The Russo brothers aren’t entirely counting themselves out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after they wrap their much-hyped (and still-untitled) “Avengers: Infinity War” sequel — frankly, they need a little bit of time to breathe before announcing anything about their franchise plans going forward — but the directors already have a clear idea what they’d like to see from the next phase of the sprawling blockbuster series. “Really risky choices,” Joe Russo said when asked by IndieWire about their hopes for Phase 4, not missing a beat. “Content and casting, diversity in directors, diversity in casting.”
Few people are as keenly aware of the reach and power of the multi-billion-dollar franchise as the Russos, and the filmmakers recognize the kind of responsibility that such a global behemoth has in a diverse, changing world.
“I think that these movies reach a global audience, and I think everyone has the right to identify with these characters on a cultural level or a race level or a gender level or a sexual orientation level,” Joe said. “I think it’s our job to keep moving the ball forward, and Marvel’s job, and Hollywood’s job. I think ‘Black Panther’ really is a resounding yes that there is real import in pushing the diversification. That’s what we hope to see, is riskier choices taken creatively and more diverse choices made on all fronts.”
There’s already some hope for such diversification both in front of and behind the camera. Before Phase 3 wraps, the MCU will roll out its first feature focused on a superheroine: the Brie Larson-starring “Captain Marvel,” which will open just before the final “Avengers” film. The long-rumored project will also mark another sea change for the company, as it’s co-directed by Anna Boden, alongside her filmmaking partner Ryan Fleck, making it the first MCU film to have a woman behind the camera.
“Captain Marvel” (and perhaps even a rumored “Black Panther” sequel) will be followed by another much-anticipated female-focused movie: a Black Widow spinoff, written by Jac Schaeffer. Plus, there are all those rumors of a female-fronted A-Force film, though nothing has been officially announced, and even MCU star Elizabeth Olsen admits to being mostly in the dark when it comes to the possibility of such a feature. Still, the studio has staked out release dates for films well into 2022.
When IndieWire spoke to Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige last month, he also pointed to Ryan Coogler’s smash hit “Black Panther” for proof that Marvel moviegoers are eager for new stories made by diverse talents. “As audiences stay with us and audiences keep telling us, as they certainly did all around the world with ‘Black Panther,’ that they’re embracing new ideas and new visions and new places and new ways of telling stories, we will just continue to grow and build on that,” Feige said at the time.
The Russos are similarly high on Coogler, along with other young filmmakers who are either already inside the Marvel bubble (like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director Jon Watts, or indie stalwarts Fleck and Boden) or angling for a chance to join the fray (one of the dozens of directors rumored to be in consideration for the “Black Widow” gig.)
“Look at Ryan Coogler, look at what he’s accomplished in his career at the age that he’s at,” Joe said. “It’s staggering. He’s incredibly talented and he’s created one of the most important movies in movie history. There’s a lot of important things to be said by younger filmmakers, and I think they’re willing to take bigger chances. The fact that they’re coming from outside the system is incredibly important, because they understand risk-taking and they endorse risk-taking.”
The Russos were hardly big-name filmmakers when Marvel signed them on for 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” best known for their work on television shows like “Community” and “Arrested Development” and a trio of feature films that ran the gamut from Slamdance oddity “Pieces” to the Owen Wilson-starring comedy “You, Me and Dupree.” They were certainly not the obvious choice for a blockbuster like “Winter Soldier,” the second film to follow the exploits of good-hearted Captain America.
“The process is really vigilant,” Joe said of Marvel’s strategy for picking directors. “You’re reading stories that they have interviewed 65 directors for the ‘Black Widow’ film. It’s an incredibly vigilant process. It really prepares you for the story that you want to tell. It really challenges you as a filmmaker. They really challenge the filmmakers to win the job. I think that when people do win the job, that they’ve earned it and that they have something to say.”
The Russos believe that the challenge for filmmakers to really “win the job” to tell their stories has already allowed the MCU to sneak some wild stuff into their films — to say nothing of the jaw-dropping twist in their “Infinity War” — that hints at the kind of diverse, risky path the Russos hope becomes old hat for Phase 4.
“Kevin [Feige] said something to us one time that I’ll never forget. It was right after ‘Winter Soldier’ came out and we realized it was working. He said, ‘Can you believe that we got to make a political thriller because we wrapped it as a superhero movie?’ It’s a simple statement,” Joe’s brother and co-director Anthony said. “Marvel has made so many extreme choices since then, sometimes that may not seem as significant, but at the time, ‘Winter Soldier’ was a really odd choice for them, a risky choice.”
He continued, “I think that’s what’s so inspiring about them. The goal of using the commercial accessibility of this material in a way that goes way beyond what is expected of or typical to that genre. That’s the miracle of Marvel, and that, I think, is all of our responsibility.”
“Avengers: Infinity War” is currently in theaters.