Why Superheroes and the Big Screen Experience Still Matter: An Interview with Avengers: Endgame Co-Director Joe Russo

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios/Marvel Entertainment

Ten years. Twenty-one movies. $18.5 billion, and counting, at the global box office.

That’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a numeric nutshell after March’s Captain Marvel and leading up to the imminent release of Avengers: Endgame on April 26. What it fails to account for, though, is the enormous impact those films and their characters have had not just on the film industry but on millions of audience members around the world.

Before May 2008, the idea of a sprawling, multifilm comic book universe was just that—an idea. After Robert Downey Jr. defied expectations and took flight as Tony Stark in Iron Man, the reality of that idea took flight.

“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet,” teased Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in that film’s seminal stinger—now a post-credit staple of MCU films. The subtext of that moment is more significant, even poignant, now, a decade later. Even knowledgeable fans of the source comic books have since been taken on a journey filled with surprises, thrills, laughs, and occasional heartbreak.

For the uninitiated, who knew little of the Avengers beyond the name and fewer than a handful of its most famous members, the ensuing cinematic adventure has been a pop culture awakening—a realization of the great stories that readers followed for decades, an introduction to once obscure (now household-name) characters, and a beautiful, overdue embrace of comic book geek culture.

Plucked from the vast library of Marvel’s golden age comics created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in the 1960s, the Avengers leapt from the page to the big screen with remarkable aplomb under the guidance of Marvel Studios overseer Kevin Feige, filmmakers like Jon Favreau and James Gunn, and many others. 

Among them, none has had more influence than the Russo brothers.

Joe Russo, co-director of Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, recently spoke with us about the upcoming film and a variety of related subjects.

“It’s been a really unique experiment,” says Russo. “It’s been 10 years of multifaceted, serialized storytelling—multiple franchises with highly successful characters in every franchise. The audience has an emotional investment across all of the franchises in a way that I don’t think has ever been done before in the film business. Certainly, there have been singular franchises like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars as you go down the list, but I don’t know that anyone’s ever done multiple franchises like this that have all built toward a finale like Endgame,” he says.

Joe and his brother, Anthony, have already helmed three of the most popular superhero films of all time. They’re currently putting the finishing touches on their fourth effort in the MCU, acutely aware of the anticipation—and expectation—from eager fans for another memorable theatrical experience. 

What’s additionally impressive is that the Marvel franchise’s rise to blockbuster phenom status occurred during the same decade in which at-home viewing and streaming content became central to the entertainment conversation.

So, why is it so important to see these movies—and especially Endgame—on the big screen?

“We went through the pain and effort to shoot both Infinity War and Endgame in IMAX, so they’ve been shot in incredible scale. I think they’re two of the biggest movies ever made from a character standpoint and from a visual standpoint. The scale is tremendous,” Russo says.

True, but while scope and scale are (to quote Chris Hemsworth’s Thor) “truly awesome,” the communal experience of seeing a movie in the theater with friends, family, and fellow fans is at the heart of what makes these movies wildly successful.

Russo adds, “The best thing I think Marvel’s done is to galvanize the audience. It’s like a rock concert when you go to a Marvel movie on opening weekend. There’s an energy and an excitement there that you’re not going to get sitting at home. There’s a sense of community. There are people cheering and laughing and crying and following along with the story collectively in a way I don’t know you’ll see again outside of the Star Wars franchise. The emotional connection is so strong for a lot of people.”

That connection hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Hollywood stars inhabiting these larger-than-life characters.

“Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) was in a baseball hat and glasses hiding on the opening night of Infinity War in New York, where he’s from. At the end of the movie, he sent me a video of a guy who was so upset that half of the characters died that he ripped his shirt off and was stomping around the theater screaming, ‘Why?!’ I think there are very few franchises that motivate and move their audience the way that these films do.”

A year ago, Infinity War itself was billed as the culmination of the MCU. This followed several years of speculation as to whether that film and Avengers 4 (briefly titled Infinity War Part II before ultimately losing that moniker) represented two separate chapters, or if a cliffhanger ending was waiting to surprise audiences at the end of last year’s release.

Now we know the answer, of course. This is a two-part epic finale, which means there’s an expectation for Endgame to resolve the emotion of last year’s shock ending.

Russo boldly and confidently predicts, “It’s going to be a unique and singular experience in movie history, and people are going to want to share that experience together—even more than Infinity War, frankly.”

Having helmed three previous Marvel films, Joe and Anthony Russo have experimented with several genres as they’ve played in superheroes sandbox. Winter Soldier was a take on classic spy thriller and shadow-government narratives. Civil War took that one step further as a globe-trotting actioner that challenged viewers to see their heroes as less than perfect, and Infinity War served as a heist film told from the point of view of its main antagonist.

Where on the spectrum of tone and genre will Endgame land? Not surprisingly, with two months to go until its release, that’s a question Russo tackled carefully.

“That’s a tricky one to answer without giving anything away, but I will say that the movie is definitely unique in tone. It has its own spirit that’s different than Infinity War, which is why I was keen for us to separate the movies. Of course, we’re handing off narratives and it’s been serialized over 22 movies. But, it’s different tonally than Infinity War and it is told from a different point of view. It was important for us in our minds as film directors to separate those two because we do not want to make the same movie twice, and ways that you can differentiate films are through tone and point of view.”

A strong through line of the MCU, and the Russos’ films in particular, has been a willingness to tackle real-world themes. 

“There’s no question that this is a reflection of the time. We’ve been very open and honest about the fact that we like to create a synergy between the story that we’re telling and what’s happening. Winter Soldier was about the police state and how much control should the government have over your private lives. While we were making that film, the Snowden scandal happened. I think the scandal and what we were doing thematically with the movie started feeding each other, so we started to make adjustments to content.”

In the years since, as cultural divides have continued to deepen around the world, that process has become part of the MCU’s organic evolution.

Civil War continued that, and it became about a divorce of the family, extremism, and two irreconcilable sides trying to figure out a path forward without killing each other. It was certainly reflective of where we were going as a society. Sometimes villains win—and, in Infinity War, Thanos wins.”

Endgame’s first teasers indicate the film will carry on that tradition as it highlights a world mourning the loss of its heroes. I asked Russo what that means for these characters in a fictional universe, and how does it reflect on the real world.

“In Endgame, it’s exactly what you alluded to. What is the definition of “hero”? All four of those films, when looked at together, ask that question and try to answer that thematic: What does it mean to be a hero and what does it mean to stand up?”

The Russo brothers haven’t been doing this alone, though. Their collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely penned the screenplays for all four Russo-helmed films, as well as two other Marvel entries (Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World).

“Since the beginning, it’s been a very tight, collaborative process between the four of us. We’re really the engine of the vision behind the movies we’ve made together. We have a very specific process that we developed in television, which involved sitting in a room together for months on end, breaking story together, talking through story together. It’s a very iterative process and a collective process.”

He further elaborated, “It’s very important on movies of this scale that the directors’ vision is specifically stated in the script and in the action lines, because we’re trying to communicate to thousands of people at one time. We feel like the best way to do that is through the script. The story has to be one that we want to tell. It’s been an amazing experience working with Markus and McFeely on all these movies, and as unique a collaboration as you will find.”

In the history of cinema, there are only rare examples of other franchises being united by a steady creative vision. Be it studio politics, creative differences, scheduling conflicts, or any number of other scenarios, there are more obstacles to this kind of working relationship than there are actual instances of it. What the Russos have accomplished with Markus and McFeely on four films (so far) is far from common. So, what makes it work?

“It is really unique and we all get along very well. It’s a true partnership. When you’re in a creative partnership, you have to collaborate daily. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to discuss your point of view, suspend your point of view, elaborate your point of view. I think because we’re two duos that it makes it very easy for us to blend and work together. Everybody has the same goal in mind. What’s the best script we can create? What’s the best story we can tell? What’s the best film we can make?”

One of the challenges in crafting a modern mythos told across multiple films is giving each character and plot line the appropriate development time. While not all moviegoers appreciate a three-hour-plus movie as much as others, it often comes down to pacing. After all, who hasn’t been bored to tears by a 90-minute film—or caught “resting their eyes” with a tilted-to-capsizing popcorn bucket?

Something Infinity War proved, however, is that moviegoers will buy tickets in droves for a long movie that doesn’t feel long. When asked about how the run time for Endgame is shaping up in the edit room, Russo again expressed confidence in audiences going along for the ride without a compulsive need to check the clock.

“We’re still looking at a similar time [approximately three hours]. This one’s been very specific in its run time. It really hasn’t changed since we executed the first cut of the film. Even though we’ve shot a lot of footage between now and then, we’ve swapped things out and the water keeps rising to the same level because the story’s so dense. We have so many characters that we’re working with again that require that kind of run time. My brother and I are really committed to emotional stakes, and emotion requires story real estate. When you have a sprawling plot with a lot of characters and emotional stakes, it requires time to breathe emotionally. On the scale, you’re just going to wind up at a certain run time. We’ve been really hard on the film. We don’t like excessive run times; it’s just very difficult wrapping up 10 years of storytelling.”

The Russos’ background working on the half-hour television series “Arrested Development” and “Community” somewhat unexpectedly turned out to be a perfect launch pad for working within the Marvel framework.

“We spent a decade squeezing complex comedy stories with many, many characters, both of those shows being big ensemble shows, into 21 minutes. We’d call it ‘the Russo path,’ where we came in and squeezed it down to a density that we felt would elevate the show, because it would move so quickly that you’d miss half the jokes and have to watch it again. That was an agenda of ours. The same thing is true when we work on these Marvel films. We try to create a density in storytelling that makes them feel compulsive, irrespective of the length. We’re very rigorous about storytelling points, and we spend months in the edit room twisting and turning the narrative a bunch of different ways until we think we’ve unlocked the best one. We’re vigilant about using test audiences to tell us whether we’re on the right track or we’re making bad decisions. With Endgame, it had one of the most incredible audience responses in Marvel history. Irrespective of the length, it’s been consistently embraced by the test audiences.”

As the captains behind arguably one of the most widely anticipated movies of all time, I asked Russo if they feel the weight of that pressure—or paranoia that something could leak at any moment.

“Yeah, we do feel that way. At a certain point, I’m sure we’ll write another letter this year that asks everyone to stay off the internet. I think this one has even more spoilers than the last one. This is a culture that wants everything now, and it’s getting worse. The world is connected via social media, and information travels within seconds. If you’ve been following along with this narrative for 10 years, you’re going to want to protect yourself. It’s best to go in clean. I encourage people to go opening weekend because I’m sure everything is going to hit the internet the moment the movie hits the screen.”

As fan-driven franchises have proliferated over the last 20 years, so too have online communities seeking information about them. Supply meeting demand, countless websites now dedicate significant resources to dissecting every dose of marketing and revealing as much unofficial information as possible to attract readers. It’s something studios and filmmakers are wary of, and they’ve been fighting to ensure that moviegoers of today and tomorrow will be able to experience their movies in the same unspoiled manner of years past.

Russo expanded on his and his brother’s intent to recapture that precious experience, adding, “There’s a culture that monetizes secrets around these films—an online culture, a media culture. That’s fair, but it’s also fair for the filmmaker to protect the story. When I was 11 years old, I went to see The Empire Strikes Back, having seen Star Wars a bunch of times with my uncle. I was at the theater from 11 until 10 at night watching Empire over and over again because I knew nothing about what was going to happen in the film beyond what I’d seen in a trailer in front of a movie once or twice. Information was so much more limited. It was so shocking to me what happened that I was emotional watching it. That’s the feeling that my brother and I are trying to replicate for other kids who want to be surprised. It’s why we limit the amount of information in trailers. That’s why we obfuscate it. Audiences are so predictive. Everyone has a PhD in content now, and it’s constant. The smallest clue in a trailer can ruin a movie.”

Given the poetic symmetry of endings begetting endings, I raised the inevitable question about the Russos’ future with Marvel: Will Endgame also be their swan song with the franchise?

“The door is always open. Everyone at Marvel is like family to us. We grew up reading comic books, and these stories are incredibly open to us. Anything that moved you as a child or spoke to you as a child has an emotional resonance you carry with you your entire life. It’s very hard to find a story that can speak to you the same way it did when you were younger.”

Throughout our conversation, it was clear that Russo was speaking not just as a director in a multi-billion-dollar franchise, but as someone whose respect for the audience and passion for movies took root within him long before he began working with famous actors. “My favorite moviegoing experience was Krull. I saw it 10 times in the theater and I spent months throwing potato chips as weapons at my family. I think they all remember that with frustration. I’ve got a million favorite experiences, but that’s one in particular that I remember. My friends and I were impressed with that movie. Beastmaster would be right up there with Krull.”

Indeed, a future director will someday be asked what inspired him or her to make movies; a future community leader will be asked about his or her childhood heroes. Their answers may have something to do with watching Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, King T’Challa, Carol Danvers, Peter Parker, or any one of the iconic characters introduced to an entirely new generation by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There are those who believe superhero movies have oversaturated the business, but others know that this is a special era in movie history that should be appreciated while it lasts. Like Joe Russo recalling his memories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back and Krull in the sanctuary of a movie theater, someday many of us will look back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a similar fondness.

Avengers: Endgame opens in theaters internationally on April 24 and domestically on April 26.

This interview took place February 26, 2019. The original version appears in the April 2019 edition of Boxoffice Magazine.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios/Marvel Entertainment
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