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From superheroes to spymasters: How the Russos created Prime Video's newest blockbuster

By Mikhail Lecaros Published Jun 01, 2023 2:28 pm

From beloved tv comedies Arrested Development and Community, to Infinity War and Endgame for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, siblings Anthony and Joe Russo (collectively credited as the Russo Brothers) have made a career of blazing a trail through contemporary pop culture. With a number of post-MCU features released under their AGBO production company, the brothers’ latest effort, Citadel, may very well be their most ambitious project yet. 

Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Citadel stars Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Netflix’s Bodyguard) and Priyanka Chopra-Jonas (Aitraaz, The Matrix Resurrections) as superspies taking on an international conspiracy. Since launching in late April, Citadel’s whirlwind blend of intrigue, drama, and blockbuster action has become the platform’s number-one streaming title in nearly 200 countries. 

Mason Kane (Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas) in Citadel 

Speaking at an international roundtable on the eve of last week’s season finale, AGBO Chief Creative Officer Angela Russo-Otstot said: “The success of the show thus far has been absolutely thrilling… our hope in embarking on this endeavor with Amazon, and with our (other) partners, was that we would allow audiences from all over the world to come together, and to enjoy storytelling that truly is global.” 

The series marks the latest success for AGBO founders Anthony and Joe Russo, who formed the studio in 2016 to develop projects that they could produce and/or direct with complete independence. In the years since completing Avengers: Endgame for Marvel Studios in 2019, the brothers shifted their focus from big-screen superheroes to streaming fare, with Cherry for AppleTV, The Gray Man for Netflix, and the Chris Hemsworth-starring Extraction films. 

For the Russos, character lies at the core of every project they take on: “In terms of how we approach storytelling,” Anthony said, “I would say the one common thing between all the different work… from the comedies through Marvel is, we're very character-oriented. It's really an exploration of character, [and] structuring a larger narrative around who they are and what their vulnerabilities are… that's the way we end up shaping what happens in the story. Whether we're doing comedy or drama, or a combination of the two, I think that it all really goes back to the point that we really, really look at character as the jumping-off point.” 

In Citadel, the characters in question are Mason Kane (Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Chopra Jonas), two intelligence agents on the hunt for Manticore, a ruthless terrorist organization hellbent on subjugating the world. As the story opens, our heroes are ensnared in a Manticore trap, which sees hundreds of Citadel operatives around the world assassinated in cold blood. In the ensuing firefight, Mason and Nadia are injured, emerging years later with no idea as to who or what they were. When the threat of Manticore resurfaces, Citadel survivor Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada) must find a way to defeat his old enemies, while Mason and Nadia will fight to restore their memories and save the world. 

As far as spy thrillers go, Citadel ticks all the boxes, which Anthony says was entirely the point, as, “We love genre... [because] there's familiarity to it, there’s a sort of predictability in terms of what the world consists [and] of who the characters are, how the drama unfolds. And because of that familiarity, we can sort of participate in the storytelling in a more active way, because we're familiar with it. But at the same time, genre becomes boring unless you're also subverting the sort of genre tropes and are willing to find ways to step away from what those expectations are.” 

The tropes are on full display, as Citadel is replete with clandestine meetings in travelogue-worthy locations, nifty gadgets, cool weapons, and impossibly good-looking spies in expensive outfits who couldn’t blend into a crowd if their lives depended on it. But for all of its references, Citadel subverts convention by having Madden and Chopra Jonas share the spotlight as the leads and infusing their traditionally invincible characters with pathos borne of their backstories; they’re not just playing competitive, equally-capable agents—their characters are former lovers, which (in between gunfights and explosions) gave the actors outlets to express their chemistry in new and unexpected ways. 

Joe Russo was quick to point out the wisdom—and appeal—in hiring Chopra Jonas: “Priyanka is very unique, and she's a true global star. Casting Priyanka was an idea that came from [Amazon Studios CEO] Jennifer Salke, and we absolutely loved it, so the role was written specifically for her. So as we're executing the show, we're executing it specifically for Priyanka, and we can't imagine anyone else.” Joe further praised Chopra Jones’ acting abilities, and her commitment to doing the bulk of her own stunts: “What you’re seeing on camera is her.” 

Joe and Anthony Russo

Conceived as the jumping-off point for an international franchise, Citadel is Amazon Prime Video’s latest stab at topping the world streaming market. The is already the most expensive series of all time with a budget of $300 million, coming off the heels of last year’s most-expensive show, Amazon’s own Rings of Power. As of this writing, Citadel’s Italian- and Indian-language spinoffs are already in production, each with their own characters and storylines. 

“It's truly a collaboration,” says Russo-Otstot, when asked about the spinoffs. “It took some work on our end, to create that foundation and sort of identify what the guardrails are for the mythology. We wanted to give all of the partners that we're working with clarity on what the history is behind Citadel in our mythology, but then also give them poetic license to come back with ideas of their own, and to interpret the story in a way that is unique to them, and who they are and where they come from, and what audiences in their particular region enjoy. And when they came back with those ideas, that's when the magic really began to happen.” 

With the time, talent, and money invested, Citadel is a story that’s going to be around for a while, which brings up the MCU-shaped elephant in the room: for anyone wondering if the Russos have any more Avengers movies in them, the brothers have made it clear that, while they’ve had discussions with Marvel, they likely won’t be ready to return to the MCU until “at least” the end of the decade, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

After years of working on popular characters in established universes, the men who killed Tony Stark are more than happy to stretch their creative muscles working on their own original content. In any case, between projects like the Citadel spinoffs, the upcoming Extraction 2, The Electric State (with Millie Bobbie Brown), and any number of films and series in development, there’s no shortage of opportunities for the Russos to entertain the world. 

Doing it on their own terms is just the icing on the cake.