After Marvel, the Russo Brothers rule their own universe
What is life after Avengers: Endgame? Joe and Anthony Russo are finding out for themselves.
Talking to the Russo brothers is like talking to a single entity.
As a duo, the brothers have helmed juggernaut Marvel movies that grossed a combined $6.7 billion worldwide. They differ in age (Anthony is 51, Joe is 49) and speak as individuals when you address them. Joe likes to lead conversations, though Anthony is far from quiet.
But in an interview setting, there is frequent use of the plural pronoun “we.”
We are from Cleveland. We learned to stick to our guns. We love playing with genre. We find hope and inspiration in the human experience. We fought with the studio during Arrested Development.
Joe and Anthony Russo think, talk, and work like a wrestling tag team, their unity forged in a middle-class upbringing in the gray, industrial city of Cleveland, Ohio. The two Generation Xers were born the sons of lawyer and Democratic politician Basil Russo and grew up on a pop-culture diet of noir films, comic books, and anime. But while they raced home after school to watch Battle of the Planets, their city fell into despair.
In 1978, a year before Basil Russo unsuccessfully ran for mayor, Cleveland became the first American city since the Great Depression to slip into default; it had $30 million in debt. The impact was strong and slow. Growing up, the Russos witnessed vibrant, immigrant neighborhoods around them vanish over time.
“Cleveland is a big melting pot,” Anthony Russo tells Inverse. “It was a patchwork of ethnicities who came from other countries. As the city started to decline, those neighborhoods declined, in some cases disappearing. That’s shocking to witness: the physical deterioration of a place.”
Chapter I: Origins
Deterioration, while familiar in their lives, is a new theme for their movies.
In 2018, the brothers traumatized a generation of moviegoers when they, via a snap of the fingers by Thanos, obliterated half of the Marvel superheroes in a teary, dusty send-off in Avengers: Infinity War. Their fourth and final Marvel installment, Avengers: Endgame, opens post-“snap” with dilapidated neighborhoods, abandoned baseball stadiums, and grief among those who survived.
A more grounded sense of despair, a “function of forces beyond you and you can’t stop” as Anthony puts it, fuels their latest movie: Cherry, in theaters now and Apple TV+ on March 12.
An adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, Cherry centers on a traumatized Iraq War veteran, played onscreen by Spider-Man star Tom Holland, who turns to serial bank robbery to fuel his heroin and Oxycontin addiction. Sort of a Holden Caulfield in headphones, Holland embodies the self-destruction that torments opioid addicts, not to mention the long War on Terror that’s lasted two decades. (The title in the movie comes from the protagonist's superior officer. After his first experience with traumatic violence, it is shrugged off as popping his “cherry.”)
“If you’re not from the industrial Midwest, you don’t understand what’s happened to cities like Cleveland.”
Cherry is loosely based on the life of Walker, who wrote it over four years while in prison, writing at night and sending pages to his publisher for edits. Amid the book’s rise as a New York Times best-seller, Walker was still serving an 11-year sentence. His phone time was used up while Hollywood studios waged a bidding war for movie rights.
Like the Russos, Walker is also from Cleveland. It was there where he carried out his bank robbery spree from December 2010 until his arrest in April 2011. This shared heritage allowed the Russos to make Cherry their own, and thus their most personal movie to date.
The Russos are honest, sometimes brutally, about life in the Rust Belt. Filmed on location, Cherry looks as cold as actual February in Cleveland.
“It’s a very personal movie because of the opioid crisis,” says Joe Russo. “The industrial Midwest is in the grips of this. People very close to us have died. It feels like the crisis is invisible right now, even though this was the most deadly year.”
While Covid-19 has been at the forefront for the last 12 months, synthetic opioids still took their toll. In December 2020, the CDC reported opioids were the “primary driver” behind 81,000 drug overdose fatalities, the most recorded in a 12-month period (between May 2019 and 2020). Fifty-two of those fatalities happened in a single month, May 2020, in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland resides.
“If you’re not from the industrial Midwest, you don’t understand what’s happened to cities like Cleveland or Detroit,” says Anthony. “Decades of economic decline have been traumatic. Economic hardship spawns other hardships. Social unrest, personal depression. That’s why the midwest is ground zero for the opioid crisis.”
“It’s a tough city,” he adds. “It has suffered.”
Chapter II: Identity
The Russos’ roots in Cleveland placed chips on their shoulders.
While they were grad students at Case Western Reserve University, they funded their first film Pieces — about a trio of crooks whose wig clinic is a criminal front — on student loans and credit cards. The movie was never released, but its premiere at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival earned notice from director Steven Soderbergh and his producing partner, actor George Clooney.
“It was a very experimental film,” recalls Joe. “That’s what Soderbergh responded to, a movie that took chances.”
They consider Cherry a “companion piece” to Pieces, as the material both resonates with them as people and challenged them as artists.
“We go where the spirit moves us.”
“Anth and I are very available to the journey that is life and discovery,” says Joe. “We go where the spirit moves us. When we’re excited by something, it doesn't matter if it’s films, TV, comedy, drama. We’re excited by challenging ourselves. What can we do that’s different or unique?”
Both Soderbergh and Clooney (who starred in the Russos’ second movie Welcome to Collinwood) taught the Russos lessons on their “journey towards autonomy.”
“They reminded us often that it’s show business,” Joe says. “They had a ‘one for you, one for me’ philosophy. You have to prove you can make money, and understand how to make money and make art with it. You do things that get you leverage to make personal movies.”
After Collinwood, the Russos spent years building leverage in the realm of comedy television.
“We worked on a lot of things that didn’t make money and went off the air,” Joe says. But the Russos made magic, notably in episodes of the cult comedies Arrested Development and Community. They directed one more feature, the 2006 studio comedy You, Me and Dupree, before entering the Marvel Universe from 2014 to 2019. Their first film in the franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is in retrospect a blueprint for what would be their post-Marvel niche: Dadcore action thrillers reminiscent of ‘60s and ‘70s pictures. Ones their father loved.
But even in a work-for-hire capacity, the Russos sought to leave personal stamps in the commercial machine. While helming Arrested Development, the Russos were in “constant battle” with the studio. “They were afraid of the way we were executing the show, the way we were shooting it,” remembers Joe Russo. “There were calls threatening our jobs.”
There’s that pronoun again: we.
Chapter III: Innovation
Across their film and television work, the Russos have a unifying philosophy: “Our instinct is on the cutting edge, always.”
Look no further than Arrested Development. The Russos (and creator Mitchell Hurwitz) insisted on using high-definition digital video, on-location sets, and documentary-style camerawork — elements that were in defiance of industry standards circa 2003. Arrested Development is now hailed as an innovator that defined its era of TV.
Says Joe Russo: “We learned a lesson that if we stick to our guns and our instincts, that’s where we do our best work.”
Lately, the Russos’ cutting-edge instincts have taken them to a new frontier: TikTok. While you won’t catch them performing the latest dance craze on the digital video platform, their children are users, and the Russos admit to studying how Generation Z wields the platform to tell stories.
“TikTok is the new encyclopedia,” Joe says. “If you go down the right rabbit hole, you’ll get a lot of information in a compressed period.”
“What can we do that’s different or unique?”
Through their children, aged 15 to 22, the Russos “keep up” to absorb visual storytelling with economic pacing. It’s no accident that in Cherry, Tom Holland, himself a Gen-Z icon, looks into the camera at low angles. Just like a selfie video.
“Part of what we’re trying to accomplish with Cherry was a dense, visual language that accentuated the experience in a way we felt would appeal [to Gen-Z],” Joe says. “This next generation consumes visual information at a rate that is astounding. It’s faster than any of us can imagine, faster than we can understand. We didn’t grow up immersed the way they have.”
The Russos challenge the recent essay by acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who bemoaned the proliferation of “content” as it flattens cinema equal to Marvel sequels and TikTok. Art is now an algorithm-ready commodity, scorns Scorsese. But the Russos see it differently.
“The difference between our generation and the next is the way they perceive media,” Joe says. “It’s how technology allows people to express themselves. There are different forms of artistry. This next generation will have a radically different expression than we do. We can’t comprehend that yet, but it’ll be marvelous and special. Something the world’s never seen before.”
Chapter IV: Inspiration
Joe Russo says Holland was “critical to engender empathy” as they fear young people will soon shoulder the brunt of the opioid crisis. “We’re concerned about their exposure,” Joe says. “They’re the most vulnerable.”
The Russos first met the 24-year-old British actor during the fraught process of finding a new web-slinger to swing into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
When casting director Sarah Halley Finn introduced Holland to the Russos, they knew they found their (spider) man. But just as it was during Arrested Development, the Russos butted heads with Sony, who balked at Holland as the new superhero. After months of back-and-forth, the studio yielded. Tom Holland is Spider-Man, and his directors are the Russo Brothers.
“We were really struck by Tom the first time we saw him audition,” remembers Anthony. “Casting a new Peter Parker was a very involved and difficult process. But as soon as we saw Tom we knew he was something extraordinarily special.”
The Russos say they worked closely with Holland from that point on as unofficial mentors. “We began to work with him closely to develop a stronger sense of who he was as a person, as an artist, as a performer. We weren’t thinking about a movie like [Cherry] at the time but we did know he was a special actor.”
Both Holland and his co-star, Ciara Bravo, lost significant body weight to embody the deterioration of substance abuse and malnutrition of their characters. On camera, the Russos watched a red and blue Hollywood superhero with abs turn pallid.
“Both he and Ciara showed up for this task,” says Joe. “Tom shaved his head, shallow cheeks from losing weight. I remember him standing in front of the camera with the emotion of someone going through this. Anth and I looked at each other profoundly. It was disturbing. He knew how to access parts of himself critical to pulling off the part.”
“It’s going to cost you years of your life.”
“We don’t want to convey to our audience, ‘If you get addicted it’s an easy solve.’ It’s not. It’s going to cost you years of your life,” adds Joe. “We want people to open hearts and find ways to talk about these problems honestly.”
Chapter V: Onward
Post-Marvel, the Russos remain hungrier and more disruptive than ever. “There’s a fatalist sense of humor growing in what people refer to as the armpit of America,” Joe believes. “That’s given us a punk rock attitude toward work.”
Part of being punk rock for the Russos is inviting new people to the stage. AGBO, the Russos’ production company whose acronym “stands for absolutely nothing” according to Anthony, is helping the Russos make whatever their instincts tell them to make. “We want to use our leverage we’ve gained for a diverse array of projects,” Joe says. “That includes new voices.” One recent such film produced by AGBO is Relic, a horror film about inherited mental illness from Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James.
Not that there aren’t popcorn crowd-pleasers to come. Electric State, an adaptation of Simon Stålenhag’s graphic novel with actress Millie Bobbie Brown, “reminds us a lot of anime we grew up on,” Joe says. The Gray Man, a spy thriller, will reunite the Russos with Captain America star Chris Evans. “All those great ‘70s thrillers were important to our father. We used to watch The French Connection with him.”
“If we stick to our guns and our instincts, that’s where we do our best work.”
And there’s Battle of the Planets, the childhood favorite of the Russos. Known as Gatchaman in its native Japan, its premise of a five-person superhero squad who defend Earth in bird costumes was the influential template for millennial hits like Voltron and Power Rangers.
“We’re working hard on the script, we’re hoping to get into our pipeline at AGBO soon,” Joe says. “We’re reinventing it for the modern age. We loved the cartoon growing up. We’re gonna take what we love and convert it into something new.”
Perhaps the biggest difference about the Russos now from their earlier days arguing with studio bigwigs over critical decisions is choice. Finally, the Russos have the freedom to make Cherry, or Battle of the Planets, or produce other people’s projects, because it’s their choice.
Cherry is about choices, too. “Choices you don’t have the life experience to make,” says Joe Russo. “Suffering because of those choices and finding redemption.” The mission for Cherry, the brothers say, is “to create empathy towards people” and “keep us together.”
“Life can be difficult, but that’s what we’ve loved about Cleveland. The resiliency.”
“When you come from a place that has hardship, people band together,” says Anthony. “Our dad was an activist politician. When we were young, we got a close look at our community suffering. Life can be difficult, but that’s what we’ve loved about Cleveland. The resiliency. That’s how Cherry meets our experience. That is the part of the city we lean on the most.”
Cherry will stream on Apple TV+ on March 12.