Cherry is the Russo brothers' anti-Marvel film
A dark, indie drama about the perils of war, from the makers of ... Avengers: Infinity War?
Of all the sibling filmmakers working today, the Russos are among the hardest to describe. "Recognizable" is a word better reserved for the agonizingly immersive Safdie brothers' films, or the arthouse realism of the Dardennes', or the quirky obsessiveness of the Coens, or the balletic visual language of the Wachowskis. The Russos, on the other hand, owe their success to their lack of a cinematic fingerprint. After all, you can't survive nearly a decade working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without some creative obsequiousness.
It's no wonder, then, that in setting off on their own for the first time since 2006's You, Me, and Dupree, the Russos have attempted to distinguish themselves as stylistic filmmakers in their own right. The resulting project, Cherry, out Friday on Apple TV+, is in many ways the perfect antithesis of the brothers' work for Marvel: It's a distinctly indie film that pushes back on the U.S. military, capitalism, and the artistic homogeneity of superhero movies.
But as Cherry also shows, it might be too late for the Russos to escape the MCU's gravity — even if they wanted to.
If the Russos, who count two Captain America and two Avengers films among their credits, were looking for a project to distinguish themselves by, Cherry is it. Based on the acclaimed, semi-autobiographical debut novel by Nico Walker, Cherry follows an unnamed narrator who returns from the Iraq War with severe PTSD, which ultimately sends him spiraling into an opioid addiction that, in turn, drives him to start robbing banks. One of the Russos' sisters, Angela Russo-Otstot, co-wrote the movie's script with Jessica Goldberg. The film is close-to-home for the Russos in other ways as well: Aside from the war scenes, Cherry primarily takes place in Cleveland, where the brothers are from, and uses both their old grade school and the Little Italy restaurant where the younger Russo, Joe, once worked as a cook as sets.
Staying within that comfort zone, though, doesn't mean sticking to the kind of rigid filmmaking the brothers did at Marvel. Whereas Avengers: Endgame, the Russos' 2019 film that preceded Cherry, is one of the most creatively empty films I've ever seen — the brothers demonstrated "peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition," The New Yorker savaged in its review — Cherry seems wholly intent on proving the Russos' critics wrong, to the point of throwing its "style" in the audience's face. Cherry is a throwback to the '90s-style indie features that marked the Russos' break into the industry. The quirky editing and fourth-wall-breaking dialogue, as a result, functions like an aggressive rejection of the uniformity imposed by Marvel — a uniformity that once prompted Vulture in 2016 to observe that "there's … a good chance you'd be hard-pressed to identify one singular thing about their directorial style."
Other choices feel like subtler rejections of the Marvel system (although on record, the Russos have never been anything but extraordinarily generous and thankful about their work with the studio). It's a funny thing to see them pivot to a narrative that excoriates the United States military for taking advantage of young, desperate men, and leaving them without support when they return home. Marvel, by contrast, has long nurtured a friendly relationship with the Pentagon (including welcoming the military's cooperation on the Russos' Captain America films). The studio's favorable, and often ahistorical, depiction has led some critics to go as far as to accuse the projects of being recruiting tools for the military, glorifying vigilantism and violence.
Capitalism, too, is an unexpected target. The protagonist and his friends encounter multiple obstacles to simple banking (including not being able to open a checking account), and the local opioid crisis is tied explicitly to class stagnation. When the protagonist eventually begins robbing banks, they're given bitter names like "CapitalistOne" and "Bank F--ks America." Which, of course, is a rather rich political statement from directors whose work has been characterized as the epitome of a profit-driven system, where every superhero film essentially functions as an advertisement for the next installment.
The Russos can't quite unyoke themselves from Marvel, even if Cherry is an attempt to do so. Their political sentiments can't be separated from the fact that the brothers never would have been able to work on a passion project like Cherry if not for being a very profitable and complicit cog in the Marvel machine. And though Apple TV+ is marketing Cherry as an "indie" film, it has a big enough budget that it never achieves the gritty shoestring feeling you suspect it was going for. The directors dipped into the MCU's talent pool to put Tom Holland — the latest Spider-Man — in the lead role as the nameless protagonist. Meanwhile, frenzied edits don't convey the characters' drug-addled agitation so much as they seem to expose directors who are never quite sure what they're doing with a shot. In one scene, meant to show the protagonists trying to flush their drugs down the toilet, there are no fewer than 10 cuts in a 30-second time span. A more economical director could have communicated the same turmoil with just one or two.
Walker, the author of the novel, barely held back his own dissatisfaction with the adaptation when he told The Times of London, "We didn't have any input at all, but God bless them, they bought the rights; they can do it their way."
I don't blame the Russos, though, for their attempt at doing it their way. They've done incredibly well for themselves by making some of the most financially successful movies in the world over the decade — a process that requires them to cater to the largest group by sanding down anything that might hold an audience back. The problem with Cherry is that, even when setting out on their own, the Russos can't quite shake that people-pleasing impulse, the one that leaves off screen anything remotely interesting or challenging or effectively political.
Anthony Russo has said it himself; that was a deal the brothers were willing to make. "I think that's why we started going down the road of commercial filmmaking in the first place," he once told Vulture, adding: "Because, yeah, we want people to watch our movies."