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The Russo Brothers: From Superhero Sagas to Opioid Drama

Joe and Anthony Russo [Joel C Ryan / Shutterstock]
Joe and Anthony Russo

Last month, Cleveland's home-grown moviemakers Joe and Anthony Russo broke the all-time box office record with their latest film, "Avengers: Endgame," surpassing 2009's “Avatar.” Their next movie, “Cherry," will focus on a much more modest story centered around Northeast Ohio’s opioid crisis. Anthony Russo was in town recently, and he doesn’t see the new film as a conscious attempt to step back from super heroes.

“I don’t know that we necessarily said, 'Oh, we have to do a smaller movie,'” he said. “But, coming out of the 'Avengers,' we were open to anything, and it just ended up being ‘Cherry.’ It ended up being the story that was most resonant to us and seemed most urgent in terms of a film that we wanted to make.”

“Cherry” is based on last year’s best-selling debut novel by another native son, Nico Walker. It tells the story of a military medic who returns to Cleveland from Iraq and resorts to robbing banks to pay for a heroin habit. The Russo brothers are producing the film for their new AGBO Studios.  

“It is named after a fictional character that was fabricated many years ago when we were both graduate students at Case Western Reserve,” Anthony Russo said. “We were doing a sketch comedy show there, and, in order to generate publicity for the show, we wrote an article for the student newspaper.”

The article was a scathing critique of the program, written under the pseudonym, “Gozie Agbo." The brothers have since used that name as an inside joke. Joe, a CWRU MFA graduate in acting, has played cameo roles in their films under that name.


Joe Russo's cameo in "Avengers: Endgame"

Anthony Russo says he’s happy to let Joe do the acting while he stays behind the camera. The brothers loved watching and reading about films as boys, but it wasn’t until they saw Robert Rodriguez’s 1992 drama “El Mariachi” that they even considered being filmmakers themselves.

“He wrote a book about how he made that film for $7,000, and that really lit a lightbulb off in our heads,” Russo said. “We were film geeks and came at it from a more academic point of view, but all the sudden, when he said he’d made a movie for $7,000, that made it seem like it was tangible for the first time.”

The brothers would go on to make their first film, “Pieces,” in 1997. Several other Cleveland-based films followed, including 2002’s “Welcome to Collinwood”. That was followed by years of work in television, before getting the opportunity to helm four Marvel movies.

Forbes magazine film industry writer Scott Mendelson recently put the Russo brothers’ "Avengers: Endgame” achievement in perspective: “For the first time in nearly 45 years, the biggest movie of all-time is not a film directed by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or James Cameron.” Anthony Russ says that feels strange.

“Those are all idols of ours,” he said. “Those are all people that we studied as we were becoming filmmakers. So, to be classified in that zone, it’s hard to process.”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.