker), who joins the cast as Falcon, a combat veteran trained to control the prototype for a winged jet pack, watches as Evans does battle. He’s eager to get in the fight. “Waiting in the wings!” he jokes as a member of the crew comes over with a drill and literally bolts him into his costume. In the movie, the character will have a sprawling, digitally created, 12-foot-6-inch wingspan, but on set Mackie’s stuck with just a tiny replica, making him look more hummingbird, less bird of prey. “Those are my wings,” he says, flashing his eyebrows. “Pretty small, right? You’d think they’d be a lot bigger.”
For him, appearing in a comic book film is a serious point of pop culture pride. “I’d been asking Marvel once a month for three years about playing Black Panther,” Mackie says. “I just wanted to keep my name in the circle.” Black Panther, created in 1966, is revered as the first black superhero, but Falcon has his own historical significance.
While Black Panther hailed from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, Falcon was actually the first African-American superhero. “In the movie, it’s more about his tactical ability than his race,” Mackie says, though he still finds social significance in the character. “It’s more about his relationship with Cap. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were no relationships like Cap and the Falcon. That was just unheard of. So Chris and I always joke, like, Cap woke up in the new millennium and he got a cell phone and a black friend.”
Visual effects don’t just enhance Mackie’s wings; that post-production fine-tuning also came in handy for him a few days earlier, when the actor had to perform a 60-foot plunge.
“I stopped about three feet from the ground. It was by far the worst experience of my life,” Mackie says. “We were in this parking lot, right over there by the wall — they took this crane, put it up as high as it could go, made me turn upside down, and come straight down, face first into the pavement. All the way down, I was screaming, F——CCCKKK! They’re like, ‘Cut! Let’s do it again!’ I was like, ‘no matter how many times we do this, I’m gonna scream all the way down so let’s figure it out now.’” The solution: “What they do is, they scan your face,” Mackie says. “So they can put whatever emotion they want on you.”