An unprecedented cinematic journey 10 years in the making and spanning the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios’s Avengers: Infinity War brings to the screen the ultimate, deadliest showdown of all time. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo take us through the journey.
Let’s talk about the unprecedented nature of what you’re doing...
Anthony Russo: Marvel has this attitude, in general, which Joe and I really admire, that is a one-movie-at-a-time philosophy, even though there is certainly a plan and ideas about where things can go. The focus is always one movie at a time because it’s your job just to make that movie everything that it can be regardless of any other film. You want to find the potential in that particular story.
So that’s how we came to our process. But I think through the experience of working on Captain America: Civil War and working with (Christopher) Markus and (Stephen) McFeely on Civil War, we knew that there was a culmination coming. I think part of the reason why we were drawn to tell the story of Civil War and one of the reasons why we thought it was such a great place to leave the Avengers divided at the end was because we knew the greatest threat they would ever face would be coming in Thanos. For storytellers it’s like you always want the most extreme. You want your heroes to be at their lowest point when they meet their worst threat. That’s a great jumping off point for a story. So, we were smelling that as we were working through Civil War, and that’s when I think Joe and I began to start thinking about how you carry it forward from that moment.
How specific do you get when you start thinking about that?
Joe Russo: It’s a very disciplined approach. It’s a storytelling approach, and we’ve had a very strong collaboration with Markus and McFeely over all four movies. And I think that’s the core creative collaboration. It’s a very personal journey that we’ve been on as filmmakers and storytellers through those four films. When you get to the end of those four films and you watch them in total you’ll understand our point of view on life and our point of view as filmmakers. But a lot of that has to do with how we perceive the characters and how we interpret the characters. And I think everyone in the Marvel Universe interprets them differently.
It’s not dissimilar to comic books where different writers come in and work on different runs. I think the audience appreciates that our interpretation of the Guardians (of the Galaxy) can be slightly different than James’s (Gunn) interpretation of the Guardians. Our interpretation of Thor is going to be slightly different than Taika’s (Waititi) interpretation of Thor. But that’s what surprises the audience, and I think that they understand how the tones shift from film to film. When we dig in on the characters it is the four of us sitting in a room with every character’s photo on a board. And we literally just start talking about how they could potentially interact with what the villain wants in the film. It’s an arduous process that takes months. But when you’re dealing with characters like Nebula, a child of Thanos, it’s impossible not to make her integral to the story or have an emotional connection to it. The same goes with Gamora or the Guardians who live in the cosmic universe where Thanos resides. Or Tony (Stark) who since Iron Man has been on a journey to stop this potential threat that he feels has been brewing and that’s coming for him and coming for Earth.
So, you really look at how all of the characters interweave into the main arc. We always start with thematics. What is it that we want to say? Once we define what the thematics are, then we start figuring out how all the characters feed into the thematics. We literally spend days going through each character on their own and talking about the script from the point of view of that character. That’s how we try to detail and fine-tune all of their beats.
How do you place these characters to develop other character arcs?
AR: We don’t necessarily know the end beat between two characters at that point. But it is just a full commitment to what we could do with the relationship at that moment; how we could start it together in the most interesting, complex way. Then we think about that as we go forward. It’s a little bit of a balance between projecting a few possibilities into the future in our storytelling brains, and then figuring out later which one is right or maybe that there was another storyline that we didn’t even think of that might be the right one. So it’s a very organic process.
How does fan service play into that?
JR: We’re inspired by the books, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the Marvel comic book universe. They’re different. As a comic book fan, I think it’s fun to take elements from the books that I identify with. But if I want a literal interpretation, I’ll just read the book. I think that Marvel jumped off with this cinematic experiment that they started 10 years ago with a narrative that diverts from that. So we wanted to fulfil storylines that we’ve set up in Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War that we want to carry forward into Avengers: Infinity War and the next one; but not necessarily do a literal interpretation of Jim Starlins’ book. But there are great ideas in that book, and we owe a lot of the movie and what’s behind the movie to Jim.
But it’s been important for us to find connective tissue that the audience can relate to and has emotional connection to based upon what they’ve seen before. As far as fan service goes, every fan wants something different. You can’t please all fans. We’re fans, and we love making these movies, and we loved comic books growing up. So our mandate all along has been that we’re going to make something that pleases us, that we’re happy with and that we’re excited about and that we want to share with people. Then we keep our fingers crossed that everybody’s as excited about it as we are.
The previous positive response to your movies probably reinforced your decisions.
AR: Yes, that was a revelation for us, to be honest with you, because we didn’t know going into Winter Soldier. We knew why we wanted to make the movie. We knew what we loved about the character. We knew where we wanted to take it and what we wanted to do with that movie. But we didn’t know how anybody else in the world would respond. So, having the movie received like that was a validation for Joe and me that we should just stick with our instincts and our passion for the material and run with that. And hopefully that’s what’s going to translate to audiences.
JR: We have a history of cross-pollinating genres, and we like deconstruction. Arrested Development dabbles in deconstruction. Community is a show about deconstruction. And those were the kind of books that we loved growing up. Captain America, we’ve said this before, was not one of our favourite characters. We found him a little flat and a little square, so we wanted to dimensionalise him by sending him on this journey that you’ll see continues in Avengers: Infinity War, where he goes from the most patriotic character to an insurgent. In a lot of ways it represents how it is that we feel about the world and our own growth and our own principles. So it’s been a very personal journey for us.
Was there always a focus on the human element? How do you balance the tones?
JR: It’s a complex tone, and it’s a unique tone because it’s made up of several different franchises that have very different tones. It’s sort of an unprecedented experiment because never before has someone taken very successful franchises and merged them all together. But, as we’ve mentioned, we like cross-pollinating genre, and we like experimentation in narrative. So it was exciting for us. The reason that we wanted to do the film was because the level of ambition was so high with it.
AR: We’ve always had a creative process throughout our careers where we like to combine things that don’t seem like they belong together and see what you get. We describe it as like a mad scientist process. If you go back to something like Arrested Development, an example of this would be that you take a completely absurdist story and you shoot it in the most grounded, realistic way you can possibly present a narrative. The incongruity of those two things gives you something that feels fun and weird and interesting. We’ve applied that same process to combining all these different tones, all these different characters. It’s really just a process of us thinking about how you smash those things together. The way we end up balancing it is that we always try to ground it in an emotional truth for the character. That becomes our guidepost. If something doesn’t feel emotionally true or emotionally real for a character, then we can’t follow that storyline. We have to always use that as our guidepost through the narrative, and that’s how we hold everything together ultimately.
Is it a byproduct of the MCU that you can do tonal shifts while retaining stakes?
JR: I think so. I think it’s a byproduct of how disparate the tones are. The one continuity that you’ll find in the four movies we’ve done is emotional realism. You can be dramatic and emotionally real. And you can also be comedic and emotionally real. Emotional realism at its core is the unifying tone to all of our movies.
Avengers: Infinity War is also by far and away the most intense of our three films. But I think that as long as the characters are humanistic and they address the stakes with intentionality and true motivation you can take the audience on any journey that you want to. The tone can shift on a dime. It is because they are aware of these characters, and they have an emotional history with them. So, when the Guardians show up hilarity can ensue immediately. But, also, we can take the Guardians to a place that’s intensely dramatic very quickly as well. Heroes are only as good as their villain, and we spent a lot of time and energy on this one making sure that Thanos was the most intense villain that we can make him and the best villain that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen.
What makes Thanos different?
AR: Thanos’s primary motivation on a plot level is to go after the Infinity Stones. That’s really the connective tissue that pulls our entire MCU together as the stones are spread out throughout the franchises.
What is his agenda?
JR: Thanos is this virtually indestructible character who’s stronger than the Hulk, and has invincible skin. He’s from a planet called Titan. Many years prior to the film his planet was experiencing a cataclysmic shift. They were running out of resources, and they were overpopulated. Thanos made a recommendation that they exterminate half the population randomly in order to save the rest of the population. Of course, the Titans rejected his notion, branded him a mad man, exiled him, and the planet ended up dying. So he has taken it upon himself to go planet-by-planet throughout the universe and wipe out half of the population of each planet as a way to correct the planet and bring it back into balance.
Once he hears about the stones, he realises that if he can get hold of all of the Infinity Stones he can control the entire universe. With the snap of his fingers he could correct the universe permanently by removing 50 per cent of life from it. So, these are incredible stakes for our characters. If the Avengers were built for anything, it’s for stopping Thanos from completing his goal.
Is the movie really a Thanos movie?
JR: Without question. We always try to bring in topical themes into these films because they function on such a wide scale that we really want the audience to feel a sense of immediacy in their own lives about what they’re watching. Every villain is a hero in his own story and believes that what they’re doing is right. They’re just in conflict with the rest of the world. Thanos happens to believe that what he is doing is right, and he behaves nobly towards that goal. But he will not stop until he achieves the goal because he believes that there is weakness that stands between him and the completion of the goal.
We thought it was fascinating to tell a story from the point of view of a villain. So when you watch the film, you’ll see that the film is told from Thanos’ perspective. That offers a unique insight into our heroes, but it also offers a unique insight into villains and how they think.
AR: It was a very organic choice in this film because we’re dealing with several different groups of characters, some of which have no knowledge of the existence of the other. Thanos is the one thing that unifies them all in this movie. So, orientating our story and telling it from his point of view had a lot of practicality to it as well.
Would his enemy be Tony Stark?
JR: It’s all the heroes. I think he has the most specific connection to Tony because Tony is a futurist, and he has predicted a threat like Thanos. It’s lived in his brain even though he couldn’t name it. Tony is the most desperately driven, down to the core, to react against something like Thanos, although all the heroes will face a threat, no matter who it is or where it comes from. But I think this is intrinsic to Tony’s psychology, and because Tony started it all with Iron Man, he has a special connection to the threat that’s facing him.
Are Stark’s stakes bigger too?
AR: (Robert) Downey (Jr) is such a remarkable performer, and we really love him as a performer and what he’s done with the character. The character started as a very narcissistic, self-centred character. His arc in the first movie was to just begin to take a step beyond that, and we’ve continued him along that line in his journey that he’s had to the point where at the opening of Infinity War, his personal life is very thick. The stakes of his relationship with Pepper (Potts) are very high now. Also the fact that he’s had this mentor relationship with Peter Parker, it’s as if his personal life is becoming fuller and more important to him than it ever had before. And that’s an interesting counterpoint to his life as Iron Man, and also his life as Iron Man is a potential threat to that personal life as well. What’s happening with Tony Stark in this film is that he’s beginning to feel the tension between those two things, and that’s a difficult conflict for him.
How was it pushing that conflict forward in Civil War?
JR: Everyone knows Robert is an incredibly brave performer, and he takes this character to very interesting places. I think that’s why the audiences have responded the way that they have to Tony Stark. He was really up for the complexity of Civil War and putting his character in a position where he could be perceived as the villain of that story, even though the way that we look at that film is that there are no winners. It was Kramer vs. Kramer, and it was a really messy divorce. You love both your parents, and you don’t want to see that happen. But it did. So moving forward into Avengers: Infinity War, Tony is in a place where he harbours guilt about what happened. But I don’t know if he’s ready to forgive. This movie is a ticking-clock film. Once it starts it doesn’t stops until the end. We refer to it as a smash and grab heist movie. Once Thanos starts collecting the stones, he’s doing it with speed. So Tony doesn’t have a lot of time to reflect. He only has time to act. But I think that the ramifications of Civil War reverberate deeply throughout Avengers: Infinity War.
Why Josh Brolin?
AR: He’s such an amazing performer and so uniquely suited to Thanos. What we were looking for in the character of Thanos is the strongest, most intimidating figure in the universe. While at the same time we wanted to tell a story about a character with a really complex and empathetic interior life. There are not a lot of actors that can give you both of those things. Josh Brolin is perhaps the best example that you can find where you have somebody who has a physical presence and brings that level of intensity and threat, while at the same time having another layer always at work underneath that, which is a very complex inner life and a lot of emotional depth and texture.
JR: Josh created an incredibly nuanced character who is both frightening and oddly emotional.
Can we talk about “strange alchemy”?
JR: “Strange alchemy” is a phrase that we came up with in the writer’s room when we were working on breaking the story for Infinity War, where we basically said the exciting aspect of this film is that we’re going to take all of these characters from different franchises in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we’re going to put them together. So, how can we create strange alchemy? This has nothing to do with Doctor Strange. It means “strange” in that how can we create odd or eccentric “alchemy” between characters? Who can we put together that’s going to create the most sparks and fireworks? Because conflicts between heroes can be entertaining. Of course, if you take Doctor Strange, who’s a narcissist, and you put him in a room with Tony Stark, who’s a narcissist, that’s two beta fish in a tank. Something is going to happen. If you take Thor from Thor: Ragnarok and you put him in a spaceship with the Guardians of the Galaxy, something absurdist and insane is going to happen. We spent a lot of time moving cards around and thinking about how the alchemy would play out between certain groups of characters until we landed on the stories that we have in the film and the character groupings that we have in the movie.
How much do the actors inform that alchemy?
AR: We’re very performer focused. We love actors. For as much thinking as we do about the characters, we do the same amount of thinking about the actors and what they bring to the table and what their styles are, what their strengths are, and then how they will mix with the other actors. So that’s a big part of the equation that gets talked about less in public because it’s not as apparent to the audience. It’s more of a behind-the-scenes issue. But, yes, these characters are all played by remarkable performers, and they all have different strengths, and understanding what those are and mixing them in the right way is part of what we do as directors.
Is this really as big as we expect?
JR: I don’t think that they’ve seen anything on this level of intensity with these levels of stakes and ramifications in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before. There’s nothing comparable to it. If Marvel Studios has been writing a book for the last 10 years, then these are the final chapters of the book. There’s finality, and there will be endings. And there will be new beginnings. I think rarely, especially in Avengers: Infinity War, do commercial movies go to the place that this film goes to.