Netflix has had a tough time lately, losing $50 billion in market value in April when it announced it had lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022, and then this week announced it was adding another 970,000 subscribers in the second quarter lost the quarter — a hit that was actually cast in a positive light for falling short of the streaming service’s own forecasts. All is not rosy for the 21st century entertainment giant, although it aims to turn things around from this weekend The gray man, Joe and Anthony Russo’s spy-versus-spy saga pitting Ryan Gosling’s rogue CIA agent against Chris Evans’ sociopathic mercenary. The most expensive production in the company’s history (with a reported price of $200 million), it’s Netflix’s biggest gamble yet to create a true action blockbuster — and with it, a lucrative franchise.
Netflix shouldn’t get their hopes up. Online premiere July 22 (after an earlier theatrical release), The gray man fulfills its mission with craftsmanship but a frustrating lack of larger-than-life flair; its chaos rarely materializes the way high-profile events should, despite a plethora of global settings, enormous set pieces, and Chris Evans’ charismatic evil turn. It swings for the fences and finishes as a double rather than a home run, making it another Netflix action tent pole to fall short in size.
For the past three years, the company has worked diligently to create a slam-bang sensation on par with Marvel’s trusty Smashes (or a phenomenon like Tom Cruise’s most recent). Top Gun: Maverick), only to come up with attempts that feel more like approximations than originals. For an industry titan that so often leads the way, Netflix has generally taken a hard flop when it comes to the most aggressive film genres.
As of 2019, Netflix’s track record has been decidedly patchy, thanks to films that have been underwhelming on a creative level or have completely fizzled out, including: triple border, donor confidential, Gunpowder Milkshake, Kate, beckett, The man from Toronto, spider head, The Adam Project, Red noticeand extraction. While the last three of these were apparently hits the way they were The Old Guard– proven by the fact that they get all the sequels (except for The Adam Project). They are dutiful programmers who almost disappear from memory as soon as the credits roll, unable to deliver either massive, adrenaline-pumping excitement or stripped-down, raw thrills. From expensive A-list ventures to meager B-movie ventures, they’re mostly ho-hum at best and ridiculous at worst.
Some of it is simply the result of hiring the right stars (Dwayne Johnson, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, Oscar Isaac, Chris Hemsworth) and producing the wrong projects. But something more fundamental seems baked into this failure. Netflix has had tremendous success in the dramatic realm by giving writers relative carte blanche, be it Martin Scorsese with The IrishmanAlfonso Cuaron with RomaJane Campion with The power of the dogNoah Baumbach with history of marriageMaggie Gyllenhaal with The Lost Daughter, Rebecca Hall with passPaolo Sorrentino with The hand of God, Lin Manuel Miranda with Tick, tick… boom! or supposedly Andrew Dominik with the forthcoming Blond. This strategy has earned accolades and Oscar nominations (and wins) to a degree that suggests that providing real artists with resources and autonomy is a recipe for success. However, the opposite was true when it came to blockbusters – with millions (if not hundreds of millions) freaking out to their hearts’ content, the majority of Netflix’s action directors (Rawson Marshall Thurber, Shawn Levy, Peter Berg) have gone flat, personality-deficient slumber.
“However, the opposite was true when it came to blockbusters – with millions (if not hundreds of millions) freaking out to their hearts’ content, the majority of Netflix’s action directors (Rawson Marshall Thurber, Shawn Levy, Peter Berg) have gone flat, personality-deficient slumber.”
The main exception to this rule is Michael Bay, whose 6 underground came and went in late 2019 without a beep, though on a technical level it was as delightfully excessive as anything he’s done. Three years later, Bay’s Ryan Reynolds-headlining extravagance still feels more like a victim of poor marketing (i.e. Netflix fails to promote its original material both in the press and on its own homepage) than an artistic misjudgment. Nonetheless, the underperformance further implies that Netflix needs to treat action differently than drama and apply tighter quality controls over its productions to ensure they don’t veer off in random directions. In other words, nobody had to look over the shoulder of Scorsese or Campion, but maybe a little more of that would have done Red notice or a donor confidential something good — an approach Marvel is taking to all of its outsized, untold billions in CGI-assisted ventures.
Of course, Marvel’s neuter-the-director assembly-line approach to filmmaking rarely produces masterpieces (and has led to some serious missteps of its own lately). Still, it’s helped the comics giant rise to the top of the industry while avoiding the kind of action-adventure bullshit Netflix produces all too regularly. his latest, The gray man, will probably please many, but few. And given the Russians’ past, Marvel triumphs with them Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: EndgameIt’s hard not to wonder if the difference between the fortunes of the two companies is the amount of freedom Netflix allows its action directors to their detriment.