Perhaps more than any directors to work with Marvel Studios over the last 14 years, the Russo Brothers’ path seems entwined with the MCU’s own journey. The two Ohioan filmmakers were once a bit of a gamble for Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige: young directors better known for their television work on series like Community and Arrested Development than for the type of splashy Hollywood vehicles that used to lead to Hollywood blockbusters. Nevertheless, the Russos were given the keys to the kingdom on Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2013 and the rest is Marvel history: Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and a little movie called Avengers: Endgame (2019), which was the highest grossing film of all-time upon its release.
Since those efforts, Joe and Anthony Russo have taken a break from the MCU, if not necessarily from action movies. In fact their latest film, The Gray Man, is one of the biggest in Netflix history, a star-studded spy thriller with all the scale of a Marvel spectacle but little of a superhero’s moral certitude. And it is one of several films the Russos have in the pipeline since hanging up their Marvel capes (for now) and further building their own production company, AGBO.
Still, when we sat down with Joe and Anthony to discuss The Gray Man for this month’s spring issue of Den of Geek magazine, Joe confirms they’ve kept an eye on where Marvel has gone in Phase 4 (at least as much as is possible when there’s now so much MCU content!). And for the pair, one of the latest efforts stood above the rest.
“I thought No Way Home was unbelievable,” Joe says. “It was fantastic. I thought it was pitch perfect. It was one of the best times I’ve had in the movie theater in a long time, and it was nice not being involved. As a film geek, I could just go sit in a theater and be surprised and laugh and cry with everyone else in the movie theater.”
Indeed, while observing how his fellow audience members cheered the sight of three generations of wallcrawlers teaming up in Spider-Man: No Way Home—including Tom Holland’s most recent Peter Parker, who the Russos had a hand in casting—Joe was reminded of an often overlooked egalitarian quality of the Marvel method and experience.
Says Joe, “I think the one thing that Marvel doesn’t get enough credit for is what else bonded people after such a divisive time during the pandemic and after all this manufactured conflict that’s been playing out in America over the last four years? But going into a theater, race, color, creed, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter.”
Joe later adds in a follow-up interview, “The power of filmmaking is its ability to bind people together as a community in a public space, respective of background. And Marvel does that better than anyone, and I don’t think they get enough credit for that. And if that is the true power of what filmmaking is, then they’re certainly the most potent filmmaking entity on the planet because you go into one of those theaters, and, boy, there’s a lot of joy and happiness, and emotion, and excitement going on in one of their films. And you just don’t see that on any other movie. Even, historically, I’m not sure that you’ve seen that level of excitement on any film other than when Marvel’s operating at the top of their game.”
Joe and Anthony both credit their time at Marvel as an eye-opening experience that taught them about what audiences really enjoy and appreciate in visual storytelling, as opposed to what certain cultural gatekeepers perhaps suggest is expected.
“You connect with audiences in a way that allows you to understand the global impact of big release movies and you get a better window into the perspective of audiences who are outside of the U.S. and outside of that sort of Hollywood circle,” says Joe. “My brother and I have found that incredibly enlightening and really pivotal to our careers moving forward.”
He adds, “To really understand inclusion, you have to remember that going to a movie theater is, in some regards, an elitist experience, right? It’s expensive. And outside of the U.S., a lot of people cannot afford it. A majority of audiences can’t afford it. There are certain countries you go to where going to a movie theater is a once in a lifetime experience. So you’re trying to deliver something to those audiences that is deserving of that time, that money they’re going to spend. Also it allows you to understand that putting barriers into your storytelling, whether they be faux-intellectual barriers in an attempt to create a niche appeal, that’s uninteresting to us, because it excludes a wider audience, and I would argue a more interesting audience.”
The Russos will next try to reach that wide audience on the most popular streaming service around the globe with The Gray Man, which premieres on Netflix on July 22 after a limited theatrical run that begins on July 15.