Why Netflix's Resident Evil Flopped

"The Umbrella Academy" is a very good Netflix show, depending on who you ask. The Umbrella Corporation is a malevolent conglomerate at the heart of Netflix's "Resident Evil" reboot series. They are vastly different from one another, but their aural similarity is striking and, to the average viewer, confusing. It leads to a series of questions: "Is this the show with Elliot Page?" No, it's not. "Wait, was this a movie with the actress from 'Fifth Element?'" It was several.

Herein lies one of the core reasons that Netflix's "Resident Evil" show flopped. Before you can approach its dense web of mythology, pulp science, and splatter-filled horror-action set pieces, you have to untangle it from all that came before it. The games, the films, the games which seem stand-alone but aren't, the reboot film which didn't fail at the box office but already feels forgotten. The franchise needs a clean slate; it continuously struggles to make one for itself. To be fair to show creator Andrew Dabb, his interpretation of Capcom's decades-old series tries and is hampered by forces beyond his control, from Netflix's questionable marketing to the ever-changing nature of video game adaptations. 

Here's why Netflix's "Resident Evil" flopped with critics and audiences.

Questionable Netflix marketing

In July 2022, audiences couldn't escape "The Gray Man." Advertisements for the film appeared everywhere. They graced major sports broadcasts. Billboards for the Russo Brothers film flanked highways across America, from the 405 to I-95. For a few weeks, Chris Evans's porno-stash was as ubiquitous as the Minions and oxygen. This is necessary to mention because it is definitive proof that, when the chips are down, Netflix can market its properties. Netflix sunk no less than $200 million worth of proverbial chips into "The Gray Man." That's one of many reasons there's a sequel and spin-off in the works.

To the streamer's credit, "Resident Evil" wasn't merely dumped onto its service with zero warning. To the streamer's detriment, though, the show was bizarrely marketed by any given metric. Two trailers dropped in mid-June through an elaborate, fictional website for The Umbrella Corporation. That website quickly dissolved into a more sinister page that housed the (solid) trailers in question. The trailers, however, dropped mere weeks before the show's premiere, and the show itself dropped the day before "The Gray Man" opened in theaters. It would've been a tall order for any show to steal the spotlight from that film, but it was an especially tall one for a show that exists on the movie's platform. This increased the potential for "Resident Evil" to flop before it even got out the gate — as did its cinematic legacy.

The cult fandom surrounding Paul W.S. Anderson's movies

There is a drawn-out fight sequence in 2010's "Resident Evil: Afterlife" where Alice (Milla Jovovich) and Claire (Ali Larter) battle the Executioner Majini, aka the Axeman. It is, quite literally, longer than it needs to be. The battle is filmed in ecstatic yet ponderous slow motion — slow motion for slow motion's sake — and every blow traded between the heroines and a massive, hooded heavy has the dramatic weight of day-old fries that were just microwaved. In short: it's sort of awesome. 

The dirty secret of Paul W.S. Anderson's "Resident Evil" movies is that they are incredibly fun for what they want and aim to be. There's no aspiration for cinema in them. At no point are they worried about plot holes. The "Resident Evil" film series is deliberate, B-movie schlock in the faintest of glosses. You don't enjoy them because they're art. More often than not, you enjoy them because they're there, playing in the local multiplex, on a streaming platform, or on TV from time to time. And they work; occasionally, they work like gangbusters. Netflix's "Resident Evil" series, whether it knew it or not, was competing with the simple pleasures of these movies. Their legacy is a minor one but it's one that made ripples in the collective consciousness for decades. That's no small matter. 

The lack of crossover with the current Resident Evil games

You're walking through the woods in search of your girlfriend. The sun is beginning to set and its eerie, burnt-orange glow illuminates a dilapidated house in the distance. Is your girlfriend in there? You enter to find out, but instead of her, there's squalor. Not a clean surface in sight. You open a stove pan to find cockroaches simmering within and stumble upstairs to find a VCR and television. On the screen, a reality crew searches the house you're in. Something is very, very wrong, and that's clear before your girlfriend appears without warning and tries to eat your arm.

This is the compelling, bone-shaking horror of 2017's "Resident Evil: Biohazard," or at least its first 20-odd minutes. The game was praised for revitalizing the "Resident Evil" franchise. It was followed a few years later by "Resident Evil: Village," a sequel that introduced the world and especially the internet to the most thirsted-after tall villain in pop-culture history, one Lady Dimitrescu. These games weren't just great, they were sensations. They came with built-in cinematic possibilities and gave the "Resident Evil" series an incendiary burst of pop-cultural capital.

Netflix's "Resident Evil" series doesn't draw from "Biohazard" or "Village," at least not in any meaningful way. Its story of multiple Wesker family generations causing and surviving zombie-flecked chaos isn't merely dismissable, but taking "Resident Evil" back to the Wesker's when brave, commercially viable ground had just been forged by very successful games feels like a misfire decision.

The older games

Bleary-eyed nostalgia is a modern way of life, especially for pop-culture consumers. The most popular song of summer 2022 is a Kate Bush hit from 1985. "Willow" is coming back, and "Top Gun: Maverick," an admittedly excellent movie, is a sequel to a movie that's lived rent-free in multiple generations' heads since the '80s. It's easy, and perhaps wise, to be wary of re-released films or games or legacy sequels in this current moment. They prevent new properties and works of art from grabbing humanity's cultural imaginations.

The "Resident Evil" remasters are an exception. The 2019 "Resident Evil 2" remaster, in particular, earned high praise for how it married shrewd modern updates to a classic design that's informed many modern survival horror games. Capcom realized its elder statesman games still had fresh blood in them. Netflix's "Resident Evil" must, unfairly, compete with that stellar legacy. If it aims to tell an entirely new story, it runs the risk of disappointing those whose affection for an all-time classic seems more justified than ever. If it tries to adapt the best of these games, it has the tall order of living up to both the memory of said games and their recent refurbishing. "Resident Evil" isn't "Super Mario" in any way, shape, or form, but one could argue it did for survival horror what the mushroom-stomping plumber did for the platform game. An adaption is almost doomed to fail from the start.

The pandemic-era release of Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

"Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City" wasn't a flop. That's not editorializing. The Johannes Roberts-directed movie made $41.8 million against its $25 million budget and topped digital rental charts for three straight weeks. No one would call that an Earth-shattering success, but it's notable for a movie released in November 2021, when the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was running rampant. "Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City," however, is already thought of as a flop. For one, director Johannes Roberts took the opposite approach of Paul W.S. Anderson. "Raccoon City" is sincerely drenched in a gothic atmosphere and packed with surreally humorous moments. The dialogue is deliberately exaggerated, either in its stilted nature or excessive, hard-boiled styling. In many ways, it's closer to the games than anything Anderson made. But for fans of the Anderson films, "Raccoon City" could be called a disappointment. 

That leads to the issue of the film's release date. "Raccoon City" dropped during a transitional time for movie theaters, when COVID restrictions were in flux and box-office success felt like a "comic movie or bust" scenario. (Memorably, "Spider-Man: No Way Home" opened to $260 million the same weekend that "Nightmare Alley" brought in only $1.19 million in its first two days.) "Raccoon City" wasn't a failure, but it has been made to feel dismissable. That makes Netflix's "Resident Evil" feel like it needs to be a franchise-saving reboot. It never did.

The pandemic itself

Viewing habits often make sense in retrospect. It's little wonder that "Stranger Things" Season 4, for example, was a smash hit in the summer of 2022. Beyond its built-in brand recognition and passionate fanbase, the latest installment of the Duffer Brothers' series introduced a villain named Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) that menaced Hawkins' residents' minds, exploiting their recent traumas. Then it became clear that Vecna's reign of terror was due to scientific negligence, the unchecked ego and experimentation of Papa (Matthew Modine), and the shadowy lab he pilots from the shadows. All of this resonates with the current epidemic state. There are few explicit parallels to the pandemic in "Stranger Things" Season 4, but it's both close enough to recent history and just removed enough from it to feel like art created for and from the moment. That's a good thing.

"Resident Evil," unfortunately, is a bit too on the nose. In the 2022 timeline, The Umbrella Corporation creates a pill called "Joy" that works too well, turning its users into what the show only briefly calls "zombies." In the 2036 plotline, survivors of the 2022 story battle a violent, creature-filled dystopia. There's no escapism here, nor is there a central conceit about humanity that serves as a counterpoint to the barrage of violence (as there is, say, in Shudder's recent and incredibly gory "The Sadness"). "Resident Evil" isn't strong enough to be tough pandemic-era viewing, and it being too close for comfort makes it easy to switch off.

The ever-changing nature of zombie movies

"The Sadness" might be the ideal 2022 zombie movie. It traffics in physical extremity, from the gory to the emotionally devastating. Bodies are either loaded with feeling or falling apart in multiple senses throughout Rob Jabbaz's film. Human connection is one of the only things worth fighting for, but achieving it means traversing a landscape riddled with insane amounts of danger. By contrast, there is "One Cut of the Dead," a zombie movie that playfully examines what viewers want from zombie movies and the horror genre in general. 

What's popular in horror at any given moment is often reflective of what scares a populace. "Scream" and "Nope" take a long hard look at content creation, consumption, and the vile spectacle of both. The same, more obliquely, could be said of Ti West's "X." After months spent indoors watching nothing but content, this is more than an understandable focal point for scare machines. This means that now the zombie genre is more of a catch-all for horror riffs than it is squarely in the genre's driver's seat. Essentially, "Resident Evil" really has its work cut out for it. It is a show behind the proverbial curve making up for ground ceded by a reboot few understood and a legacy of films and games people appreciate to widely divergent degrees. Those are lofty expectations.

The show itself (specifically, the writing)

Many variables were working against "Resident Evil" before it ever made it to air, that much is clear. The question is whether the show is able to overcome them and is better than its already lackluster reputation. The answer is yes and no. Let's start with some praise: no iteration of "Resident Evil" on-screen has yet yielded a performance on par with Lance Reddick's Albert Wexler. Reddick, a vet of "John Wick," "Bosch," "The Wire," and so much more, is reliably disquieting and intimidating, but also surprisingly funny and unexpectedly touching. Wexler has long been the enigmatic catalyst of "Resident Evil" mythos. Here, he finally feels worthy of that title. Beyond Reddick, the 2022 storyline is full of a deft atmosphere and a sterile yet sickening unease. There's zero doubt that the storyline will break badly (the 2036 one confirms as much). It's like watching a trainwreck with Apple Store aesthetics.

All those praises, however, are visual or performance-driven. No amount of sharp cinematography or excellent acting can stop "Resident Evil" from feeling both cringy and overwritten. There are a ton of attempts at "reference humor" that simply fall flat. (One character tries to disquiet another by claiming that she "mostly just reads 'Zootopia' porn") and many more to explain the world of "Resident Evil" that gets more labyrinth than the geometric mazes of the Paul W.S. Anderson films. It makes the Netflix show hard to binge-watch, which, by and large, is the point of a show being on Netflix.