Transforming into a Filmmaker
Just because television skills can accrue value in the world of filmmaking, however, this does not mean that the professional identity of being a “filmmaker” does not still carry its own value, status, and prestige compared to the world of television. As much as the Russos leveraged their television experience to position themselves for success in Marvel’s filmmaking enterprises, the trade press and other sites of industry lore-making portrayed them as “TV guys” who had now become fully-fledged film professionals. Nor were they the only creative figures in the Marvel stable with significant television credits that trade reporting figured as having transformed into creatures of the cinema. Like the Russos, Joss Whedon developed a significant reputation for himself in television before leveraging that success into an opportunity to work with Marvel’s serialized character ensemble as director of Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. While this chapter so far has focused on the claims made during and about the Russos’ initial attempts to cross (back) over into filmmaking following a long television career, this section now explores how the careers of the Russos and Whedon alike came to be narrativized in the entertainment trade press following the achievement of that professional crossover. After these directors proved the value of their television experience to filmmaking endeavors, industry discourse about their careers suggested that they had undergone some kind of transformation. While they had built on their television skillsets to succeed in their filmmaking pursuits, that process had been one of metamorphosis where the “TV guys” were now movie guys.
Although he has been more recently accused of abusing his power to engage in inappropriate relationships, Joss Whedon was once considered a feminist icon and cult hero, celebrated for his work bringing series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse to television screens. Even after these allegations became public in 2017, trade discourse about Whedon commonly adopted a celebratory tone, describing him in terms such as “a pioneering voice for female-focused genre fare, having created the hit TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer two decades ago” (Kit 2018). Such descriptions acknowledged his status as a cult figure and the feminist ideals that once seemed at the foundation of his strong female heroines. Many media scholars shared this assessment of Whedon as a televisual god, with an entire journal and conference devoted to research involving his works. In short, Whedon’s television career had made him a revered cult figure. Thus when The Hollywood Reporter previously reflected on his growing status thanks to the visibility of the 2012 Avengers film, it similarly noted that “The Marvel blockbuster is about to make him a household name, but to some, he’s long been an icon” (Zakarin, “Exploring” 2012). That iconic status owed to television and the cult following he was able to cultivate in niche genres like fantasy and science fiction as well as in more narrowcast networks like the WB and UPN that had targeted younger viewers. “Owing more to comic book storylines and feminist literature than any past or present TV show at the time,” The Hollywood Reporter explained of Whedon’s signature 1996-2002 television series, “Buffy mixed fantasy and teenage drama to produce both emotional connections to characters and complex, engrossing mythology” (Zakarin, “Exploring” 2012). On at least one instance, Whedon identified the medium of television as being more amenable to this sort of content than the contemporaneous film industry—although he acknowledged that this was not always the case. “Female-driven stories are a part of TV in a way that they used to be part of movies,” Whedon explained, before suggesting that women have now come to find greater opportunities on-screen in television, even if equality lags behind the camera: “Even before it was respectable, a great film actress could make a home in TV and get much more to work with— especially after a certain age” (O’Connell 2017).
Like the Russos after him, Whedon entered into his relationship with Marvel Studios with a reputation based in television, which seemed to mesh with his particular storytelling interests. Unlike the Russos, however, Whedon had previously crossed paths with Marvel projects outside of television at earlier points in his career: he had written an early version of the screenplay for the 20th Century Fox production of X-Men (2000) and had leveraged the cult fandom surrounding his television series to attract interest from the comic book industry. Among projects for other publishers, he was hired by Marvel to write Astonishing X-Men in 2004 and Runaways in 2007. Whedon thus had significantly more direct prior experience in the world of superheroes and comic books than did the Russos before directing a Marvel film. Yet despite this cult credibility, Whedon’s film directing experience remained comparable. The trade press thus responded somewhat skeptically to Whedon’s suitability to manage a feature film on the scope of The Avengers; Variety’s review for the film remarked that “With only one feature directorial credit to his name, the middling 2005 sci-fier Serenity, Whedon of Buffy fame would not have been the first name on most people’s lists to tame such a potentially unwieldy project.” In the face of the film’s success, however, publications like these engaged in a sense-making project to explain how, “from a logistical point of view alone,” these television credentials allowed Whedon to impose “a grip on the material that feels like that of a benevolent general, marshaling myriad technical resources while juggling eight major characters” (McCarthy 2012).
However, as much as Whedon’s creative identity had been constructed in and around television, the start of his filmmaking relationship with Marvel brought with it a narrative of professional transformation. Although Whedon may have been a “TV guy” when he signed on to direct The Avengers, that crossing of boundaries into film brought with it a recalibration of his professional identity and the values ascribed to creative skillsets developed in the training ground of television. In this recalibration, the move from television to film is figured more as a break, a passage from one realm to another, rather than the professional occupation of a middle ground between them. In this narrative of transformation, the creator wraps himself in a cocoon woven from the silky skills of television production and emerges on the other side as a beautiful filmmaker. The process is imagined as metamorphosis, not hybridity. For example, in 2010, when reporting on Whedon’s career trajectory at the conclusion of his Fox television series Dollhouse and the beginning of his work on The Avengers, The Hollywood Reporter explained that the director “swears off TV—for now” (Hibberd 2010). Although this framing did allow for Whedon to return one day, it figured his move into filmmaking as one that involved an imposed distance from television. No longer a caterpillar, the butterfly must be a butterfly. After the release of The Avengers in 2012, a letter that Whedon wrote to thank his fans captured the trade paper’s attention by showing that Whedon “isn’t letting the blockbuster success of his Marvel film change him.” Yet despite that instance of continuity, The Hollywood Reporter commented on this letter by insisting that “his TV days are seemingly in the past” (Zakarin, “Joss Whedon” 2012). Despite promising not to change, the TV guy was no longer a TV guy.
Of course, this narrative is complicated and rendered somewhat counter-factual by the fact that Whedon’s relationship with Marvel in no way precluded continuing investment in the medium of television. Most obviously, the success of The Avengers led Marvel to begin experimenting with TV production, and Whedon was asked to play a major creative role in the making of Agents of SHIELD, a 2013—2020 espionage adventure program made for broadcast network ABC that spun off a minor but recurring character from the Marvel films, Agent Phil Coulson, and introduced a new team of characters to become his television family. Whedon co-created the series alongside brother Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, directing the pilot but handing them the role of showrunners. Sharing news of the development of the series and the deals made to establish these roles, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “S.H.I.E.L.D. marks Whedon’s return to the small screen” (Goldberg 2012). At this point, it had only been two years since Whedon had “sworn off” television at the end of his last series, yet this language of a return suggested that there was significant distance to be crossed to bring him back from his filmmaking pursuits. Indeed, this notion of a return persisted in discussing Whedon’s post-Avengers television interests, reinforcing the idea that a break had occurred even in the face of significant professional continuity. Much of the press surrounding SHIELD revealed considerable concern with establishing the extent of Whedon’s involvement in the series even as he continued in his role as Marvel filmmaker in preparations for the 2015 sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. When asked “how big” his involvement with the television series would be, Whedon tempered expectations by responding “As much as an exec producer can who is also making a movie |.. .| I got the best writers and actors I could so I could do this and that’s the best way to run a show” (Goldberg 2013). Although Whedon positioned himself between film and television, the comments belied the primacy of his filmmaking role and the proxies he claimed he would be using to maintain a presence on television. He thus created reason to consider his supposed return to television with some uncertainty, and in some ways the interview proceeded to suggest that as an extension of The Avengers film franchise, SHIELD did not constitute a completely legitimate reinvestment in television on Whedon’s part. “Will Whedon look to return to the TV with his own property after SHIELD,” it asked, to which he responded by throwing cold water on the idea that television might be one of his priorities: “The goal is never about the medium, it’s always about the next story” (Goldberg 2013). Whedon certainly positioned himself as having the potential to work wherever he wanted, free of constraint to any one medium—yet this is also an implicit affirmation that he had transformed and moved on from his previously close association with television.
There is a difference, then, between the credits that figures like Whedon continued to amass across film and television alike and the way that industry lore constructed the relationship of crossing those boundaries as one of transformation from one state of professional creativity and fixed media identification to the next. The issue is not just whether Whedon and others continued to work in television as they explored filmmaking careers, but how trade stories circulated to make sense of and give value to that work. In this case, industry lore could insist on constructing professional identities in terms of transformations and returns between fixed, binary states. So in 2018, when Whedon signed a new executive producer deal to help develop a television comedy project for Freeform called “Pippa Smith: Grown-Up Detective,” The Hollywood Reporter navigated this boundary crossing, explaining its exceptional status as a
rare small-screen project for Whedon, who last exec produced ABC’s Agents of SHI ELD, though he is not considered to be closely involved in the Marvel drama on which his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, serve as showrunners.
The article further underlined that Whedon “most recently has focused on features” and listed his TV credits as Firefly and Angel, rather than the more recent Dollhouse (Goldberg, “Developing” 2018). The image of Whedon as filmmaker persisted, thanks to caveats that downplayed his involvement in SHIELD and other more recent television projects, creating the impression of a more unbroken commitment to cinema. This insistence on Whedon’s transformation could even be counter-factual. In a 2018 story about the development of the Joss Whedon-created HBO series The Neuers (2020-), The Hollywood Reporter used very similar language about a “return to the small screen” and emphasized the difference between his distant executive producer role and the day-to-day showrunner roles on SHIELD. Yet it disavowed Whedon’s co-creator role on SHIELD to claim that The Nevers would be “the first show he has created since Fox’s Dollhouse” (Goldberg, “Sci-Fi” 2018). At some level, this was a simple error or difference of interpretation in what counts as “creating” a series, perhaps distinguishing creation from co-creation; but whatever the cause, the result reinforces the notion that Whedon stepped away from television and became a fully-fledged filmmaker in the interim. The insistence on the exceptional status of projects like “Pippa Smith” and The Nevers confirmed the extent of this transformation.
Returning to the “unlikely” film career of the Russo brothers, we can see a similar narrative of transformation from TV guys to “Marvel’s main movie executors” (Siegemund-Broka and Kit 2015). Following the success of The Winter Solider in 2014, the Russos had developed sufficient bankability to stretch beyond their relationship with Marvel and command a first-look deal with Sony Pictures in March 2015. The announcement of this deal in trade reports made clear that it represented a contract commensurate with their new roles in Hollywood rather than a television deal that would extend their previous professional identities. First, the statement supplied by the Russos themselves foregrounded their identities as filmmakers: “The studio has created an environment that is not only collaborative but truly filmmaker-friendly, and we’re excited to begin developing both new and ambitious material with them.” Meanwhile, in its own framing, The Hollywood Reporter invoked the same notion of transformation with which filmmaking careers like Whedon’s had previously been understood: “The duo reinvented themselves as action and genre moviemakers after years of working in television comedy,” it explained (Kit 2015). Here transformation figured as a process of reinvention, where the Russos drew upon their television skillsets to make Winter Soldier, but emerged on the other side as filmmakers. Such an account imagines the move between television and film not necessarily as a natural or intuitive one, nor one easily reversed.
This Sony deal did not preclude the Russos from continuing to work with Marvel to direct Captain America: Civil War, and after Whedon stepped away from directing any more Marvel films in 2015, they had further opportunity to take on development duties for Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. “The Infinity get is a massive feather in the duo’s cap,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter in
March 2015, “and marks the latest in an incredible career trajectory” stretching from television to film, where “It was their work on some of the geeky episodes of Community, however, that led to Winter Soldier" (Siegemund-Broka and Kit 2015). Yet the transformation of the Russos into filmmakers was perhaps made clearer by the way in which they framed their forays into “branded entertainment” (Jarvey 2014) less as an extension of television’s commercial imperatives and more as part of their new status as filmmakers. Along with film director Justin Lin, the Russos created in 2014 a company called Bullitt. Named after the 1968 Steve McQueen film and inspired by the way that film showcased the Ford Mustang as one of the “greatest commercials” ever made, the new company aimed to produce “commercials and longform entertainment” that might perform the same function (Jarvey 2014). Although this commercial function arguably fit with the Russos’ television experience, the endeavor was embedded in cineaste pleasures and positioned as a “filmmakers’ collective” involving partners like directors Louis Leterrier and Troy Miller, cinematographer Phe-don Papamichael, and Tony Scott’s RSA Films. Even when directly involved in the seemingly more televisual work of producing commercials—such as a three-and-a-half-minute project for Smirnoff Vodka made while working on Civil War—the Russos’ post-Marvel work accrued alternative value as part of a filmmaking enterprise.
Meanwhile, like Whedon, the Russos’ ongoing relationship as directors of Marvel’s films did not preclude continuing work in the realm of television, despite their seeming transformation. In July 2014, for example, Marvel announced that the Russo brothers had agreed to direct the second and third episodes of Agent Carter (2015-2016), an ABC television series with thematic tie-ins to SHIELD that created a starring vehicle for Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter character from the Captain America films. The same report said Joe Johnston, director of the first Captain America (2011), was interested in directing his own episode “if the scheduling works out.” In actuality, only Joe Russo would make time in his schedule to direct a single episode. Yet the possibility of either of the Russos participating in the series was envisioned less as a return to the television arena in which they were expert, and instead as “Captain America: Winter Soldier directors ... headed to ABC’s Agent Carter” (Couch 2014). The story being told was one of film professionals chipping in to help get a new television endeavor off the ground, rather than entertaining the possibilities that the Russos are still TV guys at heart (indeed, only one of them ended up delivering on this promised return).
Instead, the Russos now functioned as filmmakers in the stories of creativity and professionalism circulated in the media industries. In July 2014, for example, they were honored by the 10th Annual HollyShorts Film Festival. Event spokespeople told The Hollywood Reporter that they were
proud to present Joe and Anthony Russo with the 2014 HollyShorts Visionary Award [...] We’ve seen their meteoric ascent through the years, and what’s special about them is how they always look to inspire the next generation of filmmakers—and that’s what our festival is all about.
These claims about their “rise” and “ascent” suggested that the incredible trajectory their career followed had not been a value-neutral one, but a move from the less prestigious field of television to the level of success they had only just recently found as filmmakers. “Meteoric” suggested a marked difference from their earlier status to the one they now enjoyed. The Hollywood Reporter confirmed this in their commentary when they explained that the Russos “got their start as indie filmmakers and later went on to direct and produce shows like Arrested Development and Community. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which hit theatres in April, has earned a stellar $713.2 million worldwide to date” (Ford 2014). Their television credentials were not disavowed by any means, but they were also sandwiched in between a romantic indie identity and their recent blockbuster filmmaker success; television was invoked as the realm of relative obscurity in which they toiled before finally ascending to their earliest filmmaking dreams.
Following the record-breaking performance of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the Russos traded on a professional identity firmly situated in the world of filmmaking. Make no mistake—they still spoke profusely about their television production roots, the value of it, and the power it had given them to prosper in contemporary Hollywood, as the first part of this chapter made clear. However, that television experience was simultaneously framed as part of a transformation in which the Russos had now become something else. The same interviews in which they spoke of the value of their television experience could also help secure their credibility as filmmakers, where the special effects—driven spectacle of Endgame, for example, could be related by Joe Russo to their lifelong love of Michelangelo Antonioni. The Russos cited inspiration from his strategies of using the environment to reflect “the psychology of the characters. We use the digital internegative in our real set design and in our CG set design to reflect psychology, but not in a way that’s as highly expressionisitic as ‘Red Desert’ ” (Desowitz 2019). While those references to the film canon might not read to many Marvel fans—and are certainly less likely to resonate than nods to Community or Arrested Development—they help secure a claim to this newer, transcendent professional identity. Their television references create value out of where they have been, while the film references generate value out of the position in which they have arrived at the end of that transformative trajectory. Having finished their obligations to Marvel, the Russos and their AGBO Films company established a new partnership with storied Hollywood film studio MGM aimed at leveraging its library to support a host of new film remakes (Fleming 2019). Meanwhile, even while looking fondly back at the television series, Joe Russo envisioned his potential future involvement with Community as a movie rather than something that would unfold on television (Mancuso 2020).
Ultimately, the story of professional success under construction in this industry lore is one that can begin with television, but seems to end with film.