Last month, the Hollywood Reporter informed readers that, after a year which saw Netflix’s subscriptions dip and its stock price plummet, the company was no longer in the business of financing “expensive vanity projects” like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. In its place would be movies like The Gray Man, a $200 million thriller about CIA assassins starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans and directed by Marvel stalwarts Joe and Anthony Russo, that debuted on the service last week.
The Irishman, a $160 million, three-and-a-half-hour rumination on the dying regrets of a mob hitman that Martin Scorsese had been trying to make for over a decade, was a labor of love. The Gray Man is just a labor. In a recent interview, Joe Russo described the movie as “business-focused content,” and watching the movie is just as transporting an experience as that makes it sound. With a cast that includes Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfre Woodard, and Regé-Jean Page, there’s always an interesting person on screen (or at least Chris Evans’ mustache), and the Russos shift the action to a different country every few minutes—Thailand, Turkey, Austria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the Czech Republic, among other spots—so that you don’t get bored, even if they do have a gift for making far-flung locales feel like the inside of a warehouse in Atlanta.
But perhaps because a substantial chunk of The Gray Man’s massive budget went just to paying its stars (Gosling and Evans are reported to have received $20 million apiece), the movie can look surprisingly tatty at times—notably during a CGI-heavy fight aboard a cargo plane that’s so blurry and poorly staged it’s actively painful to look at—and even when it doesn’t look cheap, it sounds cheap. The Russos’ way with cheeky, self-aware dialogue has stood them in good stead from their days making network sitcoms through their tenure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the zippy barbs in The Gray Man feel like placeholders for better lines to come; the subtitles might as well read [Quip to be added later]. In the opening scene, Thornton’s CIA recruiter tells Gosling’s imprisoned convict he’s going to help him “become a value-add instead of a value lost”; later, as Evans dispatches an army of mercenaries to take out Gosling’s rogue agent, he orders them to “Hit this meatball like a freight train.”
The Gray Man is far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it might be one of the least. It’s the end-stage result of converting art into “content,” the equivalent of eating Soylent instead of a home-cooked meal. It will provide a comforting background hum as you scroll through your phone, give you some attractive people and dramatic explosions to occasionally glance up at. But it will also dull your senses, teach you to accept fullness in place of satisfaction, and ultimately rob you of a tiny portion of your life. You don’t consume it. It consumes you.
The Gray Man has been touted as the most expensive movie Netflix has ever made—although like all numbers issuing from Netflix, that claim has to be treated with skepticism. (This is, after all, the company that for years counted watching two minutes of a movie as a “view.”) Red Notice also had a reported budget of $200 million, and the movie’s director claimed the actual cost might have been closer to $300 million; The Irishman’s may have run as high as $225 million. It’s not surprising that, especially with stockholders to convince that the company is shifting course away from taking chances on a wide variety of projects to placing a few big, safe bets, Netflix is emphasizing The Gray Man’s cost, a marketing tactic that goes back to the earliest days of silent-movie spectacle. But at least when Cleopatra or The Ten Commandments broke the bank, you got eye-popping splendor and majestic pageantry. With the Russos, you just get glop.
For years, Netflix’s pitch to filmmakers was that it was the place that would make movies no one else would, and give them the freedom they never had. The Irishman fell apart at Paramount over budgetary concerns, and might have tumbled back into development hell had Netflix not snatched it from the maw. Jane Campion, arguably one of the greatest living directors, hadn’t made a movie in 12 years before Netflix financed The Power of the Dog in 2021. But the auteurist approach hasn’t paid the dividends Netflix hoped for—namely securing the Best Picture win they spent years and millions chasing—so they’ve pivoted from prestige to populism.
Netflix is still laying out for awards-track movies—they’ll have four premieres at the Venice Film Festival in September, including the edgy Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde and an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. But the movies they’re spending the most on, the ones that define what a Netflix movie is, keep getting worse. 2017’s Bright was pure movie-star folly, a misguided mixture of buddy-cop thriller and fantasy story that ended up costing over $100 million just so Netflix could announce they’d worked with Will Smith. (If there’s any upside to Smith’s Oscars contretemps, it’s that it seems to have permanently killed the long-simmering plans for a Bright 2.) But the following year’s Outlaw King, a muck-strewn take on medieval history that opens with a nine-minute tracking shot and ended up costing $120 million, cemented them as the place where dreams came true—even if that dream was just scrounging up a few million to fulfill the decades-long quest of completing Orson Welles’ final film. Next up was The Irishman, the ultimate passion project for perhaps the most revered director alive. And even when Netflix gave Transformers auteur Michael Bay $150 million to make the slick, brainless caper movie 6 Underground, you could feel a sense of freedom, verging on mania, at play. For better or worse, it was clear there was no one looking over Bay’s shoulder.
In retrospect, though, the defining Netflix movie of 2019 isn’t Scorsese’s or Bay’s but J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, which stars Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac as American veterans who hatch a plan to rip off a South American drug lord. It’s a solid, modestly intelligent action movie with enough recognizable faces to fill out a variety of thumbnails, and a plot calculated to appeal to fans of the Narcos franchise. Instead of climaxing with the successful heist, the movie puts it smack in the middle, and its second half is devoted to a new problem: Now that these soldiers have a literal ton of cash, how are they going to get it home? The farther they get, the more of a burden the money becomes, to the extent that some of them lose everything they have trying to hold onto it.
Netflix made several $100 million-plus movies after that, some good, some bad. But they’ve come at the price point with renewed vigor in the last year, with The Gray Man, Red Notice, The Adam Project, and Spiderhead all released since November. These are big movies, all right, headlined by stars like Dwayne Johnson and Chris Hemsworth, from the directors of box-office hits like Skyscraper and Top Gun: Maverick. But there’s nothing distinctive about them, no sense that all that money is being spent on anything other than making the client happy. The Ringer’s Adam Nayman referred to the Russo brothers as “project managers,” and that’s who Netflix is handing their largest bags of cash to nowadays—not visionaries or innovators, but people who can do as they’re told, or better yet, don’t need to be told in the first place. They’re giving creative freedom to people with no creative instincts.
The Gray Man obligingly leapt top to the of Netflix’s rankings the moment it was released, and a foreordained sequel reuniting Gosling and the Russos was announced on Tuesday, with an unspecified spinoff movie in the works. Two Red Notice sequels are also on the way, possibly to be shot back-to-back. It’s a cavalcade of content, a field day for people who want movies that go through them like a glass of warm tap water. In an interview promoting The Gray Man, Joe Russo, who spent the press tour for Avengers Endgame touting the experience of collective movie-watching, dismissed the notion of movie theaters as a “sacred space” as “bullshit”—and having seen The Gray Man, at Netflix’s insistence, in a movie theater, I can confirm there was nothing sacred about the experience. If anything, the movie looks better on a laptop. He’s right that the medium isn’t the problem. There are innovative, thought-provoking, heart-stopping movies released to streaming every week, some of them even on Netflix. But you’ll have to go digging for them, because the algorithm is too invested in getting you to watch The Gray Man instead. The future may not be bright, but at least it’s predictable.