When you look back at it, Marvel Studios has almost always taken the unconventional route when it comes to picking the directors for their movies. When most Hollywood studios would select the proven blockbuster director, indie darling or recent Oscar nominee looking for a payday Marvel has always gone in a different, um, direction.
It started with Jon Favreau on “Iron Man.” The former “Swingers” star and “Elf” helmer was coming off “Zathura,” a critically lauded kids flick that was a bomb at the box office.
Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, had been in director's jail following four misfires in 10 years. “Thor” turned out to be his best film since 1996's “Hamlet.”
Joss Whedon was a geek icon for his legendary TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and had major comic book cred after dabbling in writing Astonishing X-Men,” but studios weren't banging down his door after “Serenity” fizzled in theaters. Marvel not only gave him a franchise, but their potential crown jewel, “The Avengers.”
The studio did go slightly conventional with Joe Johnson launching “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but that film needed a veteran hand. An overly patriotic superhero whose origin took place during WWII? Still, Johnson was coming off the 2010 disaster “The Wolfman” and the 2004 disappointment “Hildalgo.” It had been decades since anyone had referred to him as “the next Spielberg.” Without Johnson's touch, however, you could argue the first “Cap” movie wouldn't have worked.
Shane Black was an old pal of Robert Downey, Jr.'s, but no matter how much Marvel liked “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” there was no guarantee the former bad boy screenwriter could make a third “Iron Man” a critical smash.
That doesn't mean all of Marvel's choices have worked. Alan Taylor was a late call to the bullpen to guide the second “Thor” movie and much of the magic he fostered on episodes of “Game of Thrones” was no where to be seen in “The Dark World.”
So, even with all their success in finding unconventional superhero film directors, eyebrows were still raised when the audio announced Joe and Anthony Russo were developing the “Captain America” sequel. These guys had been lauded for directing single camera TV comedies, but there was nothing on their resumes that came close to an action flick let alone a thriller. There movies were “Welcome to Collinwood” and “You, Me and Dupree.” Would that inspire confidence? It appears Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige wasn't worried.
Feige sat down to chat about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” a few weeks ago and was pretty blunt on how the Russo's work on television drew his attention.
“It's always fun to be a fan of something. As I am a fan of many movies and TV shows and all sorts of things. And you start to go, 'Won did that? That was amazing. Who did that episode of 'Arrested Development.' Oh, Joe and Anthony Russo. That's interesting.' Cut to years later and I'm watching an show called 'Community' and I'm thinking 'This show is way better than any sitcom has a right to be. Who did this episode? Joe and Anthony Russo. Who are these guys?' And that leads to a meeting where we ask 'Are you interested in our universe?' And they were. When we described to them what we wanted to do with this film. To do a political thriller. To do a Marvel movie inspired by movies of the '70s. They just totally got it. And they came back in two or three meetings with more and more ideas and were really dedicated to bringing that idea to life.”
Feige continues, “We have been served very, very well by just hiring people who have done very clever, awesome stuff in any other medium. Meaning, it doesn't have to be a giant blockbuster film. And if they are willing to come in and work with us and collaborate with us and with the team that we together put into place it often works out. Those guys embraced it almost better than anything we've ever worked with and elevated it more than anything we ever spoked about.”
The Russos came onto the project with the “Winter Soldier” storyline already in the works and they consider the comic book storyline that inspired it as important to Captain America's legacy as Frank Miller's Dark Knight series was for Batman.
“It's grounded and realistic as a superhero movie can be,” Joe Russo says. “You're dealing with an assassin as a villain and you're dealing with larger political themes. We did push for as current political themes as we could with the movie. It makes the experience of the movie that much stronger for you.”
It was also something of a dream come true for Joe Russo who says he'd been collecting comics since he was just 10-years-old.
“One of the [first] books I ever read was a Captain America/Falcon team-up,” Joe Russo reveals. “So, to get the opportunity to make a movie like this? You want to take all of your own tastes and all the things you've wanted to see in a superhero movie and put them into it. And we tend to lead toward darker, edgier material.”
Some fans of the Falcon were disappointed when it was revealed the hero's costume (or lack of one) looked so dissimilar from even his modern day appearance. Joe Russo says they had to go in a different direction because Sam Wilson's origin story just wouldn't work in today's Marvel cinematic world.
“Listen, I loved the character growing up, but we felt he had a very stereotypical background as a character. Some of us felt like it never reached a level of I wanted out of that character,” Joe Russo says. “Joss says this all the time: It's he Marvel cinematic universe and not the comic books. You have two hours to tell a story. Not years of issues to tell a story. And you've already got these pre-set heroes in the universe. They look so great on screen. We couldn't get a guy gliding with a red and white suit that would match the visceral energy. We wanted to turn him into a human fighter jet. Give him a pulsing dynamic, have him moving at 200 miles an hour so he could fit in and be as powerful and interesting as these other characters.”
One of the reasons Marvel movies have been so successful is because the studio has transferred the comic books interconnecting world and histories to the big screen. An event that takes place in one film will be referenced in another. Or, even the consequences of a battle or character decision will reverberate in numerous films. As screenwriters and directors that could be a tough maze to manage, but the Russos give huge credit to Feige for making it work.
“At the end of the day it's a balance. You don't want to burden any particular movie with too much by what's happening outside of it. You want it to give it its freedom to let it be what it wants to be its own,” Anthony Russo says. “He's very good about protecting that space and letting the filmmakers involved in that movie find that film. At the same time, finding a thread of what's happening and pulling it forward. But, yes, we do communicate. We do share ideas and we do look at what's happening either in the script phase or on the edit phase of a particular movie. So, people are connected and aware, but not overburdened by it.”
The events in “Winter Soldier” absolutely will affect where Captain America, Nick Fury and the Black Widow are when “Avengers: Age of Ultron” begins next year. Keeping track of each character's emotional beat isn't easy, but Feige says the fact one studio is running the show makes things much easier.
“We do have a timeline that we occasionally spread across a couple of giant walls just for fun to look at what we've done before and what we've done in the future,” Feige says. “But it is very much of an organic, we all get around a table saying 'You're working on this. You're working on this. You're working on that.' And sharing back an forth and beginning to build. Sometimes a fun idea will happen on a movie that's in post that can impact something we are developing. Always just for fun and benefiting of he world building.”
For more from Kevin Feige watch the interview embedded at the top of this post. For more from the Russo brothers, watch the interview below.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opens nationwide on Friday.