It’s easy to get caught up in the staggering commercial success Joe and Anthony Russo have had in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
The four films they’ve helmed (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame) have pulled in more than $6.7 billion at the global box office, with Infinity War and Endgame landing in the top five highest-grossing films of all time. But what’s always worth mentioning are the creative swings the Russo brothers have taken, not just in the MCU but throughout their career in TV and film.
“We define creativity through fuckery,” says Joe in the latest episode of Fast Company’s podcast Creative Conversation.
As directors on Arrested Development, they were part of one of the earlier productions to shoot on digital cameras. “That gave a lot of people at the studio a lot of acid reflux,” Joe says. “They were very concerned about how the audience would receive it.” As executive producers and directors on Community, they helped push the show in unexpected directions. “It was like Cheers if every time Norm walked in, it was a different tone,” he says. “It was a thriller one week and then the next week it was an action movie.” And in the MCU, they directed story arcs that were arguably the most subversive to the superhero genre.
“If you look at what we did from Winter Soldier through Endgame, it was just relentless disruption of traditional storytelling in commercial movies,” Joe says. “We took [Captain America who] had been presented in the first film as an emblematic, heroic character, and we turned him into a dissident by the end of his second movie. Then we took the Avengers in Civil War and smashed them into each other and tore them apart. In Infinity War, we killed half of them. People are leaving the theater with experiences that they weren’t expecting.”
And now the Russos are translating that subversive energy to their latest film Cherry.
Based on Nico Walker’s bestselling novel, Cherry follows an Iraq War veteran dealing with severe PTSD that leads him into an opioid addiction and eventually a spree of bank robberies.
What could have been a fairly linear adaptation, the Russos lean into bold visual choices and narrative devices, from dreamy freeze-frame shots to breaking the fourth wall.
“The book is highly dependent on an inner monologue, and that inner monologue is often out of sync with the external events of what’s happening to the character. We wanted to maintain that as we translated it to film,” Anthony says. “An inner monologue doesn’t work in film. We certainly used voiceover in the movie, so we did get his inner thoughts, but it doesn’t work in the same way as a novel. We had to come up with other ways to make the movie very subjective and very specific to Cherry’s experience.”
What also drove their creative decisions for Cherry was a need to appeal to Gen Z.
“They’re the ones we’re most worried about, who are in the front lines of the opioid crisis. [Cherry] has a really extensive visual playbook to it that changes constantly as the movie progresses in a way to appeal to a generation that’s grown up with vast amounts of information coming at them at incredible speed,” Joe says. “TikTok is the quintessential understanding of how that generation absorbs information. It’s different information every one minute coming across on a feed. I’ve got four kids, and I watch how they process this stuff. We’re experimenting with new ways to tell stories that reach and appeal to different audiences.”
In this episode, the Russo brothers explain what’s at the root of their creative “fuckery,” their dynamic as a directing duo, how they’re using their massive platform to elevate overlooked stories, and the career-changing advice Steven Soderbergh gave them.