Directors Anthony and Joe Russo didn’t aim to make a film that directly reflects real-world events, from drone wars to Snowden to ISIS to iconic figures facing off across an anxious electoral divide. Yet their movie is deftly attuned to the political tenor of our times, which is what they’re contemplating on a damp-gray afternoon Thursday as they sit in a Southwest Washington hotel, looking out over the Potomac River. And they are sitting pretty as that new film, Disney/Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” earned glowing reviews and grossed more than a quarter-billion dollars on foreign shores even before its U.S. opening this weekend.
The film pits two friends against each other: Army-bred super-soldier Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and billionaire industrialist Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Their heated philosophical split — over whether superheroes should be forced to register with the United Nations as a result of collateral damage they’ve caused while trying to save civilians — divides a dozen or so characters collectively called the Avengers. The backdrop of geopolitical terror helps tie the story to true-life issues.
“We wanted the movie to raise questions — political questions,” Joe Russo says. “They’re unanswerable questions. We certainly don’t want to provide any answers in the movie. And Cap and Tony — you could absolutely say that they represent different political points of view [on] … the question of security vs. individual freedom.”
“Which is unresolvable,” interjects Anthony Russo, from behind thin-rimmed eyeglasses. The brothers, both in their 40s, were born a year apart, and seem to easily complete each other’s train of thought.
The Russos directed Marvel’s previous hit film in this franchise, 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” in which evil forces (including a villainous Robert Redford) infiltrated the espionage/counterterrorism agency that works with the Avengers. In the new film, the directors illustrate the impact of violent missions across national borders, as carried out by superpowers — a word that has an apt double meaning here.
“I think the most specific we get to actual real-world politics in this movie is that we correlate superpowers and superheroes with the idea that if you go where you want to in the world, and if you do what you want to do when you go there … you’re going to create a pushback against the use of power there,” says Anthony, who, like his brother, is outfitted in black and gray tones. “Because you’re using power, somebody is going to feel disempowered. And there’s going to be a reaction.”
Through their careers, the Russos have moved from the festival circuit (making their French new wave-inspired film “Pieces” on a credit-card budget) to acclaimed sitcoms (“Arrested Development”) to the type of massive superhero movie that Joe calls “a billion-dollar bet” by the studio. And though the Brothers Russo might be from Cleveland — the creative birthplace of DC Comics’ Superman — they say they grew up as bigger fans of the more flawed and relatable characters of Marvel Comics.
Now, at Marvel Studios, the Russos — who have signed on to direct the next two “Avengers” films — seem to have the ideal storytelling home to marry the love of comics they read as kids with the kind of intelligent action films that also influenced them, such as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The French Connection.”
Captain America has always been an inherently sociopolitical character, from his World War II origins — when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby introduced him with cover art that has Cap sock Hitler in the jaw — to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” when the returning hero was ferreting out evil forces within his agency.
“Cap goes on a journey, from being a patriot in a black-and-white conflict to a complete insurgent,” Joe says of Captain America’s arc, from his first film’s World War II setting to the present-day afterward. “Once he goes to sleep for 70 years and wakes up and escapes sort of the deflowering of America, as we slowly were beat into a cynical state as a culture — he missed Watergate, Vietnam, he missed everything — he gets slotted into what is perhaps the most clandestine and secretive organization on the planet, which he doesn’t trust” when it is infiltrated in the second film.
“Captain America: Civil War,” the character’s third solo film, delves deeper into his distrust of government, in a way that resonates amid current campaign issues. The Avengers are forced to choose — like some superhero-level voters — whether they want bigger or smaller government in their own lives in the aftermath of tragedy.
“I think that people, when they’re fearful, [can] be radicalized. There are candidates on each side of the line that are pushing the envelope farther than we’ve ever seen it … or [at least] in a while,” Joe Russo says of the current election cycle.
“There’s no answer, so you start to reach farther and farther for the answer, for a potential solution, right?” Anthony says. “Because you’re not seeing it in the zone where you normally live.”
“The ‘solution’ becomes either ‘It’s the 1-percent’s fault,’ on one side of the line, or, “It’s everybody’s fault who’s not me,” Joe interjects.
As the damp-gray clouds part, the Russo brothers are in view of the Washington Monument, which looms tall like Stark Tower in the Marvel universe. As for any real-life echoes, at least no actual political leader resorts to that gimmick — putting his name on towers.
The brothers laugh, and Joe says ironically, “We dodged that bullet.”