Joe Russo is sitting in an Edinburgh hotel suite overlooking Waverley Station. “It doesn’t feel like it was a year ago,” he says, referring to the month he and his brother Anthony spent in the capital last April shooting Avengers: Infinity War in and around the station. “We came here to shoot an action sequence involving Wanda [Elizabeth Olsen] and Vision [Paul Bettany]. We wanted to shoot the city at night to push some of the more gothic elements of the architecture.
“And that,” he adds, “is about as much as I can say about it…”
That’s par for the course when you’re directing one of the biggest movies in blockbuster history. When I last spoke to Russo, he was in a hotel room in Durham on the day they wrapped the UK portion of the shoot. Back then he was happy to discuss his love of Edinburgh and amusingly cagey when it came to confirming or denying any specifics relating to the film, the casting or the plot.
Almost 12 months on and a lot of that secrecy is understandable. Bringing together characters from every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Infinity War may have inspired a raft of internet memes mocking the studio’s own hubristic claim that it’s “the most ambitious crossover event in history” (for the record, Russo laughed along with everyone else: “There’s nothing better than taking the piss out of yourself,” he chuckles) – but that doesn’t change the fact that fans are heavily invested in how this turns out.
That’s partly because Russo has been talking it up as the beginning of the end. Today, for example, he describes the new film’s villain, Thanos (played Josh Brolin), as “death coming to call for the Avengers” and confirms that despite the unprecedented number of superheroes with starring roles featured, Infinity War is “absolutely his movie”.
“The mythology behind him is that he’s a nearly invincible mutant through genetic happenstance,” elaborates the director. “But he also happens to have genius level intelligence and he sees the universe in a very simple but dark way. It’s like a garden that’s overgrown and he’s the only one with the gumption and the will to prune it properly.”
In some respects that might make the Russos the grim reapers of the current iteration of the MCU. The very white, very male series has thus far been dominated by its headline stars: Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. As beloved as their films have become, the unprecedented success of Black Panther – a character Joe and Anthony introduced in Captain America: Civil War – looks set to change the cinematic landscape in much the same way The Avengers did six yeas ago, especially now that the Ryan Coogler-directed film has just overtaken it to become the highest-grossing comic book movie of all time.
“I think the timing is perfect,” nods Russo, pointing also to next year’s Brie Larson-starring Captain Marvel, the first female-fronted MCU film. “I think it’s time for a new beginning and I think it’s time to rebuild things in a way that’s more diverse. If you consider the first decade as a book, then Infinity War is the final chapter of that book. With the next book they’ve got a better understanding of how to do these things and tell better stories and more interesting stories.”
Which isn’t to downplay the Russos’ role in getting Marvel to this point. When it became clear that Marvel’s gamble with The Avengers had paid off, they were the filmmakers who helped deepen the notion of what a Marvel superhero film could be, bringing a new seriousness to Captain America: The Winter Soldier by turning it into a political thriller, one that seems increasingly prescient in the wake of the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“That just came out of our own anxiety from reading articles about data collection and the misuse of information,” says Russo wryly. “We referred to the world as a digital book that [the villainous] Hydra learns how to read. We’ve had a few Hyrdas learn how to read this book and potentially affect the world in some significant ways in the last two years.”
In terms of the current climate, Infinity War is about “stepping up and paying a price to say and do the right thing.” Lest that make a film featuring Norse gods, mystical shamans, talking racoons, arachnid-powered teenagers and a green monster with performance anxiety issues sound solemn and ponderous, though, at it’s core it’s also a “smash-and-grab heist film” influenced by forgotten Tarantino-esque crime flick 2 Days in the Valley and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight.
The latter influence is particularly apropos. Not only did Soderbergh mentor Joe and his brother when they were fledgling 20-something indie filmmakers in Cleveland, it was Soderbergh who put in a call to Marvel boss Kevin Fiege to recommend them for the job when they were pitching their take on Captain America. “He actually called us and said: ‘Are you really sure you want to go and do a comic book movie?’ And I said: ‘Look, I’ve been collecting these things since I was a child. I still have my comic book collection in my closet.’”
When he and Anthony unleash part two of Infinity War this time next year (they start editing it the moment promotional duties for this film are over), they’ll have made four gargantuan comic book movies in a row. Russo views them as very personal films, but also as single ten-hour movie, designed to eventually be binge-watched back-to-back, like so much of the great TV drama currently dominating culture.
“That’s one of the things that’s great about the Marvel universe. It took something that was going stale and reinvented it as serialised storytelling, spread out over several highly successful franchises. I think what makes Infinity War unique is that this is the end of that experiment. People have spent ten years, a decade of their lives, emotionally invested in these characters and now they’re going to get to see how it ends.”
Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas from Thursday