Interview | The Russo Brothers and Their Spider-Man Gambit

Joe and Anthony Russo have moxie, you’ve got to give them that. The co-directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier took on more than most filmmakers could handle with Captain America: Civil War. The film tears the Marvel Cinematic Universe apart, pushing Captain America and Iron Man into situations that would have been unthinkable to them in their first film: with the individualist Tony Stark fighting for government oversight, and the World War II patriot Steve Rogers taking a stand against the governments of the world.

And that’s just the start of it. Captain America: Civil War also introduces two new characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther and Spider-Man, played by Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland, who have to compete for screen time with practically every other Marvel superhero, who come to blows over the course of the movie.

Also: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ Review | Why We Fight

I sat down with The Russo Brothers and found out just how much of a gamble this movie really was. The filmmakers claim they developed Captain America: Civil War with Spider-Man playing a crucial role from the very beginning, convincing Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige to negotiate a deal with Sony Pictures by claiming there was no other way to make the movie. To quote Joe Russo: “He’s gotta be in the fucking film.”

The Russo Brothers also talked about the decision to introduce Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, what creative decisions they were able to make about Spider-Man before the hero was given his own solo Marvel Studios film, and why they think it’s okay for Tony Stark to enlist a minor to fight a war.

Beware of some spoilers. Read the interview and check out Captain America: Civil War, in theaters now.

Marvel Studios

Also: Don Cheadle on War Machine vs. Captain Planet (Exclusive Interview)

CraveOnline: This is a tricky movie because so much of it is about setting up future plans for the Marvel Universe, like introducing Black Panther and Spider-Man. But it has to be its own entity. What was handed to you? What were the bullet points Marvel said they needed in this movie?

Joe Russo: There was no real list of bullet points. It all came out of the function of storytelling. There was nothing Marvel gave us. Honestly we sat in a room with [Christopher] Markus, [Stephen] McFeely, Kevin [Feige] said “Do you want do to Cap 3?” Of course. We had a great experience on Cap 2. And we started to think about what it was that we could do to challenge the character moving forward.

You know, Civil War came after a long process of talking about all the different stories we could tell with Cap. Civil War became the most interesting to us because we wanted to take the character from the first movie to third film, on a journey from patriot to insurgent. We felt like the only way we could get him to become an insurgent was to tell a very emotional story. We thought the pieces that we had on the table that were most interesting were the fact that he had a new family and an old family. What if we stripped away everything that was left of the past except for one piece, which was this tortured character Bucky Barnes – who is in Cap’s mind the longest-suffering P.O.W. – and what if we put that in conflict with his new family, at the same time that the government was trying to get involved and enforce regulation on The Avengers?

So the characters then, that were added, were added for very specific reasons. We added Black Panther because we thought it would be interesting to have a free radical who didn’t have a point of view that was tied to what was happening in the movie, but had a very strong emotional motivation that had to do with the main plot. We brought in Spider-Man and Ant-Man because we wanted somebody on each team who…

…was a bug…

Anthony Russo: [Laughs.] Yes, yes. We HAD to have a bug!

Joe Russo: [Laughs.] We knew the tone of the movie could get predictable because everybody had emotional stakes, and when you have emotional stakes you can’t have characters cracking jokes because that subverts the emotional stakes for the movie. So Spider-Man and Ant-Man we knew would be characters who weren’t connected to the plot in the same way, emotionally.

So did you know from the beginning that you would be able to get Spider-Man?

Joe Russo: No.

Anthony Russo: No, but I’ll take you through that process. So at the beginning there’s nothing, you know what I mean? We’re not evening doing Civil War as Cap’s third movie. We know that it’s on the table as a possibility but here’s the thing, Marvel’s awesome in the sense of, “Here’s what we can offer you guys. We have various contracts with various actors, some of which can apply to this movie, some of which can’t, blah-blah-blah. Where do you want to go?”

So then you begin a process of brainstorming between us and Markus and McFeely, and Nate Moore who is a producer for Marvel, and Kevin. And we sort of figure out through the road that Joe just described to you, how are we going to crack Cap? How are we going to take Cap from patriot, where he started in The First Avenger, and turn him into an insurgent by the end of this movie? Which is something that turned us on as an idea. So there’s nothing there.

So the second we start going, “We really think Civil War is the road we want to go down,” well then it becomes, “Well bad news, guys, we don’t have a deal with Robert Downey Jr.” So that’s the next hurdle you have to cross. You have to figure out how you’re going to pitch Robert on the movie, why he should be in Cap 3. Everything. So it’s step by step. Same thing with Chadwick [Boseman]. They didn’t need to introduce Black Panther in this movie, but he was useful to us on a storytelling level for a very specific reason to bring him into the movie.

Marvel Studios

The difference was that you had access to Black Panther, relatively easily, whereas Spider-Man was a deal that had to be struck with Sony.

Anthony Russo: Spider-Man was the most complicated of all, because of that. You have to figure out a way to get two enormous corporations to share a valuable piece of property, which is very rare that competitors would share something like that. So basically all we can do, the role we played in that process, we come up with the creative idea. We’re like, “Here’s what we want to do with Spider-Man. Here’s WHY we want to do it with Spider-Man.” We’d come up with a very specific creative pitch that then Kevin becomes a part of, and then Kevin leads the charge with Sony in terms of figuring out how they can partner on this creative idea, why it’s a value-add for everybody.

That was a miracle feat of producing, both on a creative level and a business level, and we’re forever grateful to Kevin for working that out. And we were very exposed! We had to commit to the character at a creative level, long before he was available to us in a realistic way. So we had months and months where he was in our script, he was in our story, and we would never put him in the story unless we needed him in the story.

But he serves a dramatic function in the story because he alters the tone and gives you a new injection of life into a story that getting sort of dour.

Anthony Russo: Yeah.

If you didn’t get him, who was your backup plan?

Anthony Russo: We didn’t have a backup plan! This was the way we were making the movie!

Not even in the back of your head? It never occurred to you that maybe you couldn’t get him?

Joe Russo: Here’s why: when you’re trying to get two corporations to agree to something, if you are not vigilant, if not by the force of your will do you push these corporations to agree, if you give them even the smallest out, a one-percent out, they’re going to take it.

Anthony Russo: See, Joe and I had to be driven by… it’s like when you bluff in cards, you know what I’m saying? We had to be driven by complete conviction that we needed him in the movie. [Laughs.]

Joe Russo: That’s all we kept telling anybody who asked us. “He’s gotta be in the fucking film.”

Marvel Studios

Makes sense. How about when it comes down to creating Spider-Man? You’ve got to come up with a new look, casting. How much of that was you? How much of that was [Spider-Man: Homecoming director] Jon Watts? At what point did he come into the picture and was he involved at all in that process?

Anthony Russo: He wasn’t around during casting. It was before they hired Jon Watts.

Joe Russo: It was right around when they were hiring him.

Anthony Russo: But he wasn’t on the movie yet.

Joe Russo: Kevin is very good about separating the films, right? The interpretation of Spider-Man was exclusively for this movie. You look at the interpretation of Captain America, our interpretation in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very different from Joss [Whedon]’s interpretation of Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Yeah, but they need to be cohesive though…

Joe Russo: They do need to be cohesive, but in the same way that the comic books need to be cohesive. Different artists, different storytellers, it doesn’t fundamentally change the character but it’s different interpretations of the character and I think the fans appreciate that, you know? So for us the approach was about our interpretation of Spider-Man for this film, and what he meant to this movie. He was my favorite character growing up. I’ve been a comic book collector all my life. I still have my collection in my closet. There were things about him that, on a very elemental level, very mythological level, spoke to me. And that was his youth, that was his vulnerability, his insecurity, his sense of humor, his lack of self-awareness. So those were the things that we wanted to bring to the table with the character that were different than previous iterations of the character.

When Spider-Man is explaining himself to Tony Stark he gives a speech which is, essentially, a more elaborate version of “With great power there must come great responsibility.”

Joe Russo: That’s right.

Why avoid saying that actual phrase? Is it something that should be saved for his own film, or is he building up to that do you think…?

Anthony Russo: We were very intent on bringing Spider-Man… again, because this is a Captain America movie, and the tone that we established in The Winter Soldier was we are trying to do the slightly more realistic, grounded version of what a superhero movie can be, because we think that’s what complements Cap best as a character, on a stylistic level. Okay, so now you’re introducing Spider-Man in that movie. So it was very important for us, especially thinking about what had been done before with the character, that we cast him young. That we try to do a very realistic version of, who is a kid in New York City today? We felt like the movies that had come before, you know, they were a little more caught in the nostalgia. It’s almost like that 1950s New York. It was very important for us to make him part of the palette of what a kid is today, what a kid is in Queens today, so we tried to texture everything having to do with him to that. 

Joe Russo: And he’s not a kid who would necessarily come to that kind of profound realization yet. He still has a journey to go. You’re correct. It shouldn’t be in this film that he comes to that. However, we were intimating that there is a complicated history that this kid has, that there is an Uncle Ben in his past, and that’s something that clearly happened.

Marvel Studios

Was there any concern when you were developing the story that, essentially, this plot point is about Tony Stark enlisting a minor to a fight a battle against trained killers?

Joe Russo: Certainly.

Anthony Russo: Yes, we thought about that quite a bit. Yeah.

Joe Russo: And for us, the way that Tony is looking at it, and he says this when everything starts to fall apart… The kid says, “What do I do, Mr. Stark?” He says, “Keep your distance, web ‘em up.” He was brought there because Spider-Man is… and this may have to do with Tony’s clinical narcissism… but Spider-Man is the perfect non-lethal weapon that you can bring to a gunfight to tie people up with superpowers, who can create havoc if they’re not tied up quickly. So I think it was Tony’s intention to use the kid in a way where he would surprise or ambush Cap and his team, but Cap obviously outsmarted Tony by walking out there himself.

Anthony Russo: Also, Tony, through the little knowledge he has, through those sasquatch videos and what other research he’s done of who Peter Parker is, who Spider-Man is rather… he knows how strong he [Spider-Man] is. He is a kid but he also knows that he’s bringing an incredibly powerful individual into a difficult situation.

Was there ever any conversation about incorporating Daredevil, or Jessica Jones into this storyline? Because surely there’s some legal way you could do that, right?

Joe Russo: There certainly is, and the nice thing about Marvel is that you always consider those things. We can consider everything. But what we had on our plate, the storytelling real estate is very expensive in this movie in that you have a lot of other characters in the Marvel Universe that you need to service. There were stories that we knew we wanted to move forward, like Vision and Scarlet Witch.

What about just a reference, for example? I would think the Frank Castle murder trial would be very relevant to the issues that are being very publicly discussed in Civil War.

Joe Russo: It could certainly be very relevant to the issue. For us, we felt like we wanted to focus on the storytelling that had been established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to be honest, when we were making the film we were just going through the first season of Daredevil. Jessica Jones hadn’t even premiered yet. None of this stuff was really available to us at that time. We knew that Daredevil was coming up, but it wasn’t present yet and it hadn’t created a cultural conversation. So in our minds, until it had got on the air and succeeded, it wasn’t really necessarily in our bag of tricks.


William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.

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