So Netflix’s The Gray Man — the company’s most expensive film to date — finally arrived at the end of July with much fanfare and is, apparently, off the radar already: it’s been widely reviewed and commented upon, it’s not leading the service’s Top Ten movie charts anymore and chatter about it has practically died down. There’s one aspect of this movie release that remains of interest, though: it’s the perfect example of what is wrong with the mentality of almost all major movie studios at the moment regarding productions exactly like The Grey Man, illustrating an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Which one of the numerous issues that often manifest themselves in the material selection, production process and promotion of modern movies today, pray tell? Specifics, then: The Gray Man was released on Netflix on Friday, July 22nd but there have been reports as far back as May 15th that the film is not only getting a sequel but also a prequel (!) or a spin-off, effectively turning this one film into the first entry of a Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne-type movie franchise. Almost every website commenting on this development — first brought to light by Empire magazine no less — called this Netflix’s first “cinematic universe”, a term the Russo brothers also used in interviews prior to the film’s release.
You do see where this is going, don’t you?
Some business sense, some nonsense, a dash of arrogance
Let’s give this some context. For a movie that had not come out yet — so extremely few people know whether it’s actually any good or, you know, Netflix trash not worth most viewers’ time — there were already plans for both a sequel and another film based on it, practically assuming that subscribers will surely like The Gray Man so much that they’ll not only be interested in more of it but possibly even in the story which led to it (which is something few film franchises have ever offered successfully).
It seems almost arrogant on Netflix’s behalf and not a little silly: allowing the world to know that a film is getting a sequel before anyone has a chance to sit down and watch it is close to officially spoiling it as it’s ever going to get. The company even confirmed as much with a press release even before the film’s launch week was out. Plus — oh, the irony — all that talk and speculation about a prequel [SPOILER ALERT] based on a character who dies at the end of the current film [/SPOILER ALERT] seems now even more amusing. It also reeks of amateurism and even desperation on Netflix’s part: did Sarantos and his lieutenants really feel that they had to bring all this into the conversation so as to give The Gray Man as much of a marketing boost as possible?
Most importantly, though, it’s easy to see why the mentality behind Netflix’s approach is wrong. On one hand, the company made a huge investment in The Gray Man (more than $200 million in production costs alone) as well as in the Russo brothers (who demand high budgets and creative freedom in order to commit their time), so it naturally wants as high a return on that investment as possible. On the other, it’s now clear that The Gray Man was conceived as a kickstarter for a movie franchise from the very beginning, which definitely affected the story, the characters, quite possibly the film as a whole. In short: it’s highly likely that Netflix and the Russo brothers cared about the film working as an introduction to “a cinematic universe” at least as much as about the quality of the movie itself. If not more.
Hey, auntie Showbiz, let’s not put the cart before the horse anymore
And therein lies the rub: The Gray Man is not the best movie it could have been precisely because it also had to serve a purpose other than actually being a good film. It’s a shame not just for artistic reasons: simply put, Netflix’s choice backfired. The company – just like most Hollywood studios – wants to develop its own “cinematic universe”, but it cannot build a tall house on unsound foundations. There needs to be a strong, memorable starting point: a film that will earn a place in the minds of consumers, providing its sequel(s) or spin-off(s) with an advantage when their own time comes.
For the enviable Marvel Cinematic Universe, that movie was 2008’s Iron Man: well-made, mostly true to its source material, with a charismatic lead and quality action scenes. A good film. Sure, The Gray Man is watchable — better than the vast majority of Netflix-produced movies in the service’s catalog — but it’s not exceptional or even very good. It’s just OK, which makes it a less than ideal cornerstone for a “cinematic universe”. Do we care about what’s going to happen to the protagonist when the credits start to roll? No. Did we come across any other character during the film that Netflix could base a spin-off on? Also no. So where’s the potential for a Netflix “cinematic universe” based on The Gray Man, exactly? It’s just an open-ended spy thriller anyone can add anything to and call it by any other name.
The line of thinking that Netflix followed with The Gray Man has already led to disaster rather than success in the past: everybody wants to be Marvel Studios because that cinematic universe has been printing money for Disney for more than 20 years now, yes, but that effort has been the exception rather than the rule. Remember the “Dark Universe” that Universal wanted to build around classic horror literature? All it took was one bad film, 2017’s The Mummy, to end that dream. How about Warner’s “Arthurian Universe”, which was supposed to bring all the great heroes of British lore to the big screen? The first film, 2017’s King Arthur, wasn’t even that bad: it was mediocre, killing that initiative just as surely. And… no, let there be no discussing the DC Extended Universe here. It just hurts too much.
So please, dear auntie Showbiz, stop constantly dreaming of cinematic universes. Focus on making good films instead. There’s a lot of money to be made by releasing interconnected movies, we get it, but let’s not keep getting ahead of ourselves anymore. There are no successful movie franchises comprising of bad films. Movies must be able to stand on their own and provide as much entertainment as possible regardless of prequels or sequels. And, oh, auntie Showbiz, if you insist on going down the franchise road, please make sure you get a few exceptional movies out the door before you ask of us to watch those that follow. Even Marvel Studios — you know, the folks whose success you’re constantly trying to copy — doesn’t always get it right, remember?