Watch: Directors Joe and Anthony Russo on the making of Avengers: Infinity War above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, directors Joe and Anthony Russo break down how they created one of the movies’ most shocking cliffhangers.
Avengers: Infinity War was something moviegoers had never seen before: an epic movie crossover event that dwarfed the two previous Avengers films in scale and ambition and threw more beloved characters at the screen than perhaps any other movie in history. Also, uniquely for a film about a (very large) band of (very beloved) superheroes, it centered its narrative around its singular villain, one that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and the filmmakers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been seeding for years: “Thanos is coming” isn’t just the panicked warning of Bruce Banner in Infinity War’s early scenes, it was the tease Marvel had been giving us since Phase One. And Infinity War is the Mad Titan’s movie. It’s his search for the Infinity Stones that drives the narrative, and it’s the snap of his be-gloved fingers that ends it.
Joe and Anthony Russo, who joined the MCU with The Winter Soldier, had a mammoth task with Infinity War. Not only did they have to set up a cliffhanger for the ages and provide, working with Josh Brolin, a villain worthy of so many years of buildup, but they were helming one of the most expensive movies ever made and a story whose threads and characters had mostly been established by other filmmakers across 10 years of movies. Here, the brothers explain how they prepared for Infinity War, the logic behind their narrative choices, and working with Brolin to create a villain for the ages – one with whom some might even sympathize.
Anthony Russo: “Civil War is where [the story] started to come into our brains. The central idea of that movie was for us to… we wanted to break up the Avengers and shatter that relationship between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. As we were executing it and we realized how well we were sort of achieving that on an emotional level with the characters, that’s when I think our brains started to open up to, ‘My God, they’re so vulnerable now.’ Now, you’re like, what happens when Thanos comes? And that’s when our brains started stepping through where the story could go.”
Anthony: “Our process is to spend many, many, many months in that room with [writers] Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely, with Kevin [Feige], 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 [while writing Infinity War], yeah, sure, there are many variations [of what could happen], 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 Russo: “[Thanos is a] complicated character. 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. 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 the character, 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 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. So yeah, that character was built methodically over the entire span of the development of the film.”
Though the world knew Infinity War was one half of a two-part Avengers epic, both parts of which were shot concurrently, few believed the movie would end the way it did: with half the universe dusted – and with some of most beloved MCU characters among the fallen. It was unfathomable. Thanos… won? Shocked audiences wept through the credits – comforted somewhat by that brilliant Captain Marvel teaser – and took to social media to express their despair through every variation of crying/devastated memes. Then came the recriminations: Why the hell didn’t Thor go for the head? Peter Quill was totally to blame for this, right? It felt certain that the universe would be restored in about 12 months – Endgame would release almost a year to the day after Infinity War – but there was no certainty. After all, with “The Snap” the Russos and Marvel Studios showed the world nothing and nobody was sacred and anything was possible.
Anthony: “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: “Anth and I, through our entire experience at Marvel, always tried to make very disruptive choices with each film. The end of Winter Soldier, good guys and the bad guys, we flip everything on its head. In Civil War we divorce the Avengers. With Infinity War we knew we wanted to make a strong narrative choice. There’s an adage where you write yourself into a corner, and you 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.”
Joe: “The visualization was purely just we thought about the elemental aspect of your body and what happens to it. And that’s sort of accelerating the decomposing process in a way. 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: “Spider-Man was my favorite character growing up; 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. So I think we always felt that would be [a key emotional moment]. Tony Stark and Peter Parker developed a father-son relationship over the course of two films. We felt like that 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.”
The commercial success of Infinity War, and then Endgame after it, was monumental: Infinity War is now the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time, Endgame is number one. The impact of both goes beyond the box office, though: few movies, perhaps ever, have so dominated the pop-culture conversation. Infinity War was a global cliffhanger the likes of which we’d never seen and the feverish anticipation it built would be what made Endgame the most successful movie ever. As the culmination of the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the two films cemented that brand’s dominance at the movies – something that looks set to continue with an exciting and expanding Phase 4 and 5. There is a sense that, with its universe-building and crossovers, Marvel and the MCU are changing the very nature – and certainly the business – of commercial cinema (for better or worse, depending on your perspective). For Joe and Anthony Russo, who have directed more films within the MCU than any other director or directing pair, the key to the brand’s success is less about the razzle-dazzle of special effects, or even about the narrative daring it takes to dust half of your leads – it’s about character. The reason the MCU is as massive as it is, and the reason Infinity War and Endgame are a kind of phenomenon, lies in our connection to Tony, Steve, Peter, Natasha, T’Challa, and, yes, even Thanos.
Anthony: “At 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 no, we didn’t anticipate the depth of emotion that people would experience from that ending.”
Joe: “[Mark] 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 friends, and he said when it got to the end, 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: “Look, [Tony and Cap are] the heart and soul of the Avengers, you know. Tony is sorta like an 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. But the journey they’re on is very much at the heart of the entire story.”
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, Star-Lord.”
Anthony: “Exactly. As storytellers, we find that 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. The fact that he wanted revenge, he wanted to see in Thanos’s eyes as 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 watching them fight through that is part of the fun.”
Joe: “It’s makes them interesting to watch. If all they did was make the right choice every time, it’s a fairly predictable and boring story after a while.”
Avengers: Infinity War was released April 27, 2018. Buy or rent it at FandangoNOW.