This interview is spoiler-free.
Joe and Anthony Russo won deserved acclaim for their handling of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The duo then duly signed up for the incoming Captain America: Civil War, and are now primed for the two part Avengers: Infinity War project. On the promotional tour for Captain America: Civil War, they squeezed in some time with us for a chat…
Given the decades of storylines you could’ve chosen to draw inspiration from for this movie, what was it that made you choose Civil War?
Joe: The ambition of it. The fact that on a conceptual level, we felt that we could pay off a lot of threads that had been established in the MCU in a unique and emotional way. It really was us assessing where all the characters were after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and thinking hey, that’s really interesting. We knew we could take Tony and make him into someone who’ll endorse regulation, when he should be the last person who would, because of the incredible guilt he’s feeling about Ultron. And we take Cap, who’s just been taught that power structures can be manipulated in The Winter Soldier, and turn him into someone who’ll reject the chain of command.
So one, we felt that was compelling. Two, we thought we could make Bucky Barnes the emotional centre by putting Cap’s old family in conflict with his new family. So there just seemed to be a lot of interesting threads, and that’s what excited us about the Civil War concept.
Anthony: There’s something exciting about the idea that Cap was introduced as a patriot, and we could take him on an arc through The Winter Soldier so that he’d question and rebel against the chain of command, and in this movie we turned him into a full-blown insurgent, operating outside the law. Instead of making the choice to serve others, which he’s always done in his superhero identity, he finally makes the choice to serve himself. So it seemed like all those things lined up and the idea of Civil War was just too rich.
So when you put the idea together, did you then go to Marvel and just say “hey, we need everyone in it”?
Joe: Absolutely, yes. We got excited about the concept first, and that was just us and [writers] Markus and McFeely in a room, coming up with a story that we’re excited about. Then we had to go to Marvel and say “so, we need you to get us Robert Downey Jr., Spider-Man and Black Panther.” And then you have a conversation about how practical those things are.
Getting each character was really just by force of will. Robert wasn’t contracted to do the movie, he didn’t need to, so first we had to convince him on a creative level why he should. We told him we were going to take a lot of risks with the character, and that we really wanted to keep the MCU from getting stale by surprising the audience and putting Tony in a precarious, vulnerable place that we haven’t seen before. He’s very off-balance, emotionally, in the film. And he was excited about that.
So we had to close that deal, which was not insignificant. then the next step was “Kevin, can you approach Sony and figure out a way to get Spider-Man in this movie”. It’s unprecedented, what him and Sony managed to do. It’s probably one of the most complicated deals in the history of business – to share a billion-dollar piece of IP, asking two competitors to work together. Amy Pascal was running the studio at the time and Kevin had a great relationship with Amy, so it was just like two allies sitting down and figuring out how to make this work for everybody.
With Black Panther it was much easier – he’s owned by Marvel, we just had to figure out who’d play the part and how do we weave him into the storytelling so he gets his due. Then the next step was getting Ant-Man, and then we had everyone we wanted.
Did you have any contingencies for if those characters were unavailable?
Anthony: We couldn’t have any, because those deals are so complicated that if you give someone an out, they’ll take it.
Joe: It’s painful for them to make those deals.
Anthony: If you say “we have a version of this story without Spider-Man”, then you’re not going to get Spider-Man. So as the directors it was our responsibility to assail them of the notion that…
Joe: …that we can’t do Civil War without Spider-Man, without Iron Man. We’ve woven them into the DNA of the story in a way that makes them inextricable. The whole thing would fall apart without those characters.
And even with that many characters in, it’s not quite an Avengers movie because it’s formed it around Steve and his relationships.
Anthony: Yeah, Steve drives us through the story. He takes us through all the major turning points. It’s his personal story that gives the structure to the larger narrative. That was our spine through the movie, we really built everybody else out from Steve. Tony’s arc exists in opposition to Cap’s, then Black Panther is in there to complicate the relationship between Steve and Tony. They have this very binary objective that the rest of the Avengers line up around. Then Black Panther enters the story and complicates that with a very emotional motivation that runs right at the central conflict, even though he doesn’t care about either side.
And Spider-Man, he was brought into the movie because we knew what happened between Tony and Cap was going to go to a very dark place. We knew that there was going to be an intensity there, and we’re big fans of balanced storylines. We like films that make you laugh, make you cry, make you think, scare you, whatever. So in our efforts to balance the movie, we knew we wanted to bring characters in that, while they had a good reason to be there, they didn’t have the emotional baggage that the others had. They could be lighter and more whimsical. And that’s Spider-Man and Ant-Man.
So really, while we’ve got an elaborate cast of characters, it was all designed around and spun out from Cap.
Joe: Plus a major part of Cap’s identity is as a patriarch. And he’s the patriarch of the Avengers, so it challenged his identity to put him in conflict with that family.
The comics version of Civil War sort of had a gun control argument at the centre of it, with superheroes as weapons that had to be licensed and registered and used properly. Were you looking to transfer that into this movie?
Joe: It’s certainly about regulation and culpability.
Anthony: Yeah, how you wield super powers, whether you’re a super hero or a super power in the real world. Can you go where you where you want, can you use power at will? Even if you have the best intentions, there may sometimes be a price or a cost, or a pushback against what you’re doing. This movie is very much about that in a way that correlates to the world that we live in.
Joe: You could correlate it to gun control in that the Avengers are a weapon and that weapon is, at times, used for good, and how much collateral damage is the world willing to endure from that group of individuals? But I think on a large scale the issues we were going after were culpability and responsibility. Government control vs. individual freedom and what do you prioritise and why. People make those choices for very emotional reasons.
And did you expect the audience to be on Steve’s side in this fight?
Anthony: The most interesting version of the story from the beginning, for us, was not giving an easy answer. We like complicated storytelling with movies that you can watch and rewatch, and take different things away from each viewing, so it was very important for us to craft a narrative where both Tony and Steve were a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Our hope was that you get to the end of the film and are very torn over which side you’re on. Or if you did choose a side, maybe someone close to you chose the opposite one.
We stayed very focused on balancing those two characters and their conflict through the story. It just seemed like the most exciting version.
Joe: it was by far the hardest script we’ve ever worked on for that reason because we had to constantly balance the characters. When we did the final test screening there were 30 people sitting in the room, and at the end the interviewee asked whose side people were on, and it was 15 either side. Me and Anthony turned our heads to one another and said “alright, we’re done.”
Joe and Anthony Russo, thank you very much.
Captain America: Civil War is in UK cinemas tomorrow.
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