Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame below.
“Yeah, the concept’s a home run,” said Joe Russo, talking into his phone in the hallway of a New York City hotel. “I’m with you 100 percent. Let’s do this thing.” In just a few short years, Joe and his brother, Anthony, have become the sort of Hollywood players who have these Sorkin-esque conversations. Initially the directors of little movies like Pieces and You, Me and Dupree, then of various episodes of comedic TV series, they exploded into stardom after helming 2014’s acclaimed addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They followed it with Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and now the ultrablockbuster Avengers: Endgame. Vulture caught up with the two of them in the week after Endgame’s momentous debut, to talk about the core silliness of time-travel stories, tying up Iron Man’s arc, how Captain America got to that park bench, and Joe’s mildly groundbreaking cameo appearance.
One of the moments in the movie that folks have talked most about is Stan Lee’s cameo, which was apparently his final one. How does a Stan Lee cameo come together? I mean both this one specifically and the cameos in general.
Anthony Russo: I’m sure all the directors approach it differently, but the way we approach it is, we get the script done and then we start looking for a great area to put Stan into the movie. And we try to make it have some narrative richness and also make it entertaining for the fans. For Winter Soldier, it’s the security guard when Cap steals his suit back. Very poignant moment in the movie. And Civil War, “Tony Stank.”
Joe Russo: [Laughs.] Right, Tony Stank.
AR: And Infinity War, um …
The bus driver.
AR: The bus driver with Peter Parker. Peter’s introduction to the movie.
JR: “Haven’t you ever seen a spaceship before?” [Laughs.] Perfect Stan Lee moment.
AR: And then, a very poignant last appearance, which is set in the past. And we aged him down for it. Y’know, got some pictures of Stan from the ’70s.
Interesting. So it’s not there in the script stage?
JR: It’s not. It’s usually afterward. We’ll spend a couple hours going, “Okay, where does Stan go in the movie?”
AR: The development process is like painted layers. It’s definitely one of the last layers.
JR: The example of the bus driver: We knew in Infinity War, once it left Earth, Stan was not gonna fit in the film. Because the story lines became hermetic at that point; you’re in space.
AR: Stan’s probably not gonna be hanging out in Wakanda.
JR: The tone shifted. You also have to put him in a place in the movie where the tone can behave in a certain manner where it can accept the cameo. And that was the part of the movie that could hold the cameo.
What was it like shooting with him for this one? He was near the end of his life at that point.
AR: He was. The difference between him on Winter Soldier, which was our first cameo with him, to Endgame, was quite remarkable. On Winter Soldier, he came on set and the energy he had was amazing and so inspiring. You could see how excited he was to be there. He was talking to everybody. He had quips. And everybody … It was like a magnetic personality.
JR: Pavlovian. You hear his voice and you’re a kid again. It does it to everybody.
AR: For some reason, every time we shoot his cameo, there are like twice as many people on set as are supposed to be there. It’s very, very funny.
JR: More than any movie star that comes onto the movie, he attracts a very different …
AR: The other thing we loved about him, which kinda confused us on Winter Soldier, was that he just wanted more lines. So we had the shot set up for him and he had a very simple line, but he kept throwing in other lines. At first it was like, Joe and I because we have so much respect and reverence for him, we’re just like — it was hard for us. But at the end of the day, we had to sorta focus it. But to see the fact that he had that level of passion and enthusiasm, where he just wanted to keep going and he wanted more, he just wanted to find more and more, that was amazing. By Endgame, though, his age was taking a toll on him and he was well enough to do it, but that’s about it.
Do you remember roughly when you shot the cameo for this one?
JR: Halfway through shooting, so it was in the summer, I think. Yeah. ‘Cause we were outside with it.
Speaking of good-byes, we should talk about Iron Man. I know you weren’t there at the beginning of his journey in 2008, but you had to wrap it up at the end. What do you see as the core of Tony’s thematic arc?
JR: One, I think what’s compelling about his arc is that very few actors in movie history have gotten to play an arc this rich because it’s taken place over this many films. And there’s been a lot of movement. I think he started off in an inverse place from where he finished. He was an egoist. You go back to him in that Humvee in the beginning of Iron Man, where he’s self-involved and self-centered, and by the end [of Endgame], he commits the most selfless act of anyone in the Marvel universe. I think that’s a very compelling arc for him as a character. So selfless, in fact, that he has to leave behind a wife and a child to do it. The very same child that he was trying to protect at the beginning of the movie. It’s a very hard choice for him.
AR: It really speaks to the uniqueness of Robert [Downey, Jr.], as a performer, to start off with a character with such a severe flaw and then sort of find a road to redemption over a very, very long journey. The other amazing thing about the Tony Stark arc and Robert’s journey is it’s sort of the inverse of Captain America’s arc. Right? Captain America starts from … And these guys are the core of the Avengers. So Captain America starts from a place of service, of selflessness, and his actualization at the end of his long arc is to make a choice that’s personally about his individuality.
I was gonna ask you about that. There’s been chatter online where people have been confused as to how the time travel works for Cap’s final decision. I didn’t really care, personally, I just enjoyed the character beat. Do you feel like people are maybe thinking too hard about Cap going into the past?
JR: It doesn’t exist.
AR: So you can’t actually rationalize it and logic it out. We come up with a set of rules that are based upon theories of time travel that primarily come from quantum physics, which is where the Ant-Man story line …
JR: This is a multiverse theory of time travel, which is, essentially — this is what’s complicated about the end of the movie, but it’s an interesting story someone can tell someday — Cap would’ve created a branch reality by his existence. If you listen to what Hulk says, he says that your present is always fixed. Even if you leave that present to go to the past, then that present has become your past. And now the new past is your new present. The past that you come to is the new present. And anything you do out of that is going to create a new future. There’s no butterfly effect. You cannot affect that present in any way, shape, or form by affecting the past. You can only create a branch reality from which events would occur in some different manner, because there is now a new entity that exists that never existed before.
At what point in the creation of all of these movies was there discussion of this being the end of Cap’s arc, that it would be this time-travel thing? Was it just this movie, or were there plans for this that preceded it?
JR: No, it was just working on this film.
AR: Coming out of Civil War …
JR: I think it was one of the first things we came up with.
AR: When we were in post on Civil War, we began to have in-depth conversations with [screenwriters Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely and [Marvel Studios chief] Kevin [Feige] about where the story would go as we moved into the climax for the entire run. And that’s where it came up.
JR: The interesting thing about the rules that we’re playing with is that Cap would have to travel back to this timeline, to this branch reality, from the one that he was in. That’s interesting, and that’s an interesting story. To get to that bench, he would have to travel through the Quantum Realm.
On a completely unrelated note, Joe, you have a star turn in Endgame. Your Best Actor Oscar is on the way, I’m sure. What were the origins of your cameo in the self-help group?
JR: It’s just … I’ve taken a cameo in every movie that we’ve done and a lot of the TV shows that we did. It’s really just emotional connectivity for Anthony and I because I started off as an actor before I became a director. I had to make a choice at some point very early on. [Filmmaker Steven] Soderbergh was our mentor, and Anthony and I got discovered on a film that I played the lead in that we had shot 25 years ago, called Pieces. I remember Soderbergh, over our first lunch, saying, “I think you should pick a lane. You should either act or direct. And I think you guys should keep directing together.” So I gave up acting, but occasionally I’ll just play a cameo.
At what point in the process did you decide to make your cameo character queer?
AR: Well, look, it was really important, in the storytelling of this movie, to represent a point of view outside the Avengers. Because, again, we’re dealing with a story point that affects half of all living beings. If you’re gonna have a story point like that, you have to go beyond the Avengers. So we knew we wanted a moment, early in the movie, where we were gonna have the point of view of an Everyman. And it’s just as valid for an Everyman to be gay as for an Everyman to be straight. So it really just flowed from that idea. We like the idea of a more diverse world, we like the idea of more diverse storytelling, and it was just a simple, small opportunity for us to do that in a very naturalistic way. It was really that simple, at the end of the day.
And speaking of queer couples: Let’s talk about Steve and Bucky.
There’s been some frustration among fans of the characters that they don’t do much together in the movie. Cap doesn’t talk about him much while he’s gone, and they don’t say much to each other when he’s back. Was there Cap/Bucky stuff on the cutting-room floor?
JR: No. I mean, I think we felt like those two had had two films together, and again, there’s only so much story real estate. People understood the depth of their relationship and that, really, all you need is that 30 seconds at the end of the movie where they say good-bye to each other to re-remind people of the depth of that relationship. We were playing out other character relationships for Cap, specifically his relationship with Tony, his relationship with Natasha, [and] his relationship with Sam.
I have to say, the first time I saw the movie, I was pretty jaded and cynical, so it didn’t have much of an effect on me. But the second time I saw it, I chose to pay attention to how the rest of the audience was reacting and tap into that energy, and I was a blubbering mess by the end. It was quite the communal experience.
AR: And how often can you experience that in a movie theater? What you’re describing, it’s a very unique and specific thing, and it’s like, Wow, I feel an energy around me in this theater that I’m totally …
JR: Yeah, and I think you can attribute its success to that energy. People are having a rare experience. It’s something we’ve been talking about for years, is that this is a narrative experiment that’s never happened before, taking 11 very successful franchises that are interwoven into a long, decade-long narrative. And you’re bringing them to a close. There’s so much emotional investment that the audience has, and it creates a powerful experience for them, as a payoff. It’s generating an incredible amount of energy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.