Sibling directing partners Joe and Anthony Russo made a huge impression on fans when they entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe with their ’70s thriller–style Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Still considered the best of the MCU by many, it marked the duo as risk-takers with big ideas – and the directing chops to pull them off. No wonder then that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige asked them to helm three more movies. For their follow-up MCU film, the brothers broke up the family in Civil War; then, last year, they broke our hearts – and global box office records – with Infinity War. Ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame, the Russo Brothers sat down with Rotten Tomatoes to break Infinity War down piece by piece, character by character, dust fleck by dust fleck. They reveal storylines that might have been, the creation of Thanos, and why fans shouldn’t be so hard on Star-Lord. Then, the duo go into Endgame – as much as they could – sharing the reasoning behind their storytelling decisions and the lengths they’ve gone to in order keep the details of that story secret.
Joe Russo: Anth and I through our entire experience at Marvel always tried to make very disruptive choices with each film. The end of Winter Solider: good guys and the bad guys, we flip everything on its head. Civil War we divorce the Avengers. Infinity War we knew we wanted to make a strong narrative choice. There’s an adage where you write yourself into a corner, [you have to] try to figure out how to get out. That usually creates really dramatic moments for the audience. There’s no bigger way to write ourselves into a corner than killing half the characters.
Anthony Russo: We actually never thought of it as a cliffhanger. In our own brains, for us, we were telling a complete story: This was Thanos’s movie, he was the lead of the film, and we gave him a complete arc – a proper ending.
Joe: He’s a profoundly interesting villain who is equal parts empathetic and loathsome. He’s also frightening and intimidating and nearly invincible. He’s driven, philosophically driven. I think a lot of people respect his monastic dedication to his task. He’ll die for it, so he’s an acolyte in that regard. And what’s interesting about the end of that movie is he shuns all materialism. He’s got this amazingly powerful gauntlet that can alter the very fabric of the universe, and he retires to a shack you know, clearly on some desolate planet.
Anthony: We knew we wanted to center the movie on [Thanos], and we knew that we can only do that if we pulled off the most realistic-feeling performance that you could possibly imagine in a movie. So we started very early on with our visual effects team, specifically our visual effects supervisor, Dan DeLeeuw, and trying to figure out how the technology can work and how we can actually achieve this. We did a lot of tests. We did tests with Josh Brolin where he would come in, perform, and we would work on it for several months and try to figure out the best version of it. That character was built methodically over the entire span of the development of the film.
Anthony: [Captain America and Tony Stark] are the heart and soul of the Avengers, you know. Tony is sorta like [the’ extroverted leader and Cap is like the heart and soul, the moral core of them.] For the two of them to have a falling out and have an irreconcilable problem was really devastating to the team as a whole. You know in our minds that’s why the Avengers lost in Infinity War – the fact that they were divided. They weren’t functioning as a team in that movie any longer, so they weren’t prepared for the universe’s greatest threat. The journey they’re on is very much at the heart of the entire story.
Joe: [Choosing who went to Titan and who went to Wakanda in Infinity War] was all story-driven, it was who was where and which character dynamics we wanted to exploit. I think even at one point we had Thor going to Titan instead of Wakanda and then made the decision that we wanted the climax to happen on earth and not on Titan, and so we moved Thor to earth. Again, it’s just about storytelling. Where are we gonna create the most interesting story? Which personalities are gonna be the most dynamic together?
Anthony: Also, I should say, we don’t simply think about who, what do we want the teams to be at the end of the movie. A lot of us figuring that out is, how do we get there? The small little choices that we make along the way that end up pushing somebody one place or the other, ends up dictating where they go.
Joe: We knew we wanted Peter with Tony. We knew that we wanted Strange and Tony together because we wanted to see that, two egotistical characters going at each other. We knew Cap was in hiding on earth, so [we] always felt like that would stay that way. Pairing Cap with T’Challa was gonna be a really… after that final scene in Civil War to see those two characters reunite, we knew that would be a powerful moment. And where would you run to on earth to be the most protected? Clearly Wakanda. Everything sort of logically starts to answer itself as you move through the story.
Anthony: I think one thing Joe and I love about ensemble storytelling is you have so many different places to go in the story at any given moment, the point of view can shift from character to character. We wanted to commit very fully to the idea that Thor was gonna be the hero of the movie. Thor was going off on this very individual quest to find a way after suffering this horrible opening scene defeat, to Thanos, where Thanos kills his brother and Heimdall and wipes out many of his people. So he is on journey through the entire film of revenge. How does he stop Thanos? So the audience is on that ride with Thor the whole way. And it’s a difficult road for him, but he finds a way to figure it out.
Joe: Almost kills himself doing it.
Anthony: Yeah, and so when he shows up in Wakanda, we have gone through all the storytelling beats to tell you: Thor is going to do this. That was one of our great thrills of the movie – not only him arriving [in Wakanda], but then what happens once he does arrive.
Joe: [That moment was] based on one of our childhood cinematic inspirations. There’s a sequence at the end of Excalibur where Lancelot shows up in the battle. I always remember how rousing that was when I would watch it as a kid, and just trying to replicate a similar experience. Your heroes are on the edge of defeat and one of them, having gone through great pain, shows up to save them. It just felt like the right moment.
Joe: Part of telling stories is learning empathy. I don’t know if people can empathize with Thanos, but they can empathize with Star-Lord – the love of his life was murdered by the guy in front of him, and he made a very emotional choice. I think that’s the human choice, and that’s the truthful choice that you would make in those circumstances. He paid for it with his life.
Anthony: Exactly. As storytellers, we find [the moment when Star-Lord hits Thanos] one of the most empathetic moments in the story. Also, the other thing to focus on his choice; I mean all of these characters make flawed choices. If Thor had not been so angry, and so revenge-driven, he may have killed Thanos faster than he did.
Joe: Gone for the head.
Anthony: He would have gone for the head, exactly. The fact that he wanted revenge, he wanted to see in Thanos’s eyes that he was killing him, that gave Thanos a window to reverse things on him. All these characters have emotional vulnerabilities that complicate their ability to do what needs to be done. Us sort of watching them fight through that is part of the fun.
Joe: Spider-Man was my favorite character growing up, and it was this notion of a child who had been burdened with this incredible responsibility and through very tragic circumstances with the death of his uncle. Tony Stark and Peter Parker developed a father-son relationship over the course of two films. We felt like [Spider-Man’s death in Tony’s arms] would be hard to watch – and it was. It was hard to watch on set, and it was hard to watch for the audience I think.
Anthony: All [through] the premiere and many of the early screenings that we attended, we anticipated the ending being complicated for people because it was complicated for ourselves – but we didn’t anticipate the depth of emotion that people would experience from that ending.
Joe: Ruffalo was in a theater in New York, and he was in a cap and glasses and he was there with his son and his son’s friend, and he said when it got to the end of [Infinity War], literally people just sat in the audience for 10 minutes and a guy ripped his shirt off and started screaming, “Why?” at the screen. Mark turned around in the theater and he thought, ‘Alright, I gotta get out of here before someone hurts me.’ And he snuck out the side door. So we didn’t expect that level of emotional response to it.
Anthony: Our process is to spend many, many, many months in that room with [co-writer Christopher] Markus, [co-writer Stephen] McFeely, with Kevin [Feige, Marvel Studios President], talking through different story ideas, different possibilities. We very thoroughly explore a lot of different ideas before we lock into what’s exciting us most. So, at some point, yeah, sure there are many variations [on who died at the end of Infinity War], but once the story starts to take shape it really forms in a muscular way around a single idea. And then we spend months working on that.
Joe: The visualization [of the dust] was purely just about the elemental aspect of your body and what happens to it. And that’s sort of accelerating the decomposing process in a way, right? As far as who went to dust, everything’s always built upon story. We’ll just say that there’s a reason the original six Avengers are left.
Joe: RDJ was probably the only one to actually read the entire script. I think Benedict [Cumberbatch] got the script that included his scenes only. Maybe [Chris] Evans might have read the script.
Anthony: Part of our motivation to do that is it just takes a lot of pressure off of people. It is hard to constantly censor yourself about what you’re saying, how you talk. These movies are your whole life, it’s everything you’re doing all day long. The inclination is to talk about it. So we take a lot of pressure off of people by just saying, OK, the less you know the less you have to mind yourself.
Joe: [Chris] Hemsworth’s character, Thor, doesn’t need to know what Captain America’s doing for most of Infinity War. Hemsworth reads his scenes and Evans reads his scenes. If they don’t read the rest of the movie, they don’t know what’s going on with it, then it makes them easier to have conversations with people. [We] kept it going, even more so in Endgame. [There are] more secrets in Endgame than there are in Infinity War.