Captain America: Civil War Directors the Russo Brothers and the Future of Studio Auteurism

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Marvel's Captain America: Civil War L to R: Director Anthony Russo, Director Joe Russo, and Frank Grillo (Crossbones/Brock Rumlow) on set. Ph: Zade Rosenthal ©Marvel 2016 Photo: Zade Rosenthal/Courtesy of Marvel

It’s a testament to the strange state of Hollywood today that the highest-grossing domestic film in 2014 was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and I bet you can’t name its director. (It’s James Gunn.) Or that the 11th-highest-grossing film that year was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and I can’t name the director of that film without looking it up. (It’s Marc Webb — a name that, come to think of it, should be mnemonically easy to remember in conjunction with Spider-Man.) 

The third-highest grossing film of 2014, by the way — which enjoyed a global gross just a shade under $715 million — and, perhaps, that year’s best-reviewed film or at least its most surprisingly well-reviewed one, was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’m pretty confident that, unless you’re a Comic-Con-monitoring, teaser-trailer-dissecting, MCU-tea-leaves-reading superhero-movie superfan, you can’t name who directed that film either. (A good litmus test here is whether you know that the acronym MCU is shorthand for “Marvel Cinematic Universe.”)

The directors of The Winter Soldier are the Russo brothers, who were previously best known, if you knew them at all, as the crackerjack sitcom directors responsible for beloved episodes of Arrested Development and Community. Which, naturally, is exactly the kind of professional background that prepares you to direct $170 million superhero-centric, CGI-heavy summer-tentpole blockbusters.

Okay, one further test: If you have heard of the Russo brothers before, can you recite their first names? If not, here’s why you might want to know them: because the Russo brothers have just directed what may well turn out to be this year’s highest-grossing movie (Captain America: Civil War, in theaters May 6), which is already garnering rapturous fanboy prerelease buzz — and they’re at work on two other blockbusters, sequels to the Avengers films, to be released in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

It’s Joe and Anthony, by the way.

The Marvel headquarters on the Walt Disney Studios lot is, in some ways, reminiscent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the top-secret espionage agency in the MCU that was unceremoniously dismantled in The Winter Soldier. For starters, the first thing you do when you arrive is sign a nondisclosure agreement, or NDA, on an iPad. Then you sit on a couch next to an oversize model of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, embedded in a rock. Then you watch as a digital screen displayed next to the receptionist’s desk scrolls through various vaguely Orwellian reminders such as “No Photography” and “Be Sure to Abide by Your Signed NDA.” When Anthony Russo came out to meet me, he explained we’d actually be heading to a different, neutral part of the building, because there were simply too many sensitive secrets on display inside Marvel HQ. As we left, I asked the receptionist if she could send me a copy of the NDA, just so I could be sure of what exactly I’d signed away. “It’s already in your in-box,” she said cheerfully.

“We have a little room where we have cards [on the walls] for Infinity War and storytelling, and only, like, two or three people have the key to that room,” Joe Russo tells me later. “Even we don’t have the key to that room.”

“They don’t trust us,” adds Anthony, “because they know we’d be like, ‘Oh, sure, come on in, we’ve got a room here we can all sit in.’” To be honest, I'm not entirely sure if he's joking. (He is. They have a key).

By 2019, if all goes according to reported plan, Marvel Studios will have released 23 separate films that fall within the MCU. Four of those — The Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War parts 1 and 2 — will be directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who are 45 and 46, respectively. They’re from Cleveland, part of a big Italian family, and when they were both in graduate school at Case Western Reserve University, way back in the go-go indie ’90s, the brothers decided they wanted to make films. They self-financed a tiny crime caper called Pieces for $35,000, which got them discovered by Steven Soderbergh at the Slamdance Film Festival in 1997, which is about the most ’90s-filmmaker origin story imaginable. Soderbergh recognized an affinity in their movie—which Joe describes now as “a very self-aware, ironic, nonlinear, arty, you know, kind of up-its-own-ass film” — to his own Slamdance entry, the nonnarrative experimental film Schizopolis. Soderbergh then produced their first studio comedy, Welcome to Collinwood, in 2002, and they followed that with You, Me and Dupree, an Owen Wilson vehicle, in 2006. They also became in-demand TV sitcom directors, thanks to an Emmy win in 2004 for directing  Arrested Development. None of which would seem like a logical résumé entry for a pair of directors now entrusted with the future of the most successful franchise in Hollywood. And all of which says a lot about what it means—and what it doesn’t mean — to be a successful director in Hollywood right now.

Marvel Studios, which makes all those superhero movies you either can’t wait for or can’t escape, has taken an unprecedented approach to filmmaking — one that suggests the industry’s future while harkening to its past. Once, studios regularly employed reliable in-house directors to make a number of films in the style of the studio. The idea of directors-as-auteurs, with distinctive visions and styles, didn’t really rise until the 1950s — though many directors, from John Ford to Billy Wilder, were retroactively identified as auteurs. Even blockbuster franchises had their attendant auteurs, whether it was Steven Spielberg directing Indiana Jones films or Christopher Nolan directing three Batman films. Michael Bay — who, in his way, has as singular an auteuristic vision as does any director working today — will be making Transformers movies for as long as he’s alive and willing to keep cashing checks.

Marvel’s approach to finding directors is different. Once, Marvel licensed its characters to existing studios, who brought in name directors, with mixed results — Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were hits, but two Hulk films, including one by Ang Lee, a Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck, and several Fantastic Four films all withered. Then Marvel decided to start self-financing films, in conjunction with studio partners, in 2004, and the current impresario of the entire operation, Kevin Feige, became president of production for Marvel Studios in 2007. In 2008, the success of Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, bolstered Feige’s quasi-insane and entirely inspired plan for the MCU: a series of films that would — very much in the style of comic-book series — tell interconnected stories that dovetailed into huge event films like The Avengers. This meant that, much as with writers and artists in comic-book series, the films would require different directors to come in and create new chapters that are both artistically compelling yet stylistically consistent with what has come before and what is ahead. “We choose from a pool of filmmakers not who have done big, giant films before but who have done interesting things that made us stop and go, ‘That’s cool,’” says Feige. “That’s the criterion for a meeting. Then we need to see if they’re up to the task of working on something this collaborative and this intensive — because a very expensive, big-budget movie that has a release date is inherently intense.” Marvel’s master plan — in which multiple films, with interrelated story lines, overlapping characters, and disparate directors, are planned, shot, and released according to a multiyear schedule — has become the envy of Hollywood. Not only because it reliably produces moneymaking films every year but because it promises a series of future moneymakers for years to come. As Mark Harris said of Marvel’s slate: A movie with nothing but a title and a release date seven years in the future is really more like “a promise to stockholders.”

If you’re a young director in Hollywood who’s shown originality and artistic spark, this means that directing a superhero movie has become a coveted reward. Whereas once a small, well-regarded hit might enable you to make a bigger passion project, now that same small, well-regarded hit might earn you a chance to direct the next Thor. After Ava DuVernay won attention for the Martin Luther King biopic Selma, she was linked briefly to Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther movie. After she left the project, citing “creative differences,” Marvel hired Ryan Coogler, another hot property who’d just directed Creed. Notably, while this hunt for a director was going on, the film’s release date (February 16, 2018) had already been set and its star, Chadwick Boseman, had already been cast—he had to be, given the fact that the Black Panther makes an appearance in the Russos’ Civil War. The challenge of directing a Marvel film is to accept that there is little in any of the Marvel films — save perhaps for some of the Joss Whedon–penned dialogue in The Avengers — that’s distinctively identifiable to its creator. These films aren’t meant to be Jon Favreau films, or Joss Whedon films, or even Russo-brother films. They’re meant to be Marvel films.

So while there’s a very good chance you’ve seen a Russo brothers movie (or, if you hate superheroes, a Russo-brothers-directed sitcom episode) in the last ten years, there’s also a good chance you’d be hard-pressed to identify one singular thing about their directorial style. They’re hoping to change that, of course, at least so far as they can while working within the confines of a larger 23-movie universe. When you’ve seen all four of the Russo Marvel movies, you will, ideally, have a better sense of who exactly the Russo brothers are — assuming, of course, they survive the making of four such films, which no other Marvel director has yet done. Whedon, whose Whedon-esque sensibility was widely credited with the enormous success of 2012’s The Avengers, which he wrote and directed, was also widely noted to be physically and artistically spent following Avengers: Age of Ultron, which came out three years later. Of the comments Whedon made while promoting the film, this one to BuzzFeed — “I gotta say, it’s been dark. It’s been weird. It’s been horrible.” — was fairly typical.

From their discovery at Slamdance to their role in TV’s single-camera comedy boom of the aughts to their recent ascent to the top of Superhero Mountain, the Russos have inadvertently became embodiments of several notable filmmaking trends of the past 20 years. They have also, almost accidentally but quite cannily, become the perfect directors to flourish in Hollywood right now. They made their bones in TV, which means they are used to tight (and punishingly busy) schedules, collaborating widely, and subsuming their own artistic vision when necessary in the service of a larger story line. “Working in television trained us to be able to deal with the amount of decisions that have to be made on a movie of this scale, which is significant,” Joe says. “I think that’s why the process can swallow some people up. Because it’s a very complex and dense process that requires 1,000 decisions to be made a day, and if your batting average is not so great, then those decisions are going to compound and, you know, the ship sinks.” The first Thor film, for example, was directed by Kenneth Branagh, a multiple Oscar nominee (and knight of the Order of the British Empire). Branagh did not return to direct the sequel, which was supposed to be directed by Patty Jenkins, the director of Monster (which earned Charlize Theron an Oscar); she was reportedly fired and replaced by Alan Taylor, a veteran of the HBO TV show Game of Thrones. As TV becomes more cinematic in its execution (multiple locations, expensive FX), and films become more TV-like in their storytelling (single chapters in an ongoing story), the decision to employ TV directors on Marvel films starts to make sense. (Not to mention, they tend to be cheaper.) The Russo brothers won the chance to direct The Winter Soldier after Feige saw and enjoyed a few episodes of Community that they’d directed, which were parodies of action films. “They are equal parts visionaries and pragmatists,” says Feige of the Russos. “In my opinion, that’s a high compliment.”

In case you’re wondering if it matters if directors are, say, inexperienced in directing enormous action set-pieces, or coordinating extensive CGI sequences, or generally managing the logistics of a $200 million film, it doesn’t. The Russo brothers, for starters, came into this as huge action-movie fetishists: “We never intended to be comedic directors, it was just something we fell into,” Joe says. And, don’t forget, Marvel is making two of these films every year, so there is an enormous and efficient apparatus already in place. “You’re so well supported, it’s crazy,” says Anthony. “You have the best conceptual artists, the best storyboarders, the best previsualization, the best special-effects people.”

Still, a lot of directors on Marvel films have been one-and-done — from Branagh to Joe Johnston, who directed the first Captain America stand-alone film to, in fact, Alan Taylor, who’ll be replaced on the third Thor film by Taika Waititi, the Flight of the Conchords–connected director best known for the tiny indie vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. Even the most successful directors, like Whedon and Jon Favreau, have been two-and-done at best. “At the end of the day, the vision we have for these movies has ended up being close enough to the vision [Marvel] has, and we’re able to communicate our vision very well,” says Anthony. “There are some people whose vision is not close enough to what [Marvel’s] is. And sometimes those people aren’t able to articulate that early enough for everyone to know that things aren’t going to mix properly.” James Gunn, who’s currently working on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, says, “In part, it’s an aesthetic thing. There have been other filmmakers who don’t have — it’s not necessarily about having the same aesthetic as Kevin, but of Kevin liking whatever it is that you do. And I think that’s probably been more true of me and of the Russos than of any of the other filmmakers that have been in Marvel.” This sparks in me a Thor-like vision of my own, recalling that Mjölnir hammer embedded in the fake rock in the Marvel lobby: a vision of a long line of directors, entering the Marvel headquarters and attempting to lift that hammer, just as Arthur once lifted the sword Excalibur from its place in the stone, in hopes of being anointed. The Russos not only hefted the hammer; they’re now swinging it exuberantly over their heads.

Which is fortunate, given that swinging the hammer Mjölnir is pretty much the only directing gig available in Hollywood these days, unless your name is Tarantino or Scorsese. “Even on the awards side, there’s a select group of filmmakers that have a strong-enough brand to still release those movies, but it’s the same group,” says Joe. “There’s a rotation of Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Scorsese, David O. Russell, Iñárritu. It’s just the group that has enough juice to get a movie made at a certain level and to release it sometime in October or November and compete in awards season. One movie a year might sneak through, and somebody else gets ‘made’ because of that film. But everything’s getting smaller and narrower.” In fact, these days, the reward for being “made” in awards season is getting the chance to direct a superhero film — as happened to Ava DuVernay, Coogler, and Patty Jenkins. Even the Russos’ mentor, Soderbergh — who’s won a directing Oscar and is about as “made” as a director can be — has retreated to the artistic refuge of TV. It’s a creative journey, and a career model the Russos have observed firsthand. “He spent years mentoring us, talking to us about, How do you go from being an outside-the-box filmmaker to being someone who can execute commercial material?” says Joe. “We watched as he transitioned into working in commercial filmmaking — and that helped us understand how we could translate the same way.” Then they watched as Soderbergh basically retired from big-budget filmmaking, in part, because he was not interested in directing superhero films. “The worst development in filmmaking — particularly in the last five years — is how badly directors are treated,” Soderbergh told New York in 2013. “But an alarming thing I learned during Contagion [Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller about a virus run amok] is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync.” This apparent synchronicity spurred Soderbergh to move in one direction and spurred the Russos to move in the other — toward big Hollywood blockbusters. “We had this conversation with Soderbergh ten years ago,” says Joe. “We were sitting with him at the Oscars or something and saying, ‘Steven, all the independent cinema of the ’90s is now television.’ And now he’s in TV. And I think he’s much happier, creatively, you know? Because the windows were closing for more experimental content on the feature side. And he saw that shift coming.”

“Look, we were film geeks,” says Anthony. “We devoured everything. Really obscure art films, foreign films. We were the kind of guys that lived at the Cinematheque. But at the end of the day, your favorite movies are like everybody else’s favorite movies. Because those are the movies that become a touch point where you can connect to other people. I think that’s why we started going down the road of commercial filmmaking in the first place, starting from a place that was very noncommercial. Because, yeah, we want people to watch our movies.”

So the auteur model, in Hollywood, is definitively dead, if it was ever truly vibrant. Warner Bros., which won big with its gamble on the commercial-friendly auteur Christopher Nolan, has now shackled itself to Zack Snyder, whose Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fared well financially but got lambasted by critics (and not a few influential fans) precisely because of his distinctive, dark, brutalist, dare I say auteurist, take on the subject matter. Which only serves to validate Marvel’s approach. And which is why directors like the Russos — talented, proficient, flexible, and instinctually collaborative — are perfectly suited to flourish. “If you’re a fan of auteur filmmaking, I’d say get yourself invested in some really good TV shows,” says Joe. “Because when Star Wars can make $2 billion in December, and Deadpool [the ribald, R-rated hit superhero movie starring Ryan Reynolds] can make $700 million in February, it just proves the model of the studios — that they just need to own large, Earth-shattering, branded IP [intellectual properties]. And now the calendar through the next ten years is booked up with Marvel movies, Star Wars movies, X-Men movies; you know, there’ll be a whole Deadpool universe now. It’s like, ‘Where can you squeeze a film in?’” As for the Russos, they’re happy to have their personal calendar booked up. “Maybe the Western is the only comparison,” says Joe of the current dominance of superhero films—meaning, once upon a time, Hollywood made a lot of Westerns. That was a given. What a director did inside that genre is what determined if he’s celebrated like John Ford or long forgotten. “Look at the fact that Deadpool did so well,” says Joe. “They were really ready to skewer superhero movies. They were ready for something subversive. And so you have to anticipate. You have to see what’s being done — and then know you have to do something different or more surprising. It’s almost fate that you end up with Batman v Superman and Civil War coming out within six weeks of each other, because it’s just driving toward the next deconstructed concept. We’ve seen superheroes fighting villains for ten years, so now we’re going to see superheroes fight superheroes.”

“At the same time,” says Anthony, picking up the thought, “you have to detach yourself from all that. We don’t program movies. We don’t run studios. We make movies.”

The Russos are branching out toward further moguldom, however — in addition to the Marvel movie they’ve just finished, and the two more they’re set to deliver, they’ve started a studio, Anthem & Song, to finance Chinese-language films. “And we're looking in the VR space,” Joe says, citing another way they’re in perfectly in sync with the direction Hollywood is heading.

So, I ask, is there some dream original project waiting for them to work on — something they might turn their attention to, armed with the industry clout they’ll ideally earn after directing a string of Marvel blockbuster hits?

“If you talk to us in a couple years, we’ll probably get more specific, because our directing time is spoken for,” says Anthony. “We do have the first script we ever wrote for Soderbergh, the one he offered to produce for us. It’s still waiting for us.” 

*A version of this article appears in the April 18, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.