Netflix’s next big blockbuster movie is “The Gray Man,” a CIA thriller based on the 2009 novel by Mark Greaney (and the first in the long-running “Gray Man” series of novels). It is painfully obvious the movie is supposed to kick-start the launch of a brand-new, male audience-driven franchise. Think “James Bond,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Fast & Furious.” Unfortunately, this movie’s by-the-numbers plot and dull action sequences make for exciting background noise but not a gripping big-screen bonanza.
There’s a downside to being the leader in a new form of entertainment production and delivery: Eventually the competition shows up.
Netflix is not having the easiest of years. There’s a downside to being the leader in a new form of entertainment production and delivery: Eventually the competition shows up. This was made worse by the pandemic, which appears to have created a subscriber bubble. (Shareholders seem not to understand Newtonian physics; that what goes up eventually comes down.) But Netflix is hobbled by a second, larger issue, exemplified by “The Gray Man,” one of the most expensive blockbuster projects it has funded to date. Neither has a defined personality.
To be clear, “The Gray Man” has all the hallmarks of a hit summer blockbuster. There are A-list stars with long track records: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Rege-Jean Page, Ana de Armas and Jessica Henwick. The Russo Brothers, its directors, have hits like “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame” — two of the highest-grossing movies in history — under their belts. The books the movie is adapted from are best sellers. There are massive explosions, thrilling stunts and impressive computer-generated imagery indistinguishable from reality.
And yet, “The Gray Man” ultimately feels aptly named, because it is a blockbuster that disappears. It is bland, inoffensive and unremarkable. Leading man Gosling has never had much of a defined personality, but here he fades into the background of his own movie. Chris Evans is surprisingly just as unremarkable, a feat of self-erasure for an actor practically defined by his persona. De Armas at least has more to do than she did in her James Bond outing, but the crossover only serves to confuse, as she seems to have wandered in from hanging out with Daniel Craig and isn’t sure how she got here.
In short, “The Gray Man” is the perfect $200 million movie to have on in the background while you play TwoDots on your phone or text your bestie about upcoming summer plans. This means in a way it is also the perfect Netflix film: something that looks like other things you like to watch, without actually demanding you watch it.
Netflix does have major hits, but none of them have any real through line to one another, outside of “expensive.”
And, for nearly a decade, this was kind of enough for Netflix. Consider that one of its earliest identities was “Netflix and chill,” which assumes whatever is on screen is so inoffensive it cannot possibly ruin the mood. This was perfectly adequate when it had only Hulu’s muddled, limited brand and Amazon’s second-fiddle streaming service as competition. But after coming face-to-face with large-scale streamers that bring a defined brand to the table, Netflix's lack of a defined lane has become a detriment. (Disney+ and HBO Max are the main players here, but even Peacock and Paramount+ immediately conjure images of NBC comedies and “Star Trek” respectively.)
Netflix does have major hits, but none of them have any real through line to one another, outside of “expensive.” “Stranger Things” does not have companion family-friendly horror hits to group with, nor did “The Crown” spawn a raft of highbrow, A-list historical pieces. Even “Bridgerton” and “Squid Game” may prove to be fluke hits.
Meanwhile, “The Gray Man” seems destined to the same fate. Does anyone even know it exists? There have been no blitzes of 30- second commercials on TV or streaming, pretty much nothing on YouTube, promoted or otherwise, and little to no mention of it on social media. Netflix has done almost the bare minimum, despite an increasingly noisy entertainment landscape.
As a result, this movie may well end up a mere blip on the collective public consciousness. Perhaps that’s great news for a spy, but it’s the last thing Netflix needs right now.