There’s more to the Russo Brothers than flashy heroes in tight spandex. Aside from the Marvel films that made them famous, the directing duo have intriguing ideas that often find their way into their movies, and a distinctive, if uneven visual style that’s nonetheless engaging. Above all, the Russos have an eye for sleek, fast-paced action reminiscent of the gloriously over-the-top heights of John Woo’s days of campy action cinema.
It might not be Kubrick or Godard – and let’s face it, they never will be – but they’re not the kind of directors you get rid of like yesterday’s news. In fact, Anthony and Joseph Russo have the potential for greatness. Their films have personality and flair, a combo which, coupled with their signature use of energetic, hectic shots, provides a sense of dynamism that few other directors can match. Best of all, they’re not all style and substance; the siblings make sure to imbue their sequences with as much personality as possible. Yes, the Russos could be respected and daring great directors recognized for their contributions to the blockbuster landscape, creating ambitious but commercially viable large-scale films. But will they ever be?
They’re back with Netflix’s gargantuan production, The gray mana film that carries a $200 million production tag, making it the most expensive film from the streaming giant. Yet this hard-spent cash doesn’t appear anywhere in the film’s trailers, and if it is, it’s well hidden behind layers of gray. The movie looks ugly, yes, but there’s no denying that the Russos’ gift for thrilling, stylish, and wonderfully executed action pieces elevates it. The gray man should be solid confirmation that the Russos are capable of so much more than everyone gives them credit for, so why is it so hard for everyone to admit it? More importantly, why don’t the Russos themselves live up to the flashes of grandeur their movies constantly show?
From small-screen prodigies to MCU heroes
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The Russos built their early career around comedy, directing memorable episodes of modern classics like Development stopped, Communityand happy endings. They even won an Emmy for their work in Development stopped‘s pilot, an episode whose reputation has improved somewhat over the years despite universal praise at the time. The pilot episode is sophisticated but fast-paced, showcasing many of the Russos’ strengths as dynamic storytellers. Those same strengths are curiously missing from the siblings’ first commercial outing, You, me and Dupreea movie so bad it’s best never to be talked about again.
Still, the Russos were talented enough to catch the eye of Marvel honcho Kevin Feige, who tapped them to direct the disappointing sequel. Captain America: The First Avenger. The Russos were an inspired if somewhat odd choice, but one of Feige’s greatest strengths has always been his ability to spot talent. His investment paid off, as the siblings took Marvel’s two good shoes and turned him into the inspirational hero he was always meant to be.
Objectively speaking, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still the best MCU movie. It’s the perfect blend of every little thing and big thing that makes a Marvel movie great, striking a balance that few other entries in the sprawling cinematic universe achieve. winter soldier is fun and funny without ever sacrificing thematic weight to cheap humor; it’s fast-paced and gripping without getting too forgiving with its action pieces; he’s stoic enough to sell his freedom-for-security plot without getting too dark or dark. Above all, it includes the characters at its core, using them not only to tell its story but to enrich its action sequences.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the Russos brothers. They figured out who Captain America was and managed to translate his character into the language of the action genre. We can say that Steve is Cap in and out of uniform. His personality comes through loud and clear, whether he’s giving one of his semi-condescending speeches or punching Brock Rumlow. winter soldierThe action scenes are graceful while remaining unforgiving. They’re fast-paced and desperate, conveying a sense of realism that no Marvel movie has had before.
The Russos changed the Marvel Cinematic Universe by delivering a superhero movie that dared to be something more than just a comic book adaptation. Like Christopher Nolan before them, the siblings have mixed genres, crafting a spy story masquerading as a superhero tale. winter soldier has superimposed and, dare we say, important themes that pose real questions about the power that institutions hold over the lives of civilians. The film was unassuming yet confident, successfully presenting its ideas without beating the audience with them.
Logically, Feige reserved them for a third party Captain America film and to direct the ambitious avengers crossings after he-who-must-not-be-named is disenchanted with the franchise following the disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron. But the magic of the Russos lay in their freshness, the innovation they brought to the MCU. Replicating it in future projects cheapened it, and soon their style was not a welcome change of pace but franchise standard. By the time End of Game arrived, the Russos were as intrinsic to the MCU as Feige himself.
Let’s get rid of this: Cherry is bad. Genuinely and shamelessly bad, despite the Russo Brothers’ best intentions and Tom Holland’s committed performance. The film is stylized to the point of ridiculousness, mainly because the Russos always seem to be in breakout mode. And given that it’s supposed to be a shocking story of addiction and PTSD, escapism isn’t exactly the angle we’d go for. it doesn’t help that Holland is arguably miscast in the rolestruggling in a role his agent probably thought would help him escape the awkward teenage image shaped by the Spider Man movies.
There’s something of value hidden inside Cherryplentiful layers, but the Russos can’t look past their own paraphernalia to search for it. The film is most at home in war scenes, where the siblings’ penchant for dynamic storytelling takes center stage. However, it is not enough to save him from his own devices. Cherry often feels like the youngest child trying on an older brother’s clothes and putting on a deep voice to try and act like an adult. Everything from the bizarre and often laughable editing choices to the clunky script contributes to creating an environment of chaos that stifles the story.
Above all, there is a certain despair in Cherry. It’s a clear attempt by a director couple and an actor to break away from the superhero imagery that has become so ingrained in their characters. The story is shocking and straightforward, the kind of vehicle in your face that could have landed Oliver Stone and River Phoenix Oscar nominations in the early 90s. However, it gets less serious in the hands of the Russos and Holland, no not because of their connection to Marvel but because of their inexperience with a genre that demands a level of intensity they can’t convey.
With The gray man, the Russos return to familiar territory. It’s a massive production with big stars in the lead and a powerful studio behind it. The plot is everything one would expect from a $200 million Netflix production, but the selling point here is the Russos and the two main men at the center of the action, Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans.
On paper, The gray man may seem like a paycheck gig — it’s almost certainly for Gosling and Evans. However, the Russos have more at stake here; this movie is about going back to basics and proving that they are still major players in the Hollywood game, especially after the Cherry debacle. The gray man is their chance to prove that they remain bankable and viable options for any studio’s tentpole; in that sense, they apparently succeeded. Early reviews are mixed so far, though the most positive seem to rate the film as “decent” rather than “awesome.”
And what a shame, because the Russo brothers could be great. Their action sequences have enough style to rival John Woo and are vigorous enough to take on famed stuntman Chad Sahelski. They care deeply about their characters – their empathy for Holland’s Cherry is evident even during the film’s weakest points. They are clever visual storytellers, using quick yet technical shots to convey their message. Hell, Vulture once called them without irony “the future of hollywood.”
They could be. The Russos could join the wave of authors heading into the big franchises and churning out captivating and thought-provoking blockbusters – Dunes, The Batmansame Top Gun: Maverick. And they need it, now more than ever. We live in a period of transition for the cinema; the battle against streamers rages on and Hollywood is abandoning the theatrical experience for the benefits that streaming services offer. Critics, fans and everyone else are wondering if the original directors still have a place in blockbuster cinema as the battle for the soul of Hollywood rages on, with studios using the franchise’s success as their weapon of choice .
The Russo brothers have the potential of light and dark. They can either become a force for positive change in a company that constantly sacrifices artistic freedom for the benefit of a stereotypical structure, or succumb to the Hollywood machine and become what they swore to destroy. movies like winter soldier and even Cherry show a willingness to experiment and get out of your comfort zone. Unfortunately, The gray man seems to be more or less the same thing, a compromise of creativity in favor of security.
Still, the whole point of the movie was to get the brothers back on track, and it apparently did. If all goes well, the Russos will have another goodwill to spend as they wish. In all honesty, we wouldn’t mind if they made another one Cherry as long as they learned from their mistakes. Now is the time to experiment, think big and think outside the box, take risks and reap the rewards. However, if the Russos follow The gray man with The Pale Man or another action film in figures, it’s over for their career as authors in the making. No pressure, I guess.