Soldier showdown: Joe and Anthony Russo take the helm of 'Captain America' franchise


Joe and Anthony Russo, the Coen Brothers of TV, have shepherded such series as “Community” and “Happy Endings” as executive producers and “Arrested Development” and other series as directors, winning an Emmy Award along the way. They've even edged into the Coens' territory, movies, directing the 2006 hit You, Me and Dupree. And you see what all those comedies have in common? They're not action-adventure political thrillers. You know what is? Their imminent Marvel Studios movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

"Well, look," says Joe Russo affably, aware of the discordance between their usual farcical surrealism and the dead-serious style of Marvel movies, "it was surprising, but it's reflective of the choices Marvel has made up until this point." The studio's executives "are risk-takers, and I think that even asking us to come into the room to talk about the film tells you how outside the box they think. It was really just [studio president] Kevin Feige, who was a huge fan of ‘Community’ and loved the kickoff of season two"—“Anthropology 101," written by Chris McKenna, directed by Joe and guest-starring Betty White as a deadly professor gone rogue—"as well as some of the other genre spoofs we did," including such cult-classics as the spaghetti-western homage "A Fistful of Paintballs."

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up roughly two years after the events of Marvel's The Avengers (2012). Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—the sole successful result of a World War II experiment to enhance soldiers' physical abilities—is living quietly in Washington, D.C. Still acclimating to the modern world after having been revived from decades of suspended animation at the end of the otherwise period war film Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), he's drawn into a web of political intrigue involving international peacekeepers S.H.I.E.L.D.; top agent Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); and an enigmatic Russian assassin, the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan).

"There's a sharp tonal difference" between the first film, directed by Joe Johnston, and this one, says Joe Russo. "The first movie is a love letter to the [1940s] Golden Age comics. This film draws its inspiration from a modern story written by Ed Brubaker [in a comic-book storyline beginning in 2005], so it's extremely different in tone,” harkening back to such 1970s political-conspiracy thrillers as Executive Action, Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men. Those last two starred Robert Redford, who was cast here in part to bring an iconic echo to the role of Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official over agency director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, in his sixth film in that role, including three cameos).

"We wanted to contemporize [Steve Rogers] very quickly and we wanted him to represent themes that are interesting to us about the modern world," Joe continues. "We wanted him going on clandestine operations for a clandestine organization so we could put him in conflict with the philosophy of that organization."

In the script by the first film's returning screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, that thematic bullet hits its bull's-eye when Rogers takes in the full impact of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s post-9/11, Homeland-Security-on-steroids tactics and seethes to Fury, "This isn't freedom. This is fear."

"It's hard to make a political film that's not topical," says Anthony Russo. "That's what makes a political thriller different from just a thriller. And that's what adds to the characters' paranoia and the audience's experience of that paranoia. But we're also very pop-culture-obsessed and we love topicality, so we kept pushing to [have] scenes that, fortunately or unfortunately, played out [during the time that Edward] Snowden outed the NSA. That stuff was already in the zeitgeist," he says "We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties—Obama talking about who they would kill, y'know? We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to Cap's greatest-generation [way of thinking]."

Such thoughtful enthusiasm helps explain how two producer-directors best known for TV comedy got the gig—one for which, the brothers say, neither they nor their agent lobbied. "We literally just showed up on the list," says Anthony, the older of the two ("I was born in February of 1970 and Joe was born in July of 1971"). "We just got a call from our agent one day and he said, 'Hey, Marvel's got a list of people they're going to be talking to about the next Captain America movie and you guys are on it.' We were shocked and thrilled because we're such big fans of what they've been doing. That was one of the things that really excited us—they came to us, in a way. That was really encouraging."

On set, Anthony notes, the brothers "don't really divide duties" but "have a kind of Socratic dialogue between ourselves and work things out together. We always tell people that they never have to double-cover us—if you speak to one of us, you're speaking to both of us, so I think that makes it easy for people to collaborate with us. We come from a big Italian family, so we're very used to communicating, collaborating and working as a team. It's a very easy process for us. We always tell everybody we don't mind if they mix us up."

"We're brothers, we grew up together—it makes the language very easy," says Joe. "And I think that's what made this process with Marvel so fruitful and enjoyable. Our process is to talk things through out loud and be collaborative, and Marvel provided a great environment for us to do that. Making a movie of this scale [budgeted, says the Los Angeles Times, at $170 million], a big portion of your job is managing a large team of people all trying to help you realize your vision. And the better you are at enunciating your point of view and what you're looking for, the more cohesive the movie will feel. I think being a directing team served us very well in making this movie."

Adds Anthony, "We're both on set all the time, we're at the monitor to look at things, we discuss what's going on after every take, we look at the notes together—it's a very democratic process."

Like director Joss Whedon with The Avengers, the brothers "shot almost all the exteriors in Cleveland"—where, coincidentally, they were raised, attended Case Western Reserve University and made the 72-minute student film Pieces (1997) for what they said was about $30,000 in credit-card debt. Steven Soderbergh eventually saw it at the film festival Slamdance and encouraged the brothers' ambitions over the course of three years; he and business partner George Clooney then produced the Russos' second film, the 2002 crime comedy Welcome to Collinwood. As for other locations, "The movie is primarily set in Washington, D.C., and we did about three days in Washington with the main cast and ourselves, but D.C. is an extremely difficult place [in which] to shoot." The stage work took place in Los Angeles.

The movie introduces Sam Wilson a.k.a. the Falcon—comics' first African-American superhero, created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan in Captain America #117 (Sept. 1969). As played here by Anthony Mackie, he's a former military man who now works as a PTSD counselor and helps Cap with the aid of a winged, jet-powered flight exoskeleton.

Also new is Emily VanCamp, who, as Feige confirmed last summer, plays S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13 a.k.a. Sharon Carter. Not every Marvel character translates directly from comics to screen, of course—witness the completely different Mandarin in last year's Iron Man 3—so Frank Grillo, playing a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Rumlow, is not the costumed mercenary Crossbones (named Brock Rumlow in the comics). As to whether Mackie and VanCamp will reprise their characters, "The only thing I think I can say is that both of those actors signed multiple-picture contracts with Marvel." Stan Lee has his usual cameo appearance, and there’s even a blink-and-miss-it text shout-out to Whedon. An end-credits scene introduces yet another enduring Marvel villain.

Will the events of the movie affect the ABC TV series “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which has referenced The Avengers and last year's Thor: The Dark World? "We don't have a relationship with the show," Anthony cautions, "but from what we've heard, yes."

For all the hoopla surrounding this next Marvel Studios movie—part of what Feige calls the Marvel Cinematic Universe of Paramount and now Disney releases, separate from 20th Century Fox's X-Men and Fantastic Four films and Columbia's Spider-Man franchise—the filmmaking brothers seem unruffled by having to follow on the heels of the $1.2 billion-grossing Iron Man 3 and the $639 million-grossing Thor sequel.

"Two schmoes from Cleveland found their way into the movie business," says Anthony, or maybe Joe.

Yeah. And two schmoes from Cleveland created Superman.