The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s decade-plus of blockbuster dominance has been many things, but it’s rarely considered a creative hub for directors. The MCU has done a better job of late incorporating visionary filmmakers—it’s still hard to believe Golden Globe winner Chloé Zhao is releasing a blockbuster about immortal aliens later this year—but the conventional wisdom has long held that anyone who signs onto a Marvel project will be hemmed in by the enterprise’s house style. The question of how many concessions an auteur has to make in the MCU will surely be an ongoing topic of discussion leading up to the release of Zhao’s Eternals, just as we wondered how Taika Waititi would fare after two horrendously dull Thor movies. (Pretty well, it turned out.) But what about the filmmakers who exist within Marvel’s house style—the people who are largely responsible for it?
By most accounts, the Russo brothers are hugely successful directors. They’ve released two of the five highest-grossing movies of all time—Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel, Avengers: Endgame—and two Captain America movies that aren’t exactly slouches, either. (The Winter Soldier, their Marvel directorial debut, is still considered one of the best entries in the MCU even if it “only” grossed just north of $714 million.) But the Russo brothers’ success is owed, at least in part, to their creation of and willingness to color within the MCU lines. A Vulture profile of the Russos from 2016, which reads like a backhanded compliment, leads with the fact that they probably aren’t household names and comes with the headline, “Who Needs an Auteur?”
Granted, prior to the MCU, knowing who the Russos were meant you were either Steven Soderbergh—who discovered them in the ’90s—or someone deeply invested in aughts sitcoms like Community and Arrested Development, the latter of which netted the duo a directing Emmy. Otherwise, their pre-Marvel feature-film slate was composed of two underwhelming comedies, the crime caper Welcome to Collinwood and the rom-com You, Me, and Dupree. That the Russos were ultimately responsible for four largely acclaimed MCU films is certainly commendable—Joss Whedon has been candid about being burned out after Avengers: Age of Ultron—and also affords them an increasingly rare level of carte blanche in Hollywood. But what’s the endgame after, well, breaking box office records with Endgame?
If the Russos wanted to make a statement that they’ve got more to offer outside of their sitcom chops and crowd-pleasing blockbusters, the new Apple TV+ film Cherry sends quite a message. With Cherry, the filmmakers have plucked bright-eyed Tom Holland out of the MCU and dropped him into a sprawling, R-rated prestige play about America’s opioid crisis in which Holland’s character has to shove a soldier’s entrails back into his body and injects himself with heroin more times than you can count. Based on the autobiographical novel from Nico Walker, an army veteran with PTSD and a heroin addiction who robbed banks in Ohio, Cherry is inescapably grim material—albeit with some personal resonance for the Russos, who are also Cleveland natives and have lost family members to opioid addiction. Spider-Man notwithstanding, there’s no denying this movie is a massive diversion from the MCU.
But the Russos seem to have overcorrected too much, piling Cherry with so much excess that it’s borderline parodic. In addition to the bloated 141-minute run time, the directors shift aspect ratios; lean into on-the-nose humor (the banks in question have fake names like Capitalist One, Shitty Bank, and Bank Fucks America); break the story up into chapters; introduce Jack Reynor as a dealer known only as “Pills and Coke;” and, in what may end up being one of the most unnecessary WTF movie moments of the year, shoot a scene from the point of view of Holland’s rectal cavity. That Cherry veers wildly from a cutesy teen romance to the horrors of war to a harrowing Requiem for a Dream–esque exploration of addiction to a bank-robbing heist movie might be necessitated by the narrative, but it only underscores the Russos’ general aimlessness in the name of Doing the Absolute Most.
Like their mentor Soderbergh, the Russos have said they’re adopting a “one for you, one of them” approach; now that they’re done with Marvel, it’s high time they pursued a passion project. That they settled on such an ambitious and sprawling tale of one man’s suffering—and the way it epitomizes some of America’s institutional failures in the 21st century—is an admirable swing for the fences. But the filmmakers don’t do themselves any favors: While picking Holland for such a demanding role that’s against type is a strong show of faith, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s woefully miscast. (Especially when the narrative jumps forward in time and the best solution to age the actor’s unnamed protagonist is giving him a tiny mustache, which makes him look like a kid getting dressed up for a school play.) While the Russos may be pivoting away from Marvel with an R-rated indie for a nascent streaming service, having the film headlined by one of the MCU’s biggest stars in an unsuitable yet attention-grabbing role underlines a people-pleasing impulse.
The way that Cherry unfurls over a decade and a half, complete with a running voice-over from Holland, also brings to mind Martin Scorsese, the legendary director who notably compared the MCU to theme parks and stated that the MCU movies “aren’t cinema.” It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Russos took that swipe to heart with a film that comes across like a second-rate Goodfellas, particularly in the lead-up to the movie’s release. In a bizarrely framed feature from The Guardian, Joe Russo said that their Marvel movies were a “powerful political tool,” while the author dismisses Scorsese’s Silence to instead praise The Winter Soldier and how it “critiqued the post-Snowden U.S. landscape of state surveillance and counter-terrorist overreach.” (Never mind the implication that Scorsese isn’t political or relevant, perhaps the Russos would like to comment on the MCU’s cozy ties with the military.)
It’s still commendable that the Russos didn’t try to play it safe with their first post-Marvel outing, and, at the same time, more than a bit worrying that the directors behind the most successful movie of all time said they found it difficult to get Cherry financed. Interestingly, if the Russos do carve out a niche, it may be as a feeder system for MCU stars stepping out of their comfort zones. Holland’s work on Cherry notwithstanding, the Russos have collaborated with Chris Hemsworth on Netflix’s gnarly action movie Extraction (that they produced and Joe Russo wrote) and the late Chadwick Boseman on STX Entertainment’s crime thriller 21 Bridges (producers, again), and they will reunite with Chris Evans on their next directorial project The Gray Man, another Netflix production.
The Gray Man, which will see a CIA operative (played by Ryan Gosling) going rogue to set up a showdown with another agent (Evans) hunting him down, has been hyped up as a potential franchise-starter for the streamer with a blockbuster scale likened to James Bond. Seeing how well the directing duo fared with the MCU, Netflix is surely hoping for another crowd-pleasing spectacle that comfortably falls into their wheelhouse. (Gosling is also an intriguing casting, seeing as he’s one of the few remaining A-listers in Hollywood who hasn’t starred in a superhero movie.)
From a purely artistic standpoint, Cherry is an intriguing gambit by the Russos, having finally been given the opportunity after years in the Marvel sandbox to do, in Soderbergh parlance, “one for them.” But as a barometer for what we might expect when the filmmakers aren’t adhering to a blockbuster template, Cherry is far too disjointed and ill-conceived to inspire much confidence. A house style is better than no discernible style at all.