Ten years ago Wednesday, Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” soared into theaters, marking the first shot fired in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film, released May 2, 2008, changed the game forever, though it wasn’t instantaneous. Nothing as massively successful as this possibly could be. But it was the introductory step in what would ultimately yield a 19-film (and climbing) on-screen tapestry that this past weekend culminated in the biggest opening weekend in movie box office history.
The Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, have been at the fore of Marvel’s march, helming first the “Captain America” sequels “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” and now the gargantuan “Infinity War.” What advice would they have for anyone else who might be struggling to realize such a feat with their own intellectual properties?
“Yeah, don’t do it,” Joe Russo says. “Not everything can be sustained through a cinematic universe.”
It’s a pithy response but there’s obviously truth in it. A film like “Infinity War” could not happen without the mosaic of Marvel Studios’ decade of efforts behind it. It’s unprecedented. It’s not something you can simply conjure on the spot. But for the Russos, there’s something even more interesting behind the success of this franchise: the evolution of viewing habits, and what that could mean for creativity going forward.
“I think all of this — Netflix, Marvel, ‘Star Wars,’ this massive moment of disruption we’re in — is really a function of audiences craving new kinds of storytelling,” Russo says. “I think we had a really nice run for 100 years of two-hour, two-dimensional storytelling, but I think over the next decade, decade-and-a-half, you’re going to see a radical shift in how stories are told.”
He argues that Netflix dumping 10 episodes of a show on a Friday is in and of itself a new version of long-form narrative, one you can choose to consume at your leisure. That’s why it is a paradigm that has been so successful for younger audiences.
“It’s another way to digest content, and that structure is less predictive to them,” he says. “We have seen so much content that every average moviegoer has a level of sophistication in their ability to predict what is going to happen in a movie, which is why Anthony and I spent a lot of time trying to hide the secrets of [‘Avengers: Infinity War’], misdirect the way the trailers were cut, misdirect with information. It’s too easy for them to intuit what is going to happen.”
Hollywood is an imitative culture. If something works, you can bank on attempts at duplication. So in the wake of Marvel’s achievement, other studios have been quick to hunt down their own path to a similar endgame. Attempts at cinematic universes involving DC Comics characters like Batman and Superman, the Hasbro and Lego toy lines, Universal’s movie monsters, and, of course, that galaxy far, far away, are ongoing. But Russo says the focus should be less on squeezing into a paradigm mold and more on expanding what’s possible with the much broader concept of visual storytelling.
“The advice would be to continue to look for new ways to tell stories, because I think the audience is open to it,” he says. “There is traditionally a generational divide, but I think this new generation is going to advance storytelling in a way we haven’t seen in a long time because of the tech advancements in their lives and the way they are used to digesting content on YouTube and social media in much more compressed formats, more facile, fluid. And they like longterm emotional commitment, but there’s lots of ways to engender that that do not involve building out a universe.”
For more from Russo, and his brother Anthony, on their latest Marvel blockbuster, check out the latest episode of Variety and iHeartRadio’s “Playback” podcast.