Look, the summer blockbuster is rarely high art. Would we really be missing much if the world were rid of massive cookie-cutter action films spit out by the same few studios? Well, we’ve finally had the chance to see what our lives would be like without them thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and honestly it kind of sucks. A summer without blockbusters has been boring, verging on unbearable (in addition to all of the much more serious issues facing the world).
It happened at maybe the worst possible time too. This summer was shaping up to be one of the biggest Hollywood had seen in years. A new Christopher Nolan film was supposed to land. Mulan was going to dominate both the U.S. and Chinese box offices. James Bond was coming back again. Marvel was set to kick off the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Fast and Furious gang was going to drive cars off cliffs. The Ghostbusters reboot was going to bust ghosts. The Spider-Man villains universe was getting into full swing with Morbius. Wonder Woman 1984 was going to bring back DC’s best hero. Top Gun: Maverick had Tom Cruise. Even The New Mutants was going to finally, finally release. It was going to be a summer full of blockbusters. Now it’s not.
There’s a reason that blockbusters make so much money. It’s because we want — or possibly even need — to see them. Stuff like Vin Diesel driving a sports car out of one skyscraper into another provides a unique type of catharsis that independent action and horror films just can’t, it turns out. These major films also provide us with cultural touchstones on a global scale that pull us together in shared awe and wonder, connecting disparate communities and people in a singular way. We analyze them, discuss them, argue over them, and write lengthy analyses on them for years to come.
In 2020, we almost lost all of that, but only almost. Because Netflix saved the day. Maybe not intentionally, but thanks to its preparedness, Netflix has not only seen its viewership rise, but it has delivered the summer blockbusters we all really kind of miss.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Netflix with Blockbusters!
Thankfully, Netflix has filled this hole. The streamer has been the only place that viewers can turn for new, high-budget action as it continues to pump out movies at a fantastic pace with four major action films landing since the pandemic began: Spenser Confidential, Extraction, The Old Guard, and the upcoming Project Power. These movies star big screen actors, try to set up multi-film franchises, cost millions of dollars, and all try to challenge the films we watch in theaters for quality and style (with the caveat that no one has seen Project Power yet). They are, for all intents and purposes, blockbuster movies of varying degrees.
Gone are the days when a film coming to Netflix felt like an also-ran. The company has spent billions of dollars to ensure that we, the viewing public, perceive movies on Netflix to be of the same caliber as those that come to theaters. This drive may have started out with prestige films like Beasts of No Nation, Mudbound, and Roma, but the streamer has been working to elevate films in almost every genre. It is dumping massive amounts of money into making movies that feel like they were meant for the big screen, and that money has, over the years, shifted towards action. The studio spent $150 million on Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, Extraction cost $65 million to produce, The Old Guard cost $70 million, and it’s just greenlit a budget of upward of $200 million for The Gray Man. This willingness to dump money into big action movies has set Netflix up perfectly for a world where no one else is releasing action cinema.
It has paid off. Looking in on Netflix’s top 10 original films of all time, it’s clear to see that viewers are lapping up action. Five of the top 10 films would be considered blockbuster movies of some sort, and two of them landed in the past five months. Extraction netted a whopping 99 million viewers in its first four weeks with Spenser Confidential landing 85 million. Meanwhile, The Old Guard wasn’t included on the list since it hadn’t been out for four weeks at the time, but Netflix claimed it had already racked up 72 million views. Now, Netflix’s numbers aren’t the most reliable since they have no oversight and release information whenever the hell they want to, but the fact still stands that people appear to be watching these movies in droves. One of the reasons is that Netflix is the only one releasing them at all.
Mr. Stream Stream Bang Bang
It’s hard to tell if this action movie success was somewhat orchestrated by Netflix or not. Obviously, all of these films were wrapped with production before coronavirus hit, so the studio wasn’t making action movies intentionally to be the only one releasing them in the upcoming months. However, it could have shifted its release schedules to take advantage of it. Knowing if it did is tricky since Netflix doesn’t announce firm release dates for films until a few months before they drop. That means if any were rescheduled, there’s no reason we’d hear about it.
However, the streamer’s action output over the course of the pandemic has drastically increased with the (soon to be) four aforementioned action films, plus Coffee & Kareem, landing in the past five months in comparison to only 13 from the genre landing on the platform since it started making its own movies in 2015. Now, 2020 has seen Netflix ramping up its production in general, (August alone has 60 new original shows and movies in basically every genre you can imagine.) but even relative to that increase this seems like a convenient spike.
This puts Netflix way ahead of the competition because no other streamer was prepared to fill this gap. We’re in an age of more streaming options than we could ever need, but looking at Netflix’s four biggest contenders, it’s very clear that none of them were even remotely near developing an action movie stable. And it has resulted in Netflix being the only platform where you can get new, high-budget action movies of any quality. Netflix obviously had a leg up here as it’s been in the streaming game far longer than any other platform and is dumping money into original content like no other, with spending as high as $17.3 billion this year. Still, the other platforms seem woefully behind.
There Can Be Only One Blockbuster Maker… for Now
The nearest competitor to Netflix in terms of action movies might be Amazon, which has released two “action” films during the pandemic, 7500 and My Spy, neither of which had a large budget and the latter wasn’t even their film in the first place. Amazon Studios, the production company for Amazon, doesn’t kick out movies quite as quickly as Netflix does because the company is clearly more focused on delivering TV and prestige film content, leaving action as a massive hole in its original content offerings.
Apple TV+ and HBO Max are much the same way, in part because of how new they are but also because neither chose to launch with any action. Apple was so desperate for something it reportedly paid nearly $70 million for Greyhound. Meanwhile, HBO Max may have the likes of Game of Thrones and other HBO content, but that doesn’t scratch the blockbuster itch the same way. The platform houses WB and DC’s legacy blockbuster content, but that is just that, legacy, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a long way off. Both platforms are just too new to deliver this content, and it means that Netflix is way ahead of them.
Then there is Disney+. If anyone could give Netflix a run for its money in blockbuster film releasing, it’s Disney. The platform is already home to the majority of the biggest blockbuster films released in the last 10 years thanks to its ownership of Marvel, Star Wars, and every 20th Century Fox property. However, again, those films aren’t new.
The thing is that Disney could be keeping pace with Netflix in this department if it so chose. The studio has multiple action/blockbuster films sitting and waiting to be released: Mulan, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, The King’s Man, Free Guy, and The New Mutants are all complete and were scheduled to release this summer, but the only film Disney has moved over to streaming is the woeful Artemis Fowl. The lack of movement is for a variety of reasons, but it means that once again Netflix is leaving the other platforms behind and acting as the sole savior of the summer blockbuster.
That means that for those of us itching to get a fresh dose of action, Netflix is the only place to go, and thank goodness it either lucked its way into it or has been playing it smart during the pandemic. Without it, the summer blockbuster would be truly dead and those big cultural touchstones that we all experience would be gone too. It may seem hyperbolic, but Netflix has saved the summer and at least built a blockbuster bridge from one end of the pandemic to the other that we can all cross… until it explodes and we get to walk away from it in slow motion without looking.