‘The Gray Man’ Doesn’t Need a Cinematic Universe Leave a comment

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Netflix’s latest crowd-pleaser, The Gray Man, cost a reported $200 million—a price tag similar to that of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. An action-y spy thriller starring Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Chris Evans, The Gray Man is directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers behind some of the most massive hits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers: Endgame. It was, in other words, designed to succeed, and succeed it did. The movie was almost immediately the top film on the service in 92 countries. Surely, this is the kind of thing Ted Sarandos dreams about.

Naturally, Netflix wants more.

On Tuesday, less than a week after the film premiered on Netflix, the streamer announced that a sequel to The Gray Man was already in the works, as was a spinoff film. These endeavors, the company said, were part of what Netflix hoped would become “a major spy franchise”—a cinematic universe The Verge cheekily called “50 shades of gray men.”

Look, there’s never a good reason to complain about having more Ryan Gosling piped into one’s living room, but this is ridiculous. The Gray Man is fine, but at best it’s the kind of movie you’re glad you downloaded onto your iPad before a six-hour flight. Also, you’ve probably seen it before; it just had the words “Mission” “Impossible,” or “Bourne” in the title. There will never be too many fun spy thrillers, but they don’t all need to be part of a franchise. And if they do, could we please prioritize sequels to The Old Guard and Atomic Blonde? Or at least make Charlize Theron and Gosling fight in some crossover event?

But, in the end, this isn’t really about the quality of the franchise, it’s about Netflix having a franchise at all. Now that the streamer is losing—or has lost—access to established cinematic universes like Marvel’s, DC’s, or Lucasfilm’s, it needs more of its own. Netflix is shedding subscribers, and if it truly wants to compete with the likes of Disney+ and HBO Max in the long run, it’ll have to have the kind of properties those services have. “We want to have our own version of Star Wars or our own version of Harry Potter,” Netflix vice president Matthew Thunell told Reuters recently, “and we’re working very hard to build that.” Hence, the Brooding Gosling Cinematic Universe.

It’s not just Gos, of course. There’s also a reality series inspired by Squid Game, and that series of Knives Out movies that Rian Johnson is making. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are reportedly adapting The Three-Body Problem, the first book in Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy. The list goes on and on. Will all of these be bad to mediocre? No. Chances are some will be quite good. But building a franchise with a following of fans so devoted they will keep paying $15 per month just to have access to it takes years. This is what my colleague Brian Barrett was talking about when he called Disney+ a “juggernaut” on the day it launched. Netflix could one day have that, but it also needs customers now if it hopes to be around long enough to build it.

Netflix isn’t the only one playing this game, of course. This strategy is also why Amazon is making a Lord of the Rings show. And there are hints of it in Apple TV+ adapting Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or having Steven Spielberg make Amazing Stories. The difference is that streaming video isn’t Amazon or Apple’s sole business. They’d surely love to have a cinematic universe of their own, but they may not need it to stay afloat. Netflix does.