Citadel Isn’t the New Spy Franchise Amazon Is Hoping For
The Russo Brothers’ latest production mixes The Avengers with The Avengers. It’s less fun than it sounds.
After brothers Joe and Anthony Russo made two of the biggest movies the world had seen, they embarked on a new path with rarified fortune and freedom — spoils from conquering the multiverse. But their latest project Citadel, a new spy-fi streaming series that fuses The Avengers with The Avengers, falls short of even the rock-bottom expectations for the directors and their fatigued brand of mid-tier thrillers for middle-aged dads.
Citadel stars Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra as amnesiac spies who are “reactivated” by their handler Bernard (a masculine Stanley Tucci, the only one visibly having any fun in the ensemble). They resume work for an agency who are ostensibly “the good guys,” which are actual words said out loud. The plot hinges on the retrieval of a bulletproof case containing memories — liquified into a serum — of other agents around the world. This hunt kicks off a globe-trotting cat-and-mouse game played out by rote set-pieces featuring all loads of gunfire, car chases, and shouting into ear pieces. You know, spy stuff.
On paper that should be enough. But because it’s a streaming series and there has to be several hours of this thing, Citadel concocts an ineffective cocktail of soap opera dramatics in a failing effort to make the 12-inch action figures passing off as characters feel real — and to create the foundation for many more tepid spinoffs. Paramount among them is Madden’s Mason as he’s torn between protecting his family and his attraction to a smoking hot coworker. To be fair, that is juicy drama. But it fails to mix right with the unoriginal spycraft Citadel strives to employ, rendering the show less Jason Bourne and more G.I. Joe.
Everything is just made worse by how abundantly artificial the whole series feels: a no-stakes opening action scene, put to screen by a worse version of the shaky cam of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, makes a terrible first impression that simply never goes away. Behold: a body chucked out of a high-speed train with the same flopping weight of a video game NPC. It just never gets any better after that.
Citadel’s hybrid of sci-fi implausibility and grounded political machinations is a tradition for the genre (James Bond went to space in Moonraker, lest we forget) but the lack of grace and skill to make its disparate identities coherent kills its mission. Too often Citadel is confused about itself. Every element from its production design, to cinematography, to its scriptwriting, to the wooden performances of two wooden leads — demonstrates an inability to execute what is so clearly intended by the creators. There’s a vision behind Citadel. That much is clear. But when what’s onscreen is so disengaging and indistinguishable from the avalanche of spy content on streamers, Citadel ironically feels cheap, despite the eye-watering price tag it actually cost. There’s not even an elf or a dragon to show for it.
There’s simply too few redeeming qualities in Citadel to make it a worthwhile recommendation to binge. Its impossibly handsome cast and scenic escapism can’t rescue it from the depths of Tom Clancy’s scrap bin, and its ambitions to be the nexus to a new franchise would be hilarious if it weren’t embarrassing. Despite scant few nuggets of remotely entertaining moments to distract you while folding laundry, its lunkheaded storytelling that places a premium on laborious over-explanation over authentic white-knuckle action is indicative of its most cynical existence: expensive content to pad out the hours of a streaming service.
Citadel isn’t offensively bad — there’s worse spy action elsewhere on network TV — but the inordinate resources behind it and its promise of more is only exhausting. There’s more invested in Citadel than what it delivers, and the deficit is deafening.
As directors, the Russos are responsible for moments today’s impressionable audiences will deem iconic tomorrow. As producers, their work is more mixed. Under their belts are tender, overlooked films like Relic and the Oscar phenom Everything Everywhere All at Once. But much of their other work under their AGBO label represent the most cynical definition of content. Regardless of what Netflix’s metrics deem a hit, Extraction and The Gray Man are little more than cannon fodder in the ongoing streaming wars. Now they’ve given Amazon ammunition too. Destruction belongs to the highest bidder.