Meet the “Mad Scientists” Behind ‘Captain America: Civil War’

In their latest film, directors Joe and Anthony Russo explore the morality of the Star-Spangled Avenger

Russo Bros
Joe (left) and Anthony (right) Russo at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International. Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

What is America’s place in the world today? What should it be? These questions aren’t just talking points for the nation’s political pundits, but also for its superheroes. In the upcoming film Captain America: Civil War, directors Joe and Anthony Russo dig into the ideological core of what their hero stands for.

“Part of what we loved about exploring Captain America is moving beyond his very specific identity with the country and thinking what does the idea of America represent to the world,” says Anthony. He, along with his brother, will be discussing adapting Captain America to the big screen with NPR’s Linda Holmes on May 5 as featured speakers at a Smithsonian Associates event. When the brothers spoke with in early April, they had just locked and delivered the last shot of the film that morning, so they were only beginning to talk about how they wanted to present the film. “I don’t know if our thoughts are clear yet,” said Joe at the time, “We are very much looking forward to it.”

Captain America has always fought for American values ever since 1941, when Timely Comics, a predecessor of Marvel Comics, introduced Steve Rogers, a wannabe G.I. dosed with "Super-Soldier serum" during World War II who becomes the patriotic hero. 

In previous Marvel movies, though, fighting for the red, white and blue has not posed a serious moral quandary. In the 2011 Captain America: First Avenger, Captain fights Red Skull, the face of a terrorist organization called Hydra. Though 2014's Captain America: Winter Soldier might start with Cap struggling against the U.S. government, ultimately the film reveals that he is once again actually challenging Hydra, which has infiltrated the system. In Civil War, premiering May 6, the Russos didn’t give a clear enemy for Cap as a way of pressing their hero's own understanding of liberty and justice. 

“Cap is a very difficult character because his moral code is so strong, which is something we admire, but it can veer into making him too simplistic of a character, who’s too fixed to have ambiguity,” says Joe. “We wanted to strike a balance with Cap, to honor his moral fortitude and strength, while at the same time fighting to make him more vulnerable.”

Civil War borrows the philosophy but not the plotline from the comic book series of the same name. In the film, Captain America must choose between government regulation and individual privacy rights when the U.S. Secretary of State draws up the so-called “Sokovia Accords” that essentially would put the Avengers under the control of the United Nations. Finding a way to unpack what 21st-century American values mean to the superhero required understanding how a changing country resonates with a modern Captain America.

"One of the great things about America—which is thought of in many ways as one of the most successful societies that the world has ever had—is that we have such a strong emphasis on the individual," says Anthony. "What it means to be American or the idea of being American boils down to the expression of the individual."

Seizing on this personal interpretation gave the brothers an opportunity to explore the moral code of the Star-Spangled Avenger. “This is the most flawed Captain America has been,” says Joe.

While the brothers say their story isn’t a specific allegory to any one headline, Civil War does draw on the news of the day. “We do think very specifically about the political climate and what kind of anxieties are created with it,” says Anthony. “How we connect with rest of the world in this day and age, the unconventional style of war where countries are not officially involved in war as nation states, the idea of super powers moving in and out of national borders, doing what they want, even if it is in the cause of peace and justice.” 

Though the story makes no reference toward America's Civil War, that chapter in U.S. history did help inform the heaviness of pitting loved ones against one another. "Literally families were divided by the idea of north and south, that’s the idea that we carried forward," says Joe.

As proud members of a large Italian-American family, they say they drew more inspiration from the intense ways that actual families can clash. "We'd liken it to a wedding," says Joe, which helps explain why the brothers have cited The Godfather as one of their influences for Civil War

Westerns, especially The Searchers, also informed their storytelling. "Western characters have strong polemics," says Anthony. "There's an emotional motivation for each character, a strong motivation driving toward a showdown. That's the same concept that lies behind Civil War that pits two famous characters against each other in the Marvel universe." 

Civil War is the brothers second go at directing a Marvel film, and while they envisioned their first Marvel movie, the critically acclaimed Winter Soldier, as a political thriller, relying on the external plot for conflict, in Civil War, they shot the character-driven clash of titans like a psychological thriller. The brothers, who describe themselves as “mad scientists” during their creative process, are known for taking contrary elements and meshing them together—a staple in their work dating back to "Arrested Development," where they fused reality television with absurdist humor. 

“That’s kind of how we approach everything,” says Joe. “In Civil War we’re smashing into a psychological thriller, hybridizing genres together. We love superhero movies and finding ways to dement and subvert them to take audiences to new places.”

Joe and Anthony Russo will be speaking with NPR’s Linda Holmes at a Smithsonian Associates event held at the University of the District of Columbia's Theater of the Arts on May 5. Captain America: Civil War premieres May 6.

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