Education

University of Iowa grad, Marvel moviemaker Joe Russo to return to campus

'The most important thing I learned was from Professor Holstein'

Joe Russo, left, and Anthony Russo attend the “Avengers: Infinity War” UK Fan Event held at Television Studios in White City, London, UK on April 8, 2018. (Matt Crossick/PA Wire/Abaca Press/TNS)
Joe Russo, left, and Anthony Russo attend the “Avengers: Infinity War” UK Fan Event held at Television Studios in White City, London, UK on April 8, 2018. (Matt Crossick/PA Wire/Abaca Press/TNS)
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IOWA CITY — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War” — these aren’t just movies about Cap, the Black Widow, Thor or Iron Man — even though, of course, they are.

They’re about the human experience. Love and hate, life and death, even politics.

“Why make these movies on such a global scale unless you’re trying to incite conversation?” University of Iowa alumnus and Hollywood director Joe Russo said. “We prefer conversation.”

Russo, who in 1992 earned a UI bachelor’s degree in English and writing, will be back on campus Monday for an event and audience question-and-answer session, hosted by the University Lecture Committee. His visit — just days after the opening of his latest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, “Avengers: Infinity War,” co-directed with his brother Anthony — will be punctuated by a chance to win tickets to one of two screenings at FilmScene in downtown Iowa City following his talk.

Upon his return, Russo said, he plans to “find out if George’s burgers are as good as I remember.”

He also plans to share some of the inspiration he garnered while a UI coed related to storytelling and the importance of theme, metaphor, symbolism, and relevance — which guide his moviemaking and drive his character development.

“We always try to make these films timely so that when you walk out of it, if you want to take with you an extra layer of discussion or narrative, you can,” Russo told reporters during an interview in advance of his visit. “If you’re not into thematics, then you don’t have to. You can just go watch a movie about a superhero struggling against a villain.

“But if you want to come out thinking about your world and what it means — and this goes back to Professor Holstein — we try to imbue the films with symbolism and metaphor and thematics in order to make them more resonant.”

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He was referring to UI religious studies professor Jay Holstein, who has attracted national repute for his curriculum often centered on the deconstruction of stories — including those from the Bible, novels and popular movies.

“Unequivocally, the most important thing I learned was from Professor Holstein,” Russo said of his time in Iowa. “It was about thematics and metaphor and storytelling . He was a huge influence on me as a storyteller and my understanding of how story could resonate with audiences.”

Russo and his brother Anthony were born in the 1970s, raised in Cleveland, and reunited after Joe Russo’s stint in Iowa at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, where they started directing, writing, and producing.

“We’re both film fanatics from our childhood,” Russo said, making specific mention of the low-budget movie “El Mariachi,” written and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

“That inspired a whole new wave of independent filmmakers to make what people referred to as credit-card movies, where you would go apply for a credit card and then try to max it out and get a film done,” Russo said — speaking from experience.

The brothers’ first feature, “Pieces,” screened in 1997 at the Slamdance Film Festival, where producer Steven Soderbergh stumbled upon it and asked if they wanted to collaborate. They since have become some of the biggest directors in the industry, working not only on Marvel blockbusters but on television comedy series such as “Arrested Development” and “Community.”

In their work — infiltrated with theme and metaphor — the brothers shoot for balance and mess with tone, Russo said. They infuse relevance and often find themselves breaking new ground cinematically and culturally.

“I’m not a fan of surveilling technology — there are very dangerous components to it that we don’t yet understand,” Russo said about the ideas behind “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

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“The message of that movie was that you could easily manipulate those components to do a great deal of damage in society,” he said.

“And now we’re finding out that a company called Cambridge Analytica did exactly that,” he said, referring to the company that has been linked to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and condemned for improperly harvesting data from Facebook.

As for his newest Avengers installment, Russo said, the film raises the question, “What does it cost to be a hero in a world where there are no easy answers?”

“I think we live in a world right now that has very few easy answers,” he said. “It is reflecting the complex place that I think we’ve found ourselves as Americans in the last year or so.”

In a preview of what’s next in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Russo warned he’s going off script, so to speak.

“I don’t see things staying the same,” he said. “You’ll see that with one film, we’ve changed it as much as it’s changed over all 18 movies.”

He left details vague but did make himself clear on one point he believes the movie industry has been slow to absorb.

“It’s not even a question anymore, it’s a mandate,” he said about the need for more diversity.

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Pointing to the massive international hit “Black Panther” — a recent Marvel installment, cast with mostly black actors, expected to earn $700 million domestically and $1.36 billion worldwide — Russo said, “I’m ecstatic that the world responded with such a resounding yes to ‘Black Panther.’”

“I think that was a historic movie, and I think it’s going to forever alter the landscape,” he said.

And it should, Russo added.

“These are incredibly diverse global audiences made up of every walk of life, and everyone wants to identify with characters they see on screen — from a cultural standpoint, a gender standpoint, a sexual-orientation standpoint,” he said.

“It is incumbent on all filmmakers, everyone in Hollywood — we are years and years late to this party — to offer the opportunity for people to identify on those most intimate levels with characters.”

For more information on Russo’s visit, go to https://lectures.uiowa.edu/lectures/joe-russo/

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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