Joe Russo: 'Be patient with Marvel's Phase 5'
The Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame director speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about Marvel, Citadel, and the future of his career.
When the Russo Brothers came to Marvel, the franchise was well in its stride with Phase 2, delighting fans with some of its most-loved films. By the time they left, they'd secured two spots on the highest-grossing films of all time list, and created the first superhero films to ever break the $2 billion mark.
It's easy to look at Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame as the golden age of Marvel – especially considering the brutal reviews Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania received as it ushered in the already divisive Phase 5.
For Joe Russo, though, it's not that simple.
"There’s nobody better at telling stories than Kevin Feige right now. If you’re going to bet on anybody, you bet on him," the director and producer tells RadioTimes.com.
"I think that the type of story that unfolded in the phases that we worked on [was] a very specific kind of story that wrapped itself up in those phases and now it’s time for a new story, and I think that’s the direction that Marvel’s headed in. They’re telling you a very different story, a very new story and I think the audience just needs to be patient with the redirection because you can’t keep telling the same story over and over or you lose the audience.
"I think they’re taking some very big swings and they’re playing around with the tone and they’re championing diversity as much as anyone in the storytelling space right now and all of these things are huge wins for large-scale storytelling."
As for any potential return to Marvel though? He's not so sure. "We love them to death, we had an amazing experience working together, all of us, we’re focused on [production company] AGBO right now and all the projects that we have going on at AGBO. It’s been a very busy year for us… there’s a lot going on in our world right now and that’s where our focus is at the moment."
There certainly is – not least delivering Citadel, reported to be Prime Video's second most expensive series to date (behind the The Rings of Power) at an eye-watering $300 million.
The spy thriller, which will include spin-offs across the world, also boasts a star-studded cast in Richard Madden, Priyanka Chopra, Stanley Tucci and Lesley Manville. It takes inspiration from the most iconic spy stories, Russo says.
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"What is unique about our world is that these are not lone wolves. These are not single agents, we’re following the story of a collection of characters who work for a specific agency and it’s about the politics of that agency and it’s about their relationships with each other and the complexity of those relationships and we’re adding a twist to that – some of the characters are struggling with remembering their identity as agents," he explains of the series.
"The show is set eight years after the fall of our hero agency where top agents had their memories wiped in order to protect them, protect the secrets of the agency, and then they were sent out into the world anonymously and built new lives for themselves without any awareness or recollection of their past. That is another wrinkle, or another twist, that pushes this into a more high-concept execution of a spy show."
For the Marvel fans, it certainly seems there's enough sci-fi to keep us happy, with the director adding: "Even though it’s not stated it’s set in the very near future, the idea is to play around with tech that could potentially exist a few years from now if not a decade or two from now. It’s meant to be fantastical in that regard and bring you into a special world that can be fun and surprising, where technology can be used to enhance twists. That’s a genre staple of spy shows and stories and we’re trying to play with it and put our own spin on it."
As for that sensational cast? They hailed from the Notes app in the Russos brothers' phones. No, really.
"Madden and Priyanka we had in mind immediately. I started as an actor so [Anthony and I] keep a list of actors we love when we watch things at home or the theatre, we write things down in a little notes file we keep, when we see a great performance we love, somebody that we’re excited about working with.
"That was true with both Madden and Priyanka, we approached both of them very early in the process. And then Stanley, who doesn’t want to work with Stanley Tucci? That has always been a dream of ours and we were really excited when he said yes to the show. And Lesley, one of the all-time greats. We really like a textured villains, villains that have a complexity to them, villains that are the heroes of their own stories, and Lesley plays a villain in this show. [There's] not only a sinister pleasure but also a real emotional hook to the character. There are times you’ll find where you hate her and other times where you’ll feel sorry for her."
As you would expect from directors who spent 10 years at Marvel, the series has been shrouded in secrecy, with limited details revealed about the plot. So where is the story actually going?
"The intention is always a gut punch. You always want to surprise the audience, you always want to take them somewhere they’re not expecting to go. You want to create a conversation. That’s the fun of telling stories on this large scale is the community that it builds, where people all over the world are in chat rooms or on social media in conversations with each other, arguing about characters, arguing about the plot.
"That’s what we love, is building those communities out and getting people really excited about the potential for the future stories to come out of it. I do think people are going to be very surprised where the show goes and the one phrase that we keep repeating that I think is really true is that everything you see is a lie."
The Russo brothers were undeniably successful before Marvel. But, having stepped into a league of their own after their time with Infinity War and Endgame, it's a decade of work that they continue to carry with them.
Russo reflects: "I think certainly the world-building that we engaged in… my brother and I and [writer and producer] Markus McFeely worked on all four Marvel movies together and we developed a process for building out the level of detail required to support a universe over our decade working with Marvel. We’re now able to take that discipline and that experience we gained and apply it to other projects that we work on with AGBO."
After Endgame, they stuck around in the sci-fi world to serve as producers on the Oscar-winning picture Everything Everywhere All at Once.
"Working with the Daniels [writer-director duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert], they’re very unique filmmakers, they’re very inventive and it was really just sitting there watching Swiss Army Man with my family and thinking to myself, 'I don’t know any other filmmakers who can do what they do with practical effects and are this inventive and combine emotion with absurdism in this way right now.' It was worth championing them. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a highly personal movie, it’s a highly personal story."
But going forward, they're keen to try something new, taking on the unenviable task of producing a live-action version of what some believe to be flawless film: Disney's Hercules. The pair already caused a stir when it was reported that the new film would be "inspired by TikTok".
Elaborating on what he meant, Russo explains: "We live in a world where most of your audience under 30 is now informed by their social media habits and it changes the way that they consume content and information and storytelling. As the storyteller, you have to be aware of changing habits.
"I think Matilda was a great example of a movie that, because of TikTok, it became a bit of a sensation with an under-30 audience. I think that’s part of the fun of telling global stories, when people all over the world are suddenly mimicking a dance from a clip from your movie and I got as much enjoyment as anybody out of watching those Matilda clips and that’s what I was speaking to – this idea of understanding what world you live in and how people are communicating and what it is that excites them about new stories."
Speaking of new stories, what's coming from the Russos' world in the future? What haven't they had a chance to do?
"Anth and I haven’t really done anything in the pure fantasy space. We grew up reading and re-reading Lord of the Rings. Conan the Barbarian was a movie we loved as kids. It would be fun for us to play around in that world."
Citadel will be available to stream on Prime Video from Friday 28th April. Try Amazon Prime Video for free for 30 days.
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