By Gina McIntyre
April 25, 2018 at 03:00 PM EDT
Credit: Zade Rosenthal/© Marvel Studios 2018

Anthony Russo was midway through a sentence when an ear-piercing sound brought him up short. Joe Russo heard it too. But the other party on the line? Nothing. “It had to be Thanos, because I’ve never heard a sound like that,” Joe Russo said, referring to the cosmic villain bedeviling the universe in their new film Avengers: Infinity War. “Or,” offered his brother, “after shooting for a year straight, we’re collectively insane now.”

To be fair, the monumental undertaking that is directing the Biggest Avengers Movie Ever would be enough to maybe make anyone hear things that weren’t there. But if any two people would be prepared to helm the massive superhero adventure, it’s the Russos. After cutting their teeth in television on such critically acclaimed series as Arrested Development and Community and the 2002 indie movie Welcome to Collinwood, the fraternal directing partners graduated to blockbusters with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And they’ve remained in the Marvel universe ever since.

Paying homage to classics such as The French Connection, the Russos dropped Chris Evans’s upstanding hero into the morass of modern politics with a smart thriller that pushed the MCU in a clever new direction. On the heels of that success, they made what was then the biggest movie for the blockbuster factory — Captain America: Civil War, which pitted about 74 beloved heroes (Okay, more like 12, but who’s counting?) against one another for the battle of the century. But even that roster pales in comparison to Infinity War, which features virtually every major star in the galaxy and scales up the action further than ever before.

We caught up with the directors as they were putting the finishing touches on the new Biggest Avengers Movie Ever (which was shot back-to-back with next year’s follow-up) to find out how it feels to assemble all those superheroes, how they balanced building a compelling adventure with crafting important character moments, and how they’re liking Chris Evans’s newly bearded Captain America.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the culmination of a decade of some of the most successful blockbuster moviemaking in history. How much pressure did you feel?
JOE RUSSO: You have to expel all pressure from your life. You can’t make decisions based on what you think people want to see…because it clouds your judgment. You can’t please all the fans. You go online, you go on Twitter — everybody wants something different from these movies. What we do on each film, we try to appease ourselves. We’re comic-book fans. I still have my comic-book collection that I’ve had for 30 years in my closet. We grew up emotionally attached to this material. We love these characters. We try to make films that appeal to us, and we hope that everyone else loves it as much as we do.

How difficult is it to service so many characters and at the same time tell a clear, concise story?
ANTHONY RUSSO: It’s a real challenge, but Joe and I have always thrived on creative challenges. Joe and I have always been drawn to ensemble storytelling. Part of the reason we like ensembles is we love density of storytelling, the ability to approach a narrative or a movie from various points of view…. We had more characters than we ever had to deal with before in a movie like this, but one of the great things we had to work with is that most of these characters have been alive in the MCU. There have been stories told about them. Audiences have invested in them emotionally. We can build upon all that capital…. We don’t have to do a lot of work building up who these people are to the audience.
JR: A movie like this couldn’t exist outside of the Marvel universe because if you had to tell all the backstories and all the character history of each person in this movie it would be a 14-hour film. That’s why the film is creatively unique. There’s not a lot of movies that have been able to do that, to build upon a larger mosaic.

The tone of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is very different from the Captain America movies. How did you reconcile those differences to find the tone for this film?
JR: Again, that is part of what’s exciting about it for us. We feel like mad scientists in a laboratory experimenting, pouring different beakers into one another and hoping things don’t explode. You pull everybody closer to one another in a way. You pull the Guardians closer to the Avengers’ tone. You pull the Avengers closer to the Guardians’ tone…. It’s a different interpretation of the Guardians than you’ve seen. It’s a different interpretation of the Avengers than you’ve seen. Our motto as we have proceeded on these movies is keeping it fresh and surprising for the audience. I don’t want to go in knowing exactly what I’m going to get.

How did you set up Thanos to believably make him the greatest threat that the universe has ever seen?
JR: Josh Brolin brings a gravitas and an intensity and a confidence and — this will be tricky for people to understand until they see the movie — a vulnerability and a warmth. This movie is told from the point of Thanos. It’s a unique film in that way. Working in a narrative mosaic as complex as the Marvel universe, you can actually take a film and ascribe it to a villain. I hope this goes a long way toward any villain issues people have with the Marvel films. He doesn’t pull any punches, and the stakes are life and death for him. His goal is a lifelong goal, and it’s in direct conflict to what the Avengers and the Guardians want. He’s willing to fight to the death for it, Thanos.

You shot the film exclusively with IMAX cameras. Why?
JR: We felt like we wanted the biggest canvas possible to tell [this] story. IMAX is unique to modern cinema, and we felt it was an incredible opportunity to really exploit the scale of that format. Frankly, some of the alien characters, including Thanos, are very large and the top to bottom that IMAX brings complements the size of the characters in the frame.

You’ve staged two of Marvel’s greatest action sequences — the Winter Soldier car chase and the airport battle scene in Civil War. How do you top those?AR: We approach action the same way we approach storytelling. You can’t really just go, “We’re going to do the greatest action sequence ever!” You have to find it within the movie, within the storytelling. In the same way we want to challenge a character on an emotional level, on a dramatic level, we want to challenge them on an action level. The whole airport sequence in Civil War was all built around character.
JR: These [Avengers] movies in particular are heading toward the greatest battles of all time in the Marvel universe because of the amount of heroes involved and because of the formidableness of the villain. Hopefully people [will] find it as thrilling as the car chase or the airport sequence.

They can marvel at Cap’s new facial hair.
AR: We do love the beard.

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Avengers Infinity War cover
Credit: Marvel Studios