The future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now lies in the hands of two brothers from Cleveland—and they’ve got Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and one epic round of Community paintball to thank for it.
Tapped to close out Marvel’s Phase 3 slate, Captain America: The Winter Soldier helmers Joe and Anthony Russo are now Disney’s go-to guys to close out a monster decade in Marvel movies with Captain America: Civil War and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War coming in 2016, 2018, and 2019.
The investment in the Russos makes sense for a studio that’s invested in continuity behind the camera. While Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn is already grinding away on Guardians 2, Avengers maestro Joss Whedon came back for Avengers: Age of Ultron but expressed doubts that he’d sacrifice another four years of his life to Infinity Wars.
The two-parter MCU finale makes quite a crowded dance card for the duo, who also signed up to direct the Channing Tatum Ghostbusters spin-off film and just inked a three-year first look deal over at Sony before their Marvel destinies called, sending their Sony schedules into question. The Russos also executive produced a multi-cam pilot for NBC and Universal TV and, as revealed in emails leaked during the Sony hack, were being courted to produce a Spider-Man flick.
But busy’s a pretty decent payoff for the brothers who worked their way up the Hollywood food chain after starting out in the tried-and-true indie tradition of maxing out all their credit cards to make their first movie for $30,000. Raised in working-class Cleveland on a steady diet of film comedies and classics, the sons of a city councilman and judge, Joe and Anthony Russo did what generations of newbie filmmakers did before forging a path of their own: They read Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 DIY tome How to Make A Film For $7,000.
Their first feature, the experimental crime comedy Pieces, was cast with friends and shot in Cleveland. It debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival, and then, the Russos were contacted out of the blue by Steven Soderbergh. “It was so bizarre to get the phone call from him because we were part of that indie movement that he founded,” Joe recalled in a 2002 interview. “We were academics. We had come at film more from an intellectual point of view. We weren't the guys in the backyard shooting movies when we were eight years old. We were studying movies.”
Off the strength of Pieces, Soderbergh and George Clooney came aboard to produce the Russo’s next film, the crime caper Welcome to Collinwood, which Warner Bros. released in the fall of 2002. It tanked at the box office, banking just $336,620.
Thankfully, the exploding television business beckoned. Welcome to Collinwood got the Russos in the door at 20th Century Fox-owned FX, which hired the brothers to direct the pilot for the short-lived series Lucky, starring John Corbett. Lucky, in turn, led to the Russo’s true big break: Directing the pilot for a new comedy from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer called Arrested Development.
The brothers won an Emmy for directing the Arrested Development pilot, setting the tone and spare faux-doc style that would define the series. Both went on to individually helm some of the show’s best episodes, including “Spring Breakout” and “Top Banana” directed by Anthony and “Bringing Up Buster,” “Motherboy XXX,” and “Pier Pressure,” directed by Joe.
Their Universal rom-com You, Me, and Dupree brought the Russos briefly back to movies in 2006, before more television pilots followed with varying success: LAX, What About Brian, Happy Endings, and Carpoolers, which the Russos also executive produced. Another comedy pilot for the NBC series Community earned raves, ratings, and a promising network run for the Russos and showrunner Dan Harmon, introducing a ragtag class of adult learners at Greendale Community College.
Over the first season of Community, 14 out of 25 episodes were directed by the Russos, who continued to direct and exec produce through Season 3, and returned to helm the sixth season premiere for Yahoo! Screen. But it was their work on the Season 2 finales “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For A Few Paintballs More” that got the Russos their first date with Captain America. Marvel legend has it that the superhero studio’s honcho Kevin Feige hired the brothers to helm the $170 million actioner after watching their spoofy spaghetti Western-inspired work on Community, in which all of Greendale battles it out in one epic paintball fight.
Along with a strong kinetic sensibility, the brothers brought plenty of piercing political allegory to their Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and shot in their hometown of Cleveland. But it was by accident that the making of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—in which WWII superhero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) adjusts to modern times while working for S.H.I.E.L.D., questioning the info-aided war powers that be—coincided with Edward Snowden’s real life NSA revelations. Both Russos gamely aired their views on everything from drones to President Obama’s kill list as they hit the press circuit.
“[Marvel] said they wanted to make a political thriller,” Joe Russo told Mother Jones last year. “So we said if you want to make a political thriller, all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience... That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined.”
Anthony Russo concurred to Film Journal: “We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties—Obama talking about who they would kill, y'know? We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to Cap’s greatest-generation [way of thinking].”
Now the Russos will lead Marvel forward into war—the galactic Infinity War, pitting the Avengers against the supervillain Thanos in a battle to end all battles for the MCU, at least until the next Phase. And that two-parter will ultimately cap a mythology that began in 2008 with the first Iron Man film, according to master Marvel Studios strategist Feige. But first they’ll shoot Captain America: Civil War, from a script by Markus and McFeely, setting up a stark ideological divide between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark over post-9/11 civil liberties that will have repercussions in many Marvel films to come.