The New York Times

'Avengers,' the Most Lucrative Movie Franchise Ever, Is Wrapping Up. Why?

BURBANK, Calif. — Everything ends, even if it might not feel that way right now for Joe and Anthony Russo. More than a year into the making of “Avengers: Infinity War,” these directing brothers were shuttling around the Walt Disney Studios here one evening in March, putting the finishing touches on their latest superhero blockbuster. The tasks that awaited them were mostly routine and unglamorous: rerecording dialogue with Elizabeth Olsen, who plays the Scarlet Witch; taking their last looks at a new trailer for the film, which opens Friday and sets up a battle royal in which every costumed champion in the Marvel universe must defend it against a genocidal titan named Thanos. With these duties out of the way, the Russo brothers have one more assignment to complete: successfully bringing the curtain down on the most lucrative franchise in Hollywood history. The 18 movies that preceded “Infinity War” were a risky feat unto themselves: a multihour narrative in which each installment handed off to the next — sometimes elegantly, sometimes awkwardly — and events in previous episodes had lasting effects on those that followed. Now Marvel is trying something equally unprecedented and potentially far riskier. In “Infinity War” and a subsequent “Avengers” movie that will open in May 2019, the Russos need to seamlessly incorporate dozens of major characters, all while bringing the franchise to a satisfying conclusion. “We’re not making any bones about the fact that we’re ending the first 10 years,” Joe Russo said later that night. “That’s what we pushed for.” This was hardly the outcome that the entertainment industry anticipated when the Marvel studio kicked off its current campaign in 2008 with “Iron Man” (considered a second-tier character at the time, but one of the few whose rights it controlled). A decade later, the runaway success of that film laid the foundation for a pantheon of Marvel movies, including “Captain America,” “Thor” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” These films revitalized the careers of enduring actors like Robert Downey Jr. (as the billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, aka Iron Man) and raised the profiles of relative unknowns like Chris Evans (as the supersoldier Steve Rogers, alias Captain America). The studio has breathed lucrative new life into its decades-old comic-book properties, and built a ravenous fan base for each new character it introduces at the multiplex. (Witness the $1.3 billion global box office for its latest hit, “Black Panther,” which opened in February.) Now Marvel says it wants to clear the table it has spent the last 10 years arranging and make way for something new. “Telling a great story requires a great ending,” Kevin Feige, the Marvel Studios president, said. “When you dedicate yourself to that, it shifts the way you think.” Audiences are about to find out what finality looks like for a motion-picture money-minting machine: Will the story actually come to a conclusion? Will characters die and will actors leave the series? Whatever the answers, they have already been reached with the help of the Russo brothers, two of Marvel’s most consistent and diligent — if not widely recognized — filmmakers. When they finish their “Avengers” movies, which they shot back to back over 18 months, the Russos will complete their own improbable arc, from indie-cinema oddballs to TV comedy moguls to directors of possibly the biggest franchise in movie history. The brothers — Anthony, 48, the bespectacled brainstormer, and Joe, 46, the square-jawed pragmatist — have contrasting but complementary energies. As Downey described them, Anthony is “a bit more reflective, a yin guy,” while Joe is the intense yang of the partnership: “Bitcoin was invented to keep Joe Russo from killing himself during the last 20 percent of the shoot,” Downey said. When they’re together, Downey added, “It’s like the two of them make a third thing that’s better than any one person could be.” The Russos grew up in Cleveland, where their father, Basil M. Russo, served as Democratic majority leader of the City Council. When the city went into an economic tailspin in the 1970s and ‘80s, the brothers immersed themselves in movies and learned to appreciate their creative isolation. As Anthony Russo explained it, “The virtue of growing up in the industrial Midwest is you have nothing to rub up against you and no one to tell you that you can’t do what you want to do, because nobody’s doing anything. You can just be a dreamer.” They spent three years and $30,000 writing and directing an independent feature, “Pieces,” about three brothers — also named the Russos — who dabble in crime. Despite some withering reviews — Variety called it an “unabashed vanity project” — “Pieces” caught the attention of Steven Soderbergh at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival. With his help, the Russos made their first studio movie, a comic crime caper called “Welcome to Collinwood,” with George Clooney, William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell. But it flopped at its release in 2002. For the next several years, the Russos focused on directing television shows, including “Lucky,” a short-lived FX series, and “Arrested Development,” the rapid-fire satire that became a cult hit on Fox. Despite critical acclaim, “Arrested Development” got notoriously low ratings. But the Russos said this lack of attention was a blessing in disguise, allowing them to experiment with narrative, tone and pacing, unencumbered by interfering network executives. “They so didn’t get the show that they really didn’t care what you did,” Anthony Russo said, adding, “It was a huge creative upside.” The Russos used NBC’s “Community,” another well-reviewed comedy with a meager viewership, to stage elaborate tributes to “Star Wars” and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. It was here that their work caught Marvel’s attention. At the time, the studio was generating hits with its earliest superhero offerings, made by established filmmakers — “Iron Man,” directed by Jon Favreau; “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston. But Marvel wanted to expand its portfolio rapidly and bring in TV directors. Marvel also wanted to shift the tone of its “Captain America” movies, starting with the 2014 sequel, “The Winter Soldier.” “The first one was a fairly patriotic, gung-ho World War II movie,” said Christopher Markus, who wrote the “Captain America” films with Stephen McFeely. “You can’t make a string of those before you get slightly nauseous.” The goal of “The Winter Soldier,” Markus said, was to show Captain America “losing faith in all the institutions that had made him, giving you a way to see him as relevant in the modern era.” The Russos envisioned “The Winter Soldier” as a modern-day upgrade of espionage thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor,” and the studio responded strongly. When the movie sold $714 million in tickets worldwide, Feige said the Russos “redefined the franchise — not just the Cap franchise but all the Marvel movies going forward.” “They found a way to keep the wonder, keep the spectacle, but ground it even more in realism,” Feige said. “Which is a word I use lightly when it comes to our movies.” The Russos succeeded again with “Captain America: Civil War,” an overstuffed 2016 sequel in which the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and a new incarnation of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) were introduced, and the adventurers took sides in a conflict between Cap and Iron Man. Even before “Civil War” became a $1.15 billion global smash, Marvel had already started putting the pieces in place for what Feige called “the big finale of the initial story line we were developing.”

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