‘The Gray Man’ and the Big Deal of Netflix’s Action Movies

Netflix has had a tough time lately, losing $50 billion in market value in April when it disclosed it lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022, then announced this week it bled 970,000. additional subscribers to the second. quarter – a hit that was actually cast in a positive light, as it was below the streaming service’s own projections. All is not rosy and sunny at the 21st century entertainment giant, although it aims to turn things around starting this weekend with The gray man, the spy vs. spy saga from Joe and Anthony Russo in which Ryan Gosling’s rogue CIA agent battles Chris Evans’ sociopathic mercenary. The most expensive production in the company’s history (with a reported price tag of $200 million), it’s Netflix’s biggest bet yet on creating a true action blockbuster and, with it, a lucrative franchise.

Netflix shouldn’t give them hope. Premiering online July 22 (after a previous theatrical release), The gray man executes assignment with professional skill but a frustrating lack of larger-than-life flair; its mayhem rarely pops up the way crowd-pleasing events should, despite a slew of globe-trotting locations, huge set pieces, and Chris Evans’ charismatically evil turn. Swinging for the fences, it ends as a double rather than a home run, making it another Netflix action hit that lacks grandeur.

Over the past three years, the company has worked diligently to cook up a slam-bang sensation on par with Marvel’s reliable smashes (or such a phenomenon as the recent Tom Cruise Top Gun: Maverick), only to come up with efforts that look more like approximations than originals. For an industry titan who so often leads the way, Netflix has generally failed when it comes to the more aggressive movie genres.

Since 2019, Netflix’s action track record has been decidedly spotty, thanks to movies that were creatively underwhelming or downright duds, including: Triple Frontier, Spenser Confidential, Gunpowder milkshake, kate, Beckett, The man from Toronto, spider head, The Adam Project, red noticeand Extraction. While the last three of them were apparently hits, just like The old guard– as evidenced by the fact that they all receive sequels (except for The Adam Project) — none became water cooler-style escapes that dented the larger pop culture conversation. They’re dutiful programmers who fade from memory almost as soon as the credits roll, unable to deliver massive, adrenalized excitement or stripped-back thrills. Whether they’re expensive A-list companies or lean B-movie companies, they are, more often than not, ho-hum at best, and laughable at worst.

Some of this 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. Yet this failure seems to be something more fundamental. Netflix has had huge success in drama by giving writers carte blanche, whether it’s Martin Scorsese with The IrishmanAlfonso Cuaron with RomeJane Campion with The power of the dogNoah Baumbach with Marriage storyMaggie Gyllenhaal with The lost girl, Rebecca Hall with Who passedPaolo Sorrentino with God’s hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda with Tick, tick… Boom! or, ostensibly, Andrew Dominik with the next Blond. This strategy has garnered accolades and Oscar nominations (and wins) to a degree that suggests providing real artists with resources and autonomy is a winning formula. However, when it comes to blockbusters, the reverse has happened – given that millions (if not hundreds of millions) will go gonzo at will, the majority of Netflix’s action directors ( Rawson Marshall Thurber, Shawn Levy, Peter Berg) fashioned flat, personality-deficient naps.

However, when it comes to blockbusters, the reverse has happened – given that millions (if not hundreds of millions) will go gonzo at will, the majority of Netflix’s action directors ( Rawson Marshall Thurber, Shawn Levy, Peter Berg) fashioned flat, personality-deficient naps.

The main exception to this rule is Michael Bay, whose 6 Underground came and went without a glance at the end of 2019 even though, technically, it was as gloriously overkill as anything he’s done. Three years later, Bay’s Ryan Reynolds-headlined extravaganza continues to feel like a victim of poor marketing (i.e., Netflix failed to promote its original material both in the press and on its own homepage) more than an artistic miscalculation. Still, its underperformance further implies that Netflix needs to treat action differently than drama, exercising tighter quality control over its productions to ensure they don’t flounder in haphazard directions. In other words, nobody needed to look over Scorsese’s or Campion’s shoulders, but maybe a little more of that would have made a red notice or one Spenser Confidential good – an approach that Marvel takes, to the tune of billions, in all of its outsized CGI-ified endeavors.

Of course, Marvel’s director and assembly-line neutral approach rarely results in masterpieces (and has recently led to some serious missteps). Still, it’s helped the comics giant rise to the top of the industry, while avoiding the kind of action-adventure duds that Netflix all too regularly churns out. His last, The gray man, will probably satisfy a lot but little. And in light of the Russos’ past, Marvel triumphs with 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 extent of the freedom Netflix grants its action directors, to their detriment.

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