Interview: Why Directors Anthony And Joe Russo Wanted To Deconstruct The Superhero Genre With 'Captain America: Civil War'

A decade ago, the two films Anthony and Joe Russo had under their belts were Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree. Now they're the filmmakers behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. The Russo brothers were initially a surprising choice to direct The Winter Soldier for some Marvel fans, in particular for those unfamiliar with their background in television, but they ultimately proved any skeptics wrong.

Obviously, Marvel is quite pleased with what the directors have done with their heroes, as the duo are currently gearing up to shoot Avengers: Infinity War later this year. Delivering "culmination films of everything that has happened in the Marvel universe" is no small task — indeed, it's an incredible amount of pressure — but Civil War shows they're up for the challenge, considering the massive balancing act they've accomplished with Marvel's latest.

In our Anthony and Joe Russo interview, the brothers discuss deconstructing the superhero genre, the film's central conflict, and Avengers: Infinity War. They both jump into spoiler territory right at the start, so, like our interview with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, you may want to wait to read this SPOILER-heavy discussion until after you've seen Captain America: Civil War.

The film presents a surprisingly tortured Tony Stark. What was the motivation behind showing Stark at his most vulnerable? 

Joe Russo: That was the most important thing to us because there was no other way that you're going to get Tony Stark, who in Iron Man 2 told the government to go f*** themselves, to take the government's side unless he was vulnerable and he was in a position of feeling great guilt. That's where we wanted him at the beginning of the film, which is why Pepper Potts left him. He's extremely vulnerable at that moment. He does not understand where his life is going. He gets confronted in the hallway by a woman whose son he de facto murdered because he created Ultron. We were also not interested at any point in making either character in this conflict the antagonist. We wanted both to be the protagonist and antagonist at different points of the film, and to give you very emotional reasons to support each character.

He goes on the most horrific emotional journey of anybody in the movie. It is very empathetic. It's very difficult to watch that scene with Bucky and Tony's parents, but we shot it violent because we want you to be horrified. We wanted you to feel what Tony was feeling in that moment. Also, Bucky can be considered the longest suffering POW. Cap has an equally emotional reason that he is trying to protect and preserve Bucky, which is the last shred of his humanity from the past, the last shred of his sense of self and his home. The character is a pure victim. Again, all these characters do complicated things and, hopefully, in the end, the sum result is that you walk out of the theater arguing with your friends and family about who was right.

Anthony Russo: He's a victim who murdered Tony's parents.

While shooting the film or even in the editing room, was making both sides equally empathetic ever a challenge? Were there ever moments where you pulled back, worried a line or scene might turn Tony Stark into an antagonist?

Anthony Russo: You know what guided us, and we didn't expect this at first... Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have both now, in multiple movies, crafted very well-rounded, very textured, very deep characters that are also very heroic and rousing. They have great arcs. You actually can't turn either of them into a villain. Unless you want to go the Bucky Barnes way and mind control them. Tony Stark is never going to be a villain, and neither is Chris Evans, but they are going to be flawed, they're going to make mistakes. You can treat them as protagonists but can't treat them as villains; it's just not really in their DNA. You can't do that to the character without destroying all the work that's been done.

Joe Russo: All the storytelling. Unless you took them on a very specific journey to turn them into somebody very different than who they are. They both have codes, they both try to serve the greater good, in very different ways. Tony is a clinical narcissist, and Cap can be a stubborn son of a bitch. You can't undo what's been done for ten years. So we knew that all we had to do was put them on a trajectory towards each other, and then we'd create very complicated storytelling.

Civil War Film Influences

After all of the Marvel films we've seen and what's to come, how do you manage, as filmmakers, to keep the genre fresh?

Joe Russo: We knew very early on we wanted to deconstruct the genre. We're fans, too. The genre is ubiquitous right now, and that three-act structure is becoming tiresome, where the hero has a personal problem in the first act, the villain gets introduced, in the second act the villain comes into conflict, and in the third act he beats the shit out of the villain. An adage that we always use at Marvel is: people can tell you they f***ing love chocolate ice cream, but if you give them chocolate ice cream every day for five days, then by day five they're going to be like, "I hate chocolate ice cream." You have to be predictive. You have to be a futurist. You have to look ahead two years because you're starting these movies two years before they come out, and you have to ask, "Where is storytelling going to go?" I think it's interesting that a bunch of us have landed on deconstruction as the next step in storytelling. There's Deadpool, Batman v Superman, and Civil War all coming out very near each other.

It's not dissimilar to what happened to the Westerns in the 1960s in counter-culture, where it went from the guy in the white hat being the clear hero to the guy in the black hat being your anti-hero, where people are starting to doubt the system and doubt those people who supported the system.

This film does a nice job building on past relationships from Marvel movies. Looking at Civil War, are there any relationships you're particularly looking forward to further exploring? 

Joe Russo: Certainly Scarlet Witch and Vision. I think that's a very compelling story. It's ripped from the comic, and there have been many years of interesting storytelling between those two characters. One character is searching for how to identify with humanity and another who is on a journey away from her humanity towards becoming a very powerful being.

Anthony Russo: I would also say Captain America and Iron Man. That's really central. Can those guys ever repair their relationship? What is their relationship ever going to be like moving forward from this?

Joe Russo: Should they repair it?

Anthony Russo: That's as complicated as anything. The other relationship that's exciting to us is still Cap and Bucky. The wonderful thing about this movie that started in Winter Soldier is that Cap had a belief in him, because of who he is, that there is still a human being inside the Winter Soldier that he knows and that he can save. He's gone through incredible lengths now, the incredible faith that's waiting for him if he goes there. He's found that human being inside of Bucky Barnes but it's, like, who is that guy going forward? Just because he found him just because he's there, this guy is still some crazy bastard hybrid of who he use to be in The First Avenger and this killing machine.

Joe Russo: It's not really Bucky Barnes, it's not really Winter Soldier. Who is he?

Anthony Russo: He's somebody new now, and what kind of relationship will he and Cap have moving forward?

You've both called Civil War a psychological thriller. What sort of template does Infinity War follow?

Joe Russo: The template that Infinity War is following is a very different, complex template because you've never seen so many characters in one film. It obviously has to be a multi-perspective film. Its ambition is as large as you can possibly have in a movie and the amount of characters are larger than any movie up to this date because they are meant to be culmination films of everything that has happened in the Marvel universe up to the point when the movies come out. Yes, we're biting off a lot. We're just going to eat the elephant one bite at a time, but the approach with those would be something like [Robert Atlman's] Nashville, a clear multi-perspective, vignette storytelling where vignettes combined lead towards...

Anthony Russo: An epic adventure. We're still fine-tuning what those movies are, so it's hard to say totally succinctly. It does have that dimension of what Joe's talking about married to sort of an epic adventure, an epic saga.

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Captain America: Civil War is now in theaters.