Joe and Anthony Russo have made three films for Marvel Studios prior to Avengers: Endgame, and each time out they have done something to totally upend the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Working alongside screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they’ve exposed S.H.I.E.L.D. as a corrupt institution, broke up the Avengers, and killed half of all living things. It’s a pretty shocking legacy to have, but according to the directors, it’s all part of the role they see themselves have as storytellers.
Each time out the Russos have taken some big swings with beloved characters and aspects of the popular franchise, and it all links back to an approach that tries to shake things up and leave the world in a different place than where it was when they started. This was a subject that came up during my recent interview with the filmmakers prior to the release of Avengers: Endgame, and as I learned from Anthony Russo, it’s all about forward progress:
We look at it as our challenge. How do we construct a narrative that actually pushes these characters into those places? How does Captain America travel that road? How do we create circumstances where you're going to believably see him behaving in new ways as the movies go on? Because that's the key to the longevity. We want to see these movies go on forever. We love them. But the only way to really do that is to keep finding new colors to bring to the surface.
Simply put, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t get to make 22 successful movies unless each one is bringing something new to the table, and one of the best ways to get that done is by having a story introduce a bombshell that totally changes the face of things as we know it.
This is something at which the Russos see themselves as being particularly skilled, and it’s been a part of their work for years – even before they started making Marvel blockbusters. As Joe Russo noted, it’s also something that’s very much present in their television work – specifically the two much-loved and metatextual comedy series that they helped bring to life:
We lined up very well with where we came into the Marvel Universe because we're disruptors, and we like to make disruptive choices and deconstruct. Go look at Arrested Development or Community. They're both deconstruction of shows. And everything we've done with the Marvel universe is deconstruct because we're interested in what happens post-deconstruction. Those are the things that are most compelling to us. And so getting to make each movie after we deconstruct something, we tend to use that next movie to examine the deconstruction.
This approach has led them to tell stories within the continuity that leave the Marvel Universe in precarious positions, but it’s really all part of the plan. According to the directors, writing themselves into a corner is actually something that they do on purpose, as it ultimately allows them to really flex their creative muscles as they try and find the best way for their characters to get out of impossible situations and scenarios.
This has also never been a challenge that they’ve shirked from, as each one of their Marvel movies have had a significant effect on the next. The fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier led to its titular character being unable to trust authority, and that eventually fed the central conflict featured in Captain America: Civil War. This led to the members of the Avengers no longer trusting each other, and because they were divided they got their asses kicked by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Now in Avengers: Endgame the heroes have to pick up the pieces and do what they can to right the horrific wrong that has led to trillions of deaths around the universe.
As Joe and Anthony Russo explained, these endings not only carry significant emotional weight, but force the heroes to change in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t:
Anthony Russo: The ending of that movie, it's a difficult ending, the ending of Infinity War, and it's really important for us to double down on that and commit to that, and figure out how does someone move forward from a moment like that? How do these heroes move forward from a moment like that? That's the story that we want to know.
Joe Russo: They lost.
Anthony Russo: Exactly. And that's a real experience. So we wanted to give that its due.
Joe Russo: It was a unique opportunity for us in Infinity War, which is an exceedingly expensive movie, and we had a studio very supportive of us killing half the characters at the end of the movie. That as filmmakers is a really rare opportunity, and we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.
Of course, the choices that are being made aren’t entirely insular, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large is made up of multiple filmmakers telling a wide variety of stories with these shared characters. You’d think that this would make the kind of big swings the Russos are interested in executing a challenge to sell, but as Anthony Russo explains, what plays a significant role is the fact that they have the full support of Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. And when you have someone in that kind of position backing your creative moves, you can be bold:
I think that's part of the magic of what Kevin Feige can do, is that he understands the importance of giving every movie the freedom to do those things. Because if you don't you're shackling what the narrative can do, or where it can go. And I think why we've done four movies with Marvel is because we've had that freedom; we've had the freedom to go to surprising, shocking, even problematic for the studio places with the storytelling, and Kevin gets fed off of that. He knows that that's part of the vitality of surprising audiences, and for as complicated as it may be on a business level, on a creative level, that's all that matters.
You can hear Joe and Anthony Russo discuss their big moves in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other subjects, by watching my full interview with the directors below:
All of the work the Russos have done in the last five years has led to Avengers: Endgame, and now audiences worldwide can experience the capstone for themselves – as the film is now playing in theaters worldwide. Be sure to not only check it out this weekend, but also stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for a whole lot more of our Marvel Cinematic Universe coverage.