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'Avengers: Infinity War,' the Russo Brothers, and Marvel's pivoting director strategy

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Zade Rosenthal

It’s official: Joe and Anthony Russo will direct Avengers: Infinity War—Part 1 and Avengers: Infinity War—Part 2, the threequel duology that will close out the superhero movie decade in May 2018 and May 2019.

The Winter Soldier directors were all-but-confirmed a couple weeks ago, but Marvel formally announced it today—presumably to allow the upcoming press tour for Avengers: Age of Ultron to function as an extended farewell tour for Joss Whedon. (The good news: Nobody will ask Joss Whedon if he’s sticking around to direct Infinity War. The bad news: Everyone will now ask Joss Whedon if he’s going to direct Captain Marvel. The good news for the magical-thinking quadrant of the Internet: This definitely means he finally has time to make Serenity 2.)

The hiring of the Russos caps an intriguing month for Marvel Kremlinologists. At the start of March, the Russos signed a deal with Sony, which led to scattered rumors that they were developing a Channing Tatum-fronted Ghostbusters—which would be just like Kristen Wiig’s Ghostbusters, except with more guys, except not necessarily with only guys, but probably definitely with mostly guys. It’s unclear if the Russos will still be working on any Sony projects: They’re currently busy on next year’s Captain America: Civil War. Theoretically, they could fit a movie in between Cap 3 and Avengers 3.1, but you could also see today’s announcement as a sign that Marvel is trying to lock down their talent.

Either way, signing the Russos to Avengers reflects a shift in Marvel Studios’ relationship with directors. For most of the 2000s, it was common for studios to give directors ownership over their blockbuster franchises: Think Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Gore Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy, JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek, or Michael Bay’s Transformers. After the first Iron man helped establish the Marvel Studios brand, the company brought back Jon Favreau to helm the second Iron Man, but that was starting to look like an exception: Making that second Iron Man was a fun experience for pretty much nobody. All the Phase 2 solo films were directed by replacements: Kenneth Branagh handed off Thor to Alan Taylor, while Joe Johnston lost Captain America to the Russos.

Marvel keeps its cards close to the vest, but it was easy to psychoanalyze the shift. Branagh and Johnston were feature directors. Taylor and Russo came from the world of television, where directors have less control than showrunners. And Kevin Feige is essentially the showrunner of the Marvel universe. Whedon’s role in the company was an intriguing exception–he wrote his films and was on retainer to polish the solo spinoffs. But he was an exception: Marvel parted ways with legitimate auteur Edgar Wright just a few weeks before Ant-Man started filming. Neither Marvel nor Wright has said anything official about the dissolution of their partnership; presumably, it didn’t happen because Edgar Wright was just too good at following Marvel’s orders.

The late 2000s saw a general industrial shift away from director-centric blockbusters. Twilight changed directors with every adaptation; the rebooted Star Wars series has already hired four directors before a single film hits theaters. Even so, Marvel Studios’ house style sets it apart from the rest of the industry; as a production company, it’s more comparable to an Old Hollywood studio, complete with actors on contract and in-house craftsmen.

Still, even Old Hollywood studios needed good directors—no-fuss folk like Michael Curtiz. Or maybe the better comparison is the Broccoli family, who spent the first few decades of the Bond franchise shuttling between Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert, and John Glen.

So it’s interesting to see how Marvel has pivoted in the last year. In the first wave, it hired feature directors to launch their franchises. In Phase 2, it’s instead hired up-and-coming directors and given them a chance to develop. Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were a one-two punch of critical and commercial acclaim; now Marvel has locked in all of the filmmakers behind that big 2014, with James Gunn working on Guardians 2 and developing ideas for Guardians 3.

The Broccoli family famously never wanted to work with a powerful director, and seemed allergic to filmmakers with a radically unique style. This is why we never had Steven Spielberg’s James Bond or Quentin Tarantino’s Casino Royale. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Marvel ever working with a high-powered director or any up-and-coming director with a truly bold take on the material. (Forget Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man; just imagine Patty Jenkins’ Thor 2.) But Marvel stays true to its talent: With Whedon leaving, Gunn and the Russos are now the standard-bearers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s artistic continuity. Before 2014, Gunn was a director of small indie films, and the Russos filmed sitcom episodes. Collectively, they are working on arguably the biggest movies of 2017, 2018, and 2019.

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