Yesterday, Netflix announced an expansion of “The Gray Man Universe,” the continuation of a trend that has seen Netflix positively desperate to craft movies and shows that can blossom into franchises and cinematic universes.
In many ways, it’s easy to see why this is happening. Disney has Marvel and Star Wars with decades of history behind them. WB/HBO has DC, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, to name a few influential franchises. Even Amazon has stumbled into great success with The Boys, which has spawned three stellar-reviewed seasons and two spin-offs so far. Now they’re trying to throw a mountain of money at Lord of the Rings.
Netflix, meanwhile, has not been able to land more than the occasional whale, one of the most prominent being Stranger Things, but that series is set to end after one more season and only continue on in spin-off form. Shows like The Witcher have done well, but not achieved Thrones-like success. And so Netflix keeps hunting.
They’ve tried with superheroes, a bit, the most prominent misstep being Jupiter’s Legacy, which was meant to launch the “Millarverse” on the service, but it performed so poorly that the concept was mostly scrapped. The Umbrella Academy is solid, but it’s no The Boys in terms of generating lasting conversation.
Elsewhere, Squid Game was a massive, cultural megahit unlike anything in the industry, and yet it remains to be seen of what was supposed to be a one-off season can thrive when new content is tacked onto it to grow that “universe.”
Enter Netflix’s box office projects, where one path to attempted relevance has been a series of mega-blockbuster movies with A-list star power. A few times, Netflix has failed to get these ideas off the ground, like with Bright and 6 Underground, but lately, they have settled for making movies that may not be thrilling critics, but audience scores and watch time seem high enough to invest boatloads more money. The two most recent examples of this would be Red Notice, the Rock/Gal Gadot/Ryan Reynolds heist film that broke Netflix movie records, and got a sequel, and now The Gray Man, with Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas, which will not only get a sequel, but also a spin-off as part of the “Gray Man Universe.”
The thing is, this was always the plan, and for some of these projects now, Netflix is just assuming they will be enough of a success to warrant continued investment and expansion into a “cinematic universe.” The Gray Man, for instance, was conceived as a whole series of movies and potential spin-offs by the Russos before it ever went live, and now that it’s here, even if it’s something that I doubt really anyone will be talking about by next weekend, Netflix is prepared to throw hundreds more millions of dollars at it, even if it didn’t even outperform Red Notice this time in viewership.
The Gray Man is fine. I liked it. But there’s something a bit off here about Netflix taking something that is and does moderately okay and attempting to blossom it into a cinematic universe that literally no one but those making the movie itself asked for. Action franchises like Fast and Furious, Mission Impossible and John Wick are on a different level here, and yet Netflix is investing in The Gray Man Universe like the hottest 2022 Halloween costume is about to be Ryan Gosling’s Agent Six or something. I just don’t think you can fake your way into convincing audiences that this is a thing that needs to be a “universe,” and I’d say the same about Red Notice and a lot of other projects where this keeps happening, despite somewhat middling quality.
We’ll see what happens. I mean, I don’t personally care what Netflix wants to dump trucks of money onto, but there really seems to be an urgency to craft universes out of properties that don’t really lend themselves to that concept, and it’s only increasing in frequency not too late.
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Pick up my sci-fi novels the Herokiller series and The Earthborn Trilogy.