Scorsese Was Right
In November 2019, acclaimed US film director Martin Scorsese ruffled feathers by claiming first in Empire magazine and then in a New York Times op-ed that, as much as the entertainment output of Marvel Studios had been a commercial success, it did not qualify as cinema. Since getting into the business of producing its own movies, rather than licensing that right out to major Hollywood studios, Marvel had released 23 films over an 11-year period that had consistently—and profitably—won over many fans and critics alike. Scorsese, however, was not among them: after trying to “watch a few” of Marvel’s films, he concluded, “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema” (de Semiyen 2019). Although the director did not seem to openly begrudge their commercial success, and even acknowledged that the films could be “well made,” he nevertheless sought to distinguish the spectacle that Marvel’s superhero narratives offered from a cinematic art form that could deliver a sense of the “unexpected” while being grounded in everyday reality (Scorsese 2019). “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” he explained (de Semiyen 2019). Having drawn this boundary between the cinema and the outsized, spectacular images demanded of the superhero world, Scorsese invoked a longstanding criticism of blockbuster fare to liken Marvel product to the thrill ride: “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks” (de Semiyen 2019). Of course, Marvel’s supporters in both fandom and the entertainment industries rushed to the defense, characterizing Scorsese as disappointingly elitist and out-of-touch (Hollywood Reporter 2019). Debate quickly followed to reassert the psychological and emotional reality behind characters like Iron Man and Thor, reaffirming Marvel’s status as cinema on Scorsese’s own terms. In adapting comic book narratives to the medium of film, Marvel product triggered a discourse on the nature of the cinema while inviting comparisons to theme parks and other entertainment forms.
While there is little point in trying to resolve that debate here, its terms do reveal productive possibilities for exploring the collision of industry worlds and rethinking what we think we understand when we invoke media like “film,” “comics,” or “television.” Indeed, it is particularly ironic that Scorsese’s platform to wax philosophical on the true nature of cinema in venues like Empire emerged from publicity surrounding The Irishman (2019) and its distribution deal with Netflix. Although the Scorsese-directed film had a limited theatrical release earlier in the month, it premiered on the streaming service on November 27. Its branding on the platform marked it as a “Netflix Film” to be more closely associated with the streaming service than other acquired content, almost disavowing that earlier theatrical release. To be sure, Netflix and Scorsese continued to call The Irishman a film—and yet its disarticulation from traditional distribution and exhibition contexts (and articulation to all the television content in the Netflix library) could certainly destabilize assumptions about the nature of cinema as a medium. However, rather than try to uncover the contradictions in Scorsese’s statements or otherwise push back against his refusal to see the markers of cinema in what many would acknowledge as the biggest, most visible films of all time, we could alternatively embrace his polemic and consider the value of rejecting the assumption that all movies are cinema. Without agreeing with Scorsese’s conclusion that Marvel films are best understood as theme parks, we can take his rejection of their claim to the cinema as an invitation to consider their strong relationship to other media (even beyond the comic books upon which they are narratively adapted).
Here, then, we can consider the value of understanding the Marvel Studios project in relation to television. This is not merely to acknowledge that Marvel Studios often engages in television-related extensions of their brand—although series like Agents of SHIELD (2013-2020) and Daredevil (2015-2018) might certainly be part of the story. Instead, it is to recognize that despite the distribution and exhibition of Marvel films to be screened theatrically by paying audiences, the creative and industrial dynamics that generate this product owe significantly to the forms, practices, and communities of television.
Only most obviously, the serialized nature of Marvel films invites comparison to television. Character arcs unfold not within films, but across them: Tony Stark, the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” of Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), enters into the narrative of The Avengers as a figure of self-assuredness; but his encounter with an overwhelming alien invasion force at the end of that film leads him to grapple with new anxieties and feelings of inadequacy in Iron Man 3 (2013). As this arc progresses, he succumbs to fears that put the world at greater risk in Avengers: Age of Ultron and destabilize his primary alliances in Captain America: Civil War. Although he tries to build new alliances as a mentor in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the weight of prior failures leads to crushing defeat in Avengers: Infinity War and the death of his protégé. His final appearance in Avengers: Endgame resolves this arc of compounded defeat: Stark finally finds redemption by sacrificing himself to eliminate the overwhelming threat foreshadowed in The Avengers, thereby achieving the security he had sought since that film, restoring broken alliances, and even resurrecting his protégé—whose arc now continues by taking on the mantle of the mentor in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). Considering this unfolding narrative between 2008 and 2019, it is easy to make comparisons to the long-form storytelling strategies of television in which soap operas and other generic forms have accustomed viewers to following characters’ storylines for years across episodic installments. That said, such an analysis would recognize the qualities of narrative seriality as an essential element of television, despite the fact that not all television forms are so serialized, and television does not possess a monopoly on stories told by installment. Indeed, we should be cautious about ascribing a televisuality to the seriality of Marvel Studios’ films in that the comic book medium being adapted has long been serialized, and the project of building a shared story world across different ongoing titles is a strategy that Marvel’s films have drawn from these periodical publishing industry origins.
Instead of looking solely at the textual level of narrative form and strategy, then, we might find deeper connections between film and television by examining more carefully the intersections of creative cultures at a production level. Here, attention to creative labor and professional communities that cross the boundaries between film and television can reveal how the making of this billion-dollar blockbuster content depends in significant part on the experiences, skills, and sensibilities of those who have navigated the demands of television storytelling. Marvel Studios’ relationship with Joe and Anthony Russo provides an excellent example of the film industry’s reliance upon television producers and their experience as a means of delivering a particular kind of cinema.
Television Creators for Hire
Prior to their engagement by Marvel to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers had established themselves as expert television directors with a reputation for shepherding the creative process of producing pilot episodes. Although television directing is transitory work—where a director might come in to direct one or two consecutive episodes before another steps in to tackle the next installment—this work directing pilots meant that the Russos often set the look, sound, and tone of series that future directors would follow in subsequent episodes. The Russos did not begin their careers in television work, however. Their first post-graduate project was the self-financed 1997 film Pieces, which did not see wide release in the United States, but caught the attention of film director Steven Soderbergh when screened at the Slamdance Film Festival. In 2002, Soderbergh produced their next film, Welcome to Collinwood. It was at this point that their careers shifted to television, as 20th Century Fox hired the Russos to direct the 2003 pilots for both the FX cable crime series Lucky and the FOX network comedy Arrested Development. For the latter series, the duo would win an Emmy, and they continued to direct subsequent episodes before its cancellation in 2005. Meanwhile, they lent their talent to other pilots like ABC’s dramedy What About Brian (2006—2007) and stepped in as directors on NBC’s airport drama LAX (2004—2005). This is not to suggest that television had eclipsed film in the Russo brothers’ ambitions. While engaged in this TV work, the Russos directed the 2006 film comedy release You, Me, and Dupree for Universal. However, this one major studio release represents the Russos’ sole film directing credit between their 2002 Welcome to Collinwood debut and their emergence on the blockbuster scene with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Russos thus spent over a decade engaged primarily as television creators, working across a number of different genres and networks. A closer examination of their selection as the directors of The Winter Soldier can therefore reveal how the skills and professional sensibilities associated with television creation came to be understood as a valuable and essential component of filmmaking under Marvel’s banner.
In October 2006, on the heels of the summer release of You, Me, and Dupree, The Hollywood Reporter reported on a follow-up deal with Universal and Imagine Entertainment in which the Russos and partner Phil Johnston would develop new film and TV projects, including one called “A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle.” Simultaneously, the report noted, the Russos had secured a development agreement with Touchstone TV for the single-camera comedy project “Life Is Super.” Lest this sound like a superhero project that presaged their later work for Marvel, “Life is Super” focused on a woman raising five adopted and unremarkable children; but if greenlit, the Russos would have directed the pilot and served in a continuing capacity as executive producers. Surely the release of You, Me, and Dupree had helped attract attention to the Russos, but nevertheless they continued to work in the arena of television and descriptions of them in trade reports emphasized their value as “Emmy winners” for the Arrested Development pilot (Andreeva and Kit 2006). This emphasis on their television accomplishments continued the next year as the Russos signed on to direct the pilot for the ABC comedy Carpoolers (2007-2008). By 2007, The Hollywood Reporter described the Russos as experienced pilot directors, citing not only their accolades for Arrested Development, but also their accomplishments getting Lucky and What About Brian off the ground. Their film credits were certainly acknowledged, but this trade reportage presented the Russos as less accomplished in that regard: this film work is noted as a feather in their cap, to be sure, but also as a sidenote to their greater television accomplishments. The superlative account of their pilot work as having “earned them an Emmy” outshined the more descriptive acknowledgement that they “most recently helmed the comedy feature” (Andreeva 2007). As the length of time since the release of You, Me, and Dupree increased, in fact, the Russos’ expertise came to be framed more exclusively in terms of television accomplishments. In April 2008, the Russos signed to direct the pilot for “Courtroom K,” a single-camera comedy for ABC, at which point The Hollywood Reporter ignored their film credits entirely and explained their qualifications by virtue of their experience on Arrested Development and Lucky, as well as, of course, their Emmy award (Nordy and Andreeva 2008). Collectively, these trade reports worked to endorse the qualifications and value that the Russos brought to the various projects they developed in this period, ultimately situating their talents within the world of television. In these reports’ contributions to industry lore, it made sense that the Russos would be in line for these opportunities given their television credits.
In 2009, the Russos signed with NBC-Universal to direct the pilot and serve as executive producers for the comedy series Community—an opportunity that further situated the Russos within the generic traditions of episodic television. Although each episode of the series focused on a core cast of six community college classmates, these installments could vary significantly in style and genre while borrowing from the traditions of other media like film and video games. When the characters engaged in a campus-wide paintball match in the episode “Modern Warfare,” for example, Community embraced the conventions of the action film. In another episode, “Digital Estate Planning,” the action unfolded in the virtual space of a side-scrolling video game. “Critical Film Theory” spoofed Quentin Tarantino films, while “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” adopted mockumentary camera work and editing styles. In discussing their work on Community, the Russos insisted that the variability in genre and style made the series distinct from most television content. “We look for opportunities to be different from episode to episode in style,” Joe Russo explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s running against the grain of what’s traditional in television.” In the same article, Anthony added, “it just lent itself to a wide range of exploration because you’re at a community college—anything could be going on there, any type of class, any type of subject” (Hueso 2011).
Yet while the Russos figured this variability as a means of distinguishing Community from other television series, their interest in experimentation with different conventions and styles in each episode reflects the strategies that have long been central to television series production as creators face the challenge of producing dozens, if not hundreds, of episodes in succession. As Jeffrey Sconce writes, the art of television lies in balancing “differentiation amid repetition”; although all generic forms involve some kind of variation on repeated conventions, television “faces a unique challenge. Rather than produce potentially infinite variations on a common structure [...] television must produce ‘parts’ that each week embody the whole while also finding, within such repetition, possibilities for novel and diverting variations” (2002, 101). Sconce identifies “stock plots” held in common across different television series—such as characters meeting evil twins or getting amnesia in ways that cause them to behave in new ways—not as evidence of unoriginality, but instead as opportunities to “revel in a familiar character inverted and defamiliarized without consequence” (102). In that sense, the stylistic and generic play of Community represents the continuing evolution of these televisual efforts to balance difference and repetition, allowing the world of the series to be rebuilt around an array of different—but familiar and legible—storytelling formulae. Considered in this way, the work that the Russos (and many others) did on Community—and subsequently highlighted in their public reflections on their craft in the trade press—could be considered television par excellence.
These publicly visible claims about the value of episodic differentiation to television, and the Russo brothers’ ability to excel in that practice, provide significant context for understanding their move from television back to film. In June 2011, the Russos signed an overall deal that would supposedly “bind” them to the NBC-Universal studio for the next two years with the charge of developing new projects while staying on as Community executive producers. Noting the nine pilots successfully brought to series production by the Russos over the previous decade, The Hollywood Reporter framed this deal as a boon for NBC, quoting entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt who remarked:
Our new deal with the Russo brothers shows that NBC is looking for creative producers who are both successful and not afraid to take chances [...] Their unique vision and ingenuity should result in some very edgy content that will capture everyone’s attention.
While it is unclear whether the Russos saw this two-year deal to its completion, their next contract would seemingly turn on the value that their unique vision and ingenuity could have for supporting a sequence of blockbuster films.
In June 2012, The Hollywood Reporter announced that the Russos had entered negotiations with Marvel to direct The Winter Soldier. According to the commentary offered by the trade publication, “the brothers continue Marvel’s strategy of finding unorthodox helmers for their movies. The Russos are known more for their work in comedy” (Kit 2012). The competition for the director’s chair was described as a “bake-off” in which the contenders had to “study The Avengers as part of their exam.” These contenders included George Nolfi, who had previously directed the sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and F. Gary Gray, whose seven previous film directing credits included Friday (1995) as well as the action thrillers Set It O/j'(1996), The Negotiator (1998), The Italian Job (2003), and more. While The Hollywood Reporter informed its readers about this process by which candidates proved themselves to Marvel, it also implicitly assured its readers that this process made sense and that, despite their lack of experience in directing action thrillers, the Russos’ knowledge of The Avengers seemingly made them a good fit. The Russos were a counterintuitive choice that demanded explanation and reflection—despite years of credits in film and television alike. Even as the success of Avengers: Endgame seemed to confirm the wisdom of Marvel’s choice in 2019, popular reflections still mused that theirs was “an unlikely journey.” An Atlantic article commented that “Before the two were brought into the Marvel fold by the company’s chief producer, Kevin Feige, nothing about the Russo’s resume suggested that they’d be particularly suited to big-budget superhero storytelling” (Sims 2019). So with this lack of relevant experience, what creative perspective is it that the Russos could have been seen to offer Marvel?
It’s easy to imagine that white privilege would have played some role here as the Russos’ list of film credits was certainly dwarfed by Gray, an African American film veteran whose oeuvre much better matched the espionage-thriller tone of Winter Soldier. However, Gray reportedly removed himself from contention in order to direct the hip-hop biopic Straight Outta Compton (2015), a move that Forbes’ Scott Mendelson (2015) speculates could have worked out to Gray’s advantage:
Had he directed Captain America 2, he likely would have been one of Marvel’s many ‘one and done’ filmmakers with merely a guaranteed smash hit comic book movie to his name. That’s not nothing, but the success of Straight Outta Compton belongs to him.
The Winter Soldier job could have been Gray’s to lose; but as long as we’re entertaining speculation, it’s worth noting that for the Russos, Winter Soldier was not a one-and-done job, but the first step on a journey to producing two of the five highest grossing films of all time. One could imagine whether Gray missed out on more than one directing role, or whether the Russos’ whiteness somehow positioned them to remain in a position that might otherwise have been a one-and-done deal for a non-white director. Of course, these are not issues on which one would expect any of the parties involved to make public comment.
Instead, what the Russos have publicly disclosed about how they secured the directors’ chair involves capitalizing on the value of their skills as managers of television narrative. Although many of these claims have been made in the years since, the Russos have in several interviews explained the rationale by which they were able to convince Marvel of their potential, and those stories of professional accomplishment invariably identify the relevance of their television experience to contemporary mainstream cinema. First, the Russos have foregrounded the utility of their experience as managers of generic difference within series repetition to the franchise model of filmmaking that drives Marvel and, increasingly, blockbuster cinema as a whole. “Another thing we learned from working on Community is that we were just constantly exploring and subverting genre,” Joe Russo explained. “It seemed every week we were changing up our style and our tone, the look and feel of it, the score, the way the characters behaved. We were able to explore genre on a very deep level” (Mancuso 2020). Russo echoed popular criticism around the Marvel films that attribute their success in large part to their generic flexibility, where every installment distinguishes itself by drawing on a different genre formula (Phil-lipson 2019; Prell 2016). While they all involve superheroes, one film might place those characters in the confines of a war film, the next in a spy thriller, the next in space opera, and the next in a comedy. As Joe Russo explained, it was the experience of working in episodic television that made them stand out as potential creative collaborators for Marvel: “When you’re subverting genre, you’re studying to an extent that you’re really understanding the nuances of it. This was critical and certainly the paint ball episodes [of Community] were a huge part of our Marvel career” (Mancuso 2020). Russo posited that their television careers made them genre experts, and this made them a match to Marvel’s filmmaking needs above and beyond their list of film credits.
That generic expertise supported a second claim about how the Russos’ television experience matched the needs of contemporary film. Regardless of whether series are set in space, in hospitals, in domestic settings, or elsewhere, conventional US television narratives have frequently revolved around ensemble casts and relationships between characters that evoke a sense of family (even if those families are not bound by kinship but by shared workplaces and other shared social contexts). Here, too, the Russos figured their strong experience in managing television ensembles and complex family dynamics as attuned to the needs of Marvel’s filmmaking enterprise. While the character of Tony Stark may have a serialized arc, his is only one of many that Marvel Studios developed over the course of over 20 films—a narrative balancing act that television creators have experience navigating. As Joe Russo noted:
you’ll see that we’ve worked with ensembles almost exclusively throughout our career. Eccentric ensembles with diverse characters [...] Certainly we learned how to tell stories with many characters [...] in a compressed time frame. Sometimes we’d have 20, 30 speaking roles in an episode of Community that’s 21 minutes long. There’s certainly a lot of time spent, and energy spent, training ourselves to do that [...] in a credible way where the story and characters hold together.
In a separate interview, Anthony Russo similarly framed the skill of managing television ensembles as the edge they needed to thrive in their filmmaking for Marvel:
We spent about a decade in television [...] and I think that background helped to prepare us for the serialised stories that we have going in the MCU [...] If you look at all of our work, Joe and I have always been drawn to ensemble work [...] From our very first movie, and through all of our television work, we love working with ensembles.
Notably, Anthony Russo traced this talent for ensemble work as something that stretched back beyond their television projects to their earliest film projects. In doing so, he argued that the link between television and film goes beyond the specific, interconnected superhero universes of Marvel Studios, where the management of ensemble casts is a skill demanded of directors in both media in the 21st century. Joe Russo even suggested that this skill is required in response to generational shifts in which a younger generation of viewers “is more invested in serialized storytelling than they are in two-hour narratives” (Sims 2019). From that perspective, the Russos portrayed television as the best training ground for that learning skill, permitting them a valuable perspective compared to filmmakers more strictly defined by and limited to film work conceived as a one-off.
In framing The Avengers as ensemble, moreover, the directors figure the character relations in terms of the serialization of television family dynamics. As Anthony described their second Marvel film, Captain America: Civil War:
That movie was so much about examining the Avengers as a family unit, and breaking them up, basically divorcing them in that movie. And that was the setting for Thanos to arrive [in Avengers: Infinity War], because what better moment for the greatest threat the Avengers are ever gonna face than having the Avengers at their absolute lowest point ... because we have these skills for television and this taste for ensemble storytelling that I think complimented [sic] where we were going with the narrative in the MCU. (Cashin 2019)
In statements like these, the Russos tied the management of family relations to the serialized arc of the narrative as it is parceled out in each film installment. This sense of family required attention to character relations not just in specific moments, but also as they evolved and deepened over time. Anthony Russo thus explained to The Atlantic that the process of managing these ensembles meant considering the “depth of emotion” that audiences might develop for characters over time, which in television production requires tracking sizable casts of characters over many years, seeding and paying off narrative threads that might develop across seasons, and hiding clues and Easter eggs to support fan speculation and excitement (Sims 2019). In this emphasis on the serialization of film, the Russos identified as their inspiration for breaking the story not the structures of previous film sequels and trilogies, but instead serialized works of television like Breaking Bad (2008-2013):
we always talked about Breaking Bad as a modern example of writing yourself into a corner [...] I remember watching it over that period of time and thinking at the end of every episode, how the hell are they going to move this show forward into the next episode?
While the Russos self-reflexively defined their value as filmmakers in terms of the management of genre, ensemble casts, and serialized storytelling, they also inserted into the discourse on contemporary blockbuster filmmaking an insistence of the value of television production practices and techniques. With Infinity War and Endgame shot back-to-back for release in 2018 and 2019, respectively, Marvel’s release model demanded quicker, more multitasked directorial roles than those enjoyed by one-off film directors. As Anthony Russo stressed to attendees of the Milken Institute conference in 2019, television production requires pre-production, production, and post-production to overlap, where one episode might be in the process of editing while another is shooting and another is still at the script stage; he likened the making of these Avengers films to that cyclical, simultaneously multiple mode of television production, and postulated that it was television experience that enabled this kind of filmmaking: “We had the training from TV to do that” (Frost 2019). At the level of production planning and execution, then, television offers a model and arena of expertise that accorded professional value to the Russos as filmmakers.
The result of this discourse is a reading of The Avengers films as television and the Russos as the “TV guys” (Frost 2019) who brought its serialized storytelling together on screen. In some accounts, the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be understood as a form of watercooler media through the creative trajectories it shared with the Russos’ earlier television work:
the original fans of Community or Arrested Development had no choice to watch en masse: piled into the living room, clustered around the television, phone off the hook [...] It’s a collective experience of this ilk [...] that draws audiences into movie theaters.
Forgiving the overly nostalgic and ahistorical nature of the claim (as if Community and Arrestment Development hailed from an era prior to DVRs, DVDs, and online video), it credits the Russos’ television experience with making Marvel’s product into must-see cinema. Other critics have posited that the Russos’ work with the Avengers franchise is merely retelling of Community, where the television series presaged everything that the Russos would do in their films, tracing similarities down to character beats and plot devices tied to quantum realities (Gumeny 2019). Interestingly, this view renders invisible all the collaborators involved in these film and television projects alongside the Russos—from Community creator Dan Harmon, to Marvel creative chief Kevin Feige, to the directors of the 17 Marvel films the Russos did not direct. Yet this exaggerated assessment of the Russos’ creative power, authorship, and influence nevertheless reveals the commonsense acceptance of the value that their television experience can bring to the world of blockbuster filmmaking.