Look closely during Captain America: Civil War’s biggest battle — that one in the Berlin airport, arguably one of the best superhero brawls committed to film. There’s a little Easter egg hidden in the background: the staircar from Arrested Development. It’s a perfect visual gag from directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Think about it: Arrested Development, which they had a hand in directing between 2003 and 2005, already trades on the kind of subtle background humor that you need to go back and hunt for. The show’s Easter eggs reference its hundreds of tiny, but rich stories. The smallest reference could carry a surprisingly dense backstory. The staircar’s appearance, fittingly, is no different.
But that one shot also encapsulates why the Russos are so well suited for directing Marvel’s biggest epics. It’s in ensemble sitcoms like Arrested Development, after all, that the Russos mastered the art of juggling colorful characters with interlocking storylines. That’s an essential skill for making a group like the Avengers work on the big screen, and as more and weirder characters are introduced into this ongoing saga, their ability will be crucial as Marvel barrels toward Avengers: Infinity War.
It should be clear by now that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is less a string of nominally linked action movies and more a sprawling meta-narrative involving leads hopping in and out of each other’s movies. Since 2012’s The Avengers, characters like Thor and Ant-Man may have their own solo outings, but they know each other, work together, and presumably go to one another’s birthday parties. That’s not that far from episodic television. The New York Times’ AO Scott wasn’t wrong when he cheekily described the film series as “a very expensive, perpetually renewed workplace sitcom.”
Enter the Russos. After cutting their teeth on smaller films in the ‘90s and early 2000s, the pair broke out (at least in the TV-directing community) with ensemble shows like Arrested Development and Community. Before coming on to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they were established as, to quote Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh, “crackerjack sitcom directors” adept at weaving weird character arcs together. Compared to stories involving “Advanced” Dungeons & Dragons and strange mother-son bonding, the Marvel mythos almost seems straightforward.
Working on television on those particular shows taught them a unique skill set that, while it may not make them household names, allows them to thrive within the pressure cooker that is Hollywood’s current tentpole-obsessed studio system. They not only have experience dealing with the lengthy schedules of making episodic television, but they also have an ingrained understanding of continuity.
And the MCU would be nothing without its dense continuity. As the 13th Marvel film, Civil War draws from eight years of storytelling and treats them as vital to the text. Just look at Iron Man and Captain America, the two pillars of the Avengers. Tony Stark, painted as an egomaniac since his on-screen debut in 2008, is now grappling with his guilt over the team putting innocents in danger for years. Cap, on the other hand, has a point of view rooted firmly in World War II, when America deemed it necessary to take charge as a global force for good. After seeing a compromised SHIELD collapse in Winter Soldier, it makes sense that he’d balk at any kind of committee oversight. This kind of movie myth-making is unprecedented, and requires deft hands to ensure fans and casual viewers understand what’s happening on-screen, often with a quick visual or quip that must say more than a full scene of spoken exposition. It’s fitting that those same deft hands helped make Gob Bluth’s “I’ve made a huge mistake” not only a running gag, but a pop cultural refrain.
No other studio has proven itself as effective as Marvel at balancing continuity with effective storytelling. March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the object lesson in how easy it is to fail at creating the foundation for a massive movie universe, even if Warner Bros. has no choice but to forge ahead. But Disney has struggled at times. Joss Whedon is widely (and rightly) credited with making the best Marvel movie ever in The Avengers. He brought an auteur’s vision to a summer extravaganza. But by the time Avengers: Age of Ultron was on the docket, that vision wound up being incompatible to the MCU’s endlessly expanding narrative. The Russos, on the other hand, had a far better go of it with Civil War, even though the film was equally complex.
That’s likely because origin stories (even team origin stories like The Avengers) benefit from a singular vision. It’s why Marvel hired horror stylist Scott Derrickson for Doctor Strange and up-and-comer Ryan Coogler for Black Panther. Those movies will inevitably have a distinct sensibility. Team-up movies at this late stage require directors to shepherd other people’s approaches while working within boundaries. The Russos are already proven successes at that kind of directorial challenge, so it makes sense that when Whedon stepped down after Ultron they were able to to pick up the slack.
The Russos Pulled off what could have been an impossible juggling act with ‘Civil War’
Consider this: Civil War, while certainly imperfect, brings the long-brewing conflict between Captain America and Iron Man to a head, adds depth to Bucky Barnes, reintroduces General Thaddeus Ross from The Incredible Hulk, introduces Black Panther and Wakanda, essentially revitalizes Spider-Man, and manages to cram all this into a movie that grapples with higher-order political questions about superheroes on the global stage. Pulling that off should be next to impossible, but it’s no accident the Russos managed to do so with a modicum of grace — and the help the producer Kevin Feige, of course, who deserves plenty of credit in this miracle.
Of course, as Marvel’s “Phase Three” shifts into high gear, things are only going to get crazier and more complicated. As such, it’s easy to expect the next two Avengers movies to be even more challenging, and it’s an open question whether or not the Russos are up to that task. But if just one Russo could make an episode of Community about foosball and Abed dressing up like Batman both make sense and one of the best episodes the show produced, the MCU’s endgame might be in the best hands possible.