Seven years ago in a caravan in west Berlin, Joe and Anthony Russo were waxing lyrical to me about Francois Truffaut. I was visiting the set of Captain America: Civil War, and the brothers – two sitcom-circuit veterans who’d been hand-picked to direct the previous Captain America film by Marvel boss Kevin Feige – were keen to stress their cinephile credentials.
Their current venture, Joe stressed, was “very influenced by a lot of European cinema. Truffaut is our favourite director. Shoot the Piano Player is probably our favourite movie.”
“We love absurdism, but especially when it’s married to a sense of realism and drama,” added Anthony, adding that they’d also been guided by their admiration for William Friedkin and Brian De Palma, while The Godfather was a Christmas staple at their house. A few years later while doing press for Avengers: Endgame, they were hymning Michelangelo Antonioni, telling Indiewire that the psychological charge of that film’s backdrops had been influenced by the Italian’s 1964 existential masterpiece Red Desert.
How much Truffaut and Antonioni are actually detectable in All-Star Smashy Bang Boom 4 is up for discussion, but even so, it’s hard not to love this sort of interview gambit. At the very least, it’s humanising – it proves the subjects aren’t automatons or cynics, and that their ideas started life in a special place.
There’s quite some distance between these sunny exchanges and the blood-freezing horror of the brothers’ conversation with Variety published earlier this week. Here we learned that cinema in its current form is in terminal decline, the future of screen performance is AI-powered deepfakes, and the Hollywood musical de nos jours is Guy Ritchie riffing on TikTok.
“We’re futurists,” Anthony told the magazine, while Joe detailed a filmmaking philosophy that involved “stretch[ing] the limits of IP” – that is, intellectual property, which means pre-existing characters and franchises. In terms of one of their forthcoming projects – Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Disney’s Hercules, which the Russos are producing – that means taking a creative cue from TikTok dances, as opposed to the 1930s screwball romances which influenced the original 1997 animation, by John Musker and Ron Clements.
Will this have the crowds jigging in the aisles? Who cares? Generation Z “don’t have the same emotional connection to watching things in a theatre,” they went on, suggesting the theatrical business peaked with their Avengers films: “It will never happen again,” Joe predicted, before describing an apparently desirable scenario in which audiences at home can interrupt actors mid-flow – or rather their digitally conscious CG doppelgängers – to ask them for behind-the-scenes tidbits.
I’m not suggesting the Avengers: Endgame directors’ prophecies won’t come to pass, but they’re infinitely more depressing than anything Thanos ever did. Bizarrely heedless, too. You might imagine that two of the men behind the second and fifth most commercially successful films of all time might recognise the enduring value of the communal film-watching experience. But no. Apparently that’s on the way out, with the art-house scene bound for extinction first (presumably the same art-house scene on which Everything Everywhere All At Once, produced by Messrs J and A Russo, just made $100 million worldwide).
Clearly in Hollywood such talk sounds desperately innovative, since every studio with money to burn is currently setting light to wheelbarrows of the stuff at the Russos’ feet. In addition to Hercules for Disney, they’re working on a sequel to The Gray Man and a sci-fi blockbuster called The Electric State for Netflix; and for Amazon, a multi-strand spy serial called Citadel with spin-off seasons made in Italy and India, as well as a series-length reboot of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
But to these ears, it just sounds like jadedness – perhaps tinged with guilt over the way their Avengers films made the theatrical side of the business so much more homogenised and risk-averse. It’s also hard to square with the reality of the Russos’ own post-Marvel work to date. Were Cherry and The Gray Man bold steps into the cinematic unknown? Because they looked respectively more like an unpersuasive Oscar grab and an off-brand Mission: Impossible, both built primarily to plug gaps in streaming services’ slates.
It’s worth contrasting the Russos’ take on the cinema of tomorrow with that of James Cameron, whose visionary status is beyond dispute. In the latest round of interviews for his forthcoming Avatar sequel, the 68-year-old director was asked to explain the rationale behind shooting its many subaquatic sequences in an old-fashioned water tank, when the scenes could have easily been mocked up on dry land.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that it looks good?” he snorted. “Come on! You want it to look like the people are underwater, so they need to be underwater. It’s not some gigantic leap — if you were making a western, you’d be out learning how to ride a horse.”
For Cameron, the future of film still strongly resembles its past, albeit in pin-sharp, VFX-draped 3D. What the Russos are describing, on the other hand, sounds like the movie equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse: a sideshow that’s mistaken itself for a replacement. I mean, who knows? Perhaps there really is a sizeable market for a Tom Cruise hologram you can badger from your sofa. But it won’t be anyone’s new version of seeing Top Gun: Maverick in IMAX.