There comes a time in every young man’s life when he must turn away from Marvel-y things and confront the hard realities of the world. And for the directors of those Marvel-y things to do the same. Thus, Cherry (in theaters February 26, on AppleTV+ March 12), the new collaboration between Marvel Universe mainstay directors Anthony and Joe Russo and their Spider-Man, Tom Holland. The film, based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, concerns itself with dire ills of present-day and recent-past America: the boondoggle wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the opioid crisis. A far cry from the fantastical fight against Thanos, certainly.

Cherry follows the titular character as he transforms from sensitive if shifty college student to adrift army medic to Oxy and heroin addict to bank robber. Which was similar to Walker’s own trajectory, though I’ve no doubt plenty has been embellished in this telling. The Russos, free of I.P. concerns and Disney’s sternly invested oversight, go for high style in Cherry, with chapter title cards and vintage needle drops, sardonic/soulful voiceover and intricate camerawork. The film is almost as busy as a Marvel production, despite its true-life stakes, its grim implications about the plight of so many real young Americans. 

There is, perhaps, too much adornment, the film an overly effortful attempt to do something big and nervy and relevant. It’s fascinating, as it often is, to watch populist filmmakers go for prestige glory—but that curiosity only carries us so far into Cherry’s 141-minute run. There’s a sort of bell curve of tolerance; the film begins loud and over-egged, gradually settles into a sad and gnarly bildungsroman, and then burns itself out with an operatic finale. It’s an exhausting experience, which I realize may be the point.

What registers most keenly about Cherry is the generousness of its epic scope. Perhaps this topic—a large segment of an entire generation tossed into war and then greeted with economic ruin and a drug epidemic on their return home—merits this kind of scale. It’s a huge story, or rather thousands of stories threaded together. Maybe Cherry’s pop-profundity is best equipped to summarize the vastness and surreality of its subjects, and to reflect itself back at the people it’s nebulously about in some relatable, reverent way. Cherry is a movie ardently made for men of my generation—who were college-age when 9/11 happened and then caught in the riptide of imperialism—and for the young men of today, who may feel a similar, if slightly less insistent, tug. 

There’s empathy in that care, in honoring those stories with a visual and aural grandness befitting them. Too often, though, it’s easy to see the seams of the Russos’ ambition, a creative straining that goes past proportionate compassion and becomes preening. The film seems less than earnest, at times, too obvious an exercise in artistic flexing. 

Holland, though, doesn’t lose sight of the mission. He’s undoubtedly trying to prove something himself, but keeps that self-interest largely at bay. As Cherry descends into ruin, Holland avoids the clichéd actorly tics of addiction. He doesn’t make pre-war Cherry an angel, either: there is a darkness hanging around him even then, a mark of his entropy visible in Holland’s careful physicality and cadence. Sure, it may be a giddy, “well listen to you!” shock to hear Holland—Spider-Man! Billy Elliott!—say things like, “Man, I’d really like to fuck this girl.” But Holland delivers such brand-challenging lines without the showy insouciance of many young actors in cinema history who have tried, strenuously and nakedly, to gritty themselves up. (For some reason, the analog that’s coming strongest to mind right now is Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Speedway Junkie, though I’m sure there are myriad more pertinent examples. Leonardo DiCaprio shaking off Growing Pains to do The Basketball Diaries, perhaps?) 

The girl in question is Cherry’s great love, Emily, played sharply by Ciara Bravo, a former Nickelodeon star doing her own reinvention. Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot’s script tries to give Emily some rounding, a vague arc, but she mostly hovers around the film as a spirit of worry and loss. Cherry is not, really, a movie made for or about the women who found themselves pulled under by the same forces that grabbed men like Cherry. Their stories will have to wait for another lofty project from superhero auteurs. 

As for this particular lofty project, I am curious to see how it will be received. The forcefulness of Cherry’s focus—its florid rendering of the interior life of a violent straight young white man in 2000s America—may very well put some people off.  But will its core audience seek it out and respond to it positively? Is this the kind of “we see you” reinforcement those ailing men need? Or will they reject it as Hollywood hokum, another feigned act of understanding masking wealthy vanity? Maybe it’s a sign of changed times that a film that rotates on so many familiar axes—maleness, war, crime—feels almost niche, a product from another time strangely about our own.

I hope the Russos were not just making their Deer Hunter meets Full Metal Jacket movie as a career stamp, with no outward cause in mind. Sometimes during the film’s long duration, it seems that’s all Cherry is: a cynical war movie made because all great directors need a war movie. (Of the non-galactic variety, I mean.) Other times in the film—when Holland is palpably expressing the scramble and despondency of Cherry’s circumstances, and how terribly young he remains during that struggle—Cherry does lift itself up toward urgency. And it does, yes, complicate the profile of its makers as no doubt intended, showing that they have more on their minds—and, maybe, in their egos—than merely saving the world yet again.

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