(This is the second dispatch from my July 2013 visit to the set of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. The first part is here.)
Eyebrows were definitely raised when Anthony and Joe Russo were hired to direct CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER a couple of years ago. Though the duo had built up an impressive TV-directing resume over the last decade, their best work had been for comedies like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, COMMUNITY and HAPPY ENDINGS. As for feature experience, it was difficult to see how WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD and YOU, ME AND DUPREE led naturally into the rock-em, sock-em world of superhero movies.
So you might think the Russos would be eager to please the geek-friendly group of online journalists who've been summoned to the set of THE WINTER SOLDIER at Marvel's Manhattan Beach studios on this mid-July 2013 afternoon. I've seen directors fall into this act before; they excitedly regurgitate Wiki'd minutiae about the characters and their universe hoping to give off the impression that they've been devouring comic books their whole lives. The Russos, however, aren't playing this game. As they sit down to chat with The Internet, they immediately strike a relaxed, confident tone. They're a week or so away from wrapping principal photography, and they're telling us through their body language alone that they've nailed this sucker.
"Cap really gets the shit kicked out of him in this movie," says Joe Russo. Though fandom generally dug the old-fashioned, serial-esque nature of Joe Johnston's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, the Russos and Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige want us to know that the Cap of that film has gone bye-bye. "Gritty" is easily the most uttered word of the day.
"In the '40s it makes sense," says Joe. "He'll fight like John Sullivan. That style of big swings, and the shield is very pronounced because he hasn't necessarily been trained yet. Now that he's in the future, he has a fast mind. It's part of the what the serum does to him. He's got a tactical mind and learns things quickly. He would absorb everything in that year-and-a-half [in the modern world]. All of the training you could possibly get. All the tools at his disposal would be affected by that training."
As should be apparent from the trailers, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER has traded in WWII-era patriotism for political paranoia. It's THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR for the comic-book set, with practically-staged set pieces inspired by the limb-snapping brutality of Gareth Evans's THE RAID and the vehicular mayhem of John Frankenheimer's RONIN. They've brought on the FAST & FURIOUS franchise's second-unit director Spiro Razatos to work his car-smashing magic, and they're hewing as close as possible to Ed Brubaker's "Winter Soldier" storyline, which both Russos believe is one of the best graphic novel arcs of the last fifty years.
"[Steve Rogers] goes on a very personal journey in this movie," says Anthony. "The story of the Winter Soldier is very operatic in construct." It's a narrative that requires Rogers to break with his past (some of which still lingers in the present), and get on with his life in a very different America. The unity and unquestioned righteousness of the U.S. government that inspired a scrawny Steve Rogers to join the Army in the 1940s is gone; in its place is S.H.I.E.L.D., which is flirting with some troubling Big Brother-esque notions of surveillance. That the government might be actively working against the best interests of its citizens is an entirely new concept to Cap, one that threatens his allegiance to Nick Fury and ultimately chases him off the reservation.
It's basically what happens to Jack Bauer in almost every season of 24, but the Russos are adamant that their narrative and tonal touchstone is THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR - which they've driven home by casting Joseph Turner himself, Robert Redford. "Other than being a fan of [Redford] as an actor, and his movies having an enormous influence on us, we also came up through the independent film route in the '90s," says Anthony. "We went through Park City. But considering the specific genre and pedigree of this movie, to be able to cast him in a movie... that's aspiring to the best of what the '70s political thrillers did is really incredible. It's powerful when you watch him in the movie. It's a trigger. You have this place in your psyche that he occupies, especially when he's in this political thriller mode." To help enhance this feeling, the Russos let slip that they've hidden a CONDOR easter egg somewhere in the movie (here's hoping it's one of Kathy Hale's photographs).
This name-dropping is all well and good, but how similar to a '70s political thriller can a Marvel Studios comic book really be? It seems highly unlikely given the four-quadrant demands of these movies, but the Russos are quick to sing the praises of Feige and the Marvel brass. Having worked on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT during its network run, the Russos know what it's like to have executives trying to undermine you at every turn. They insist that Marvel has been incredibly supportive, and that, due to the thorough prep-work that goes into these franchise-building investments, they've felt very comfortable throughout the shoot.
The Russos know they'll have to prove it on the big screen this April, but this is a genre in which they've always wanted to work. They pursued the rights to THE LORD OF THE RINGS in the 1990s, and cite Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as a significant influence in their lives. "When [DC] released THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS when I was twelve or thirteen, it blew my mind and changed my whole approach to comic books. I like postmodern deconstruction of heroes. It just feels to me like there are more layers there for the characters."
And that ultimately is what they've brought to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. "How do we make Cap modern?," asks Joe. That question will be answered on April 4, 2014.
Jeremy Smith (The shield almost conceals the gut.)