The first few minutes of Marco Polo, Netflix’s new $90 million medieval drama, are bloody. Battered by a long journey, our titular hero and his band have just come upon a village full of slaughtered peasants. Moments later, riders on horseback emerge from a sandstorm like ghosts, and, save for Marco and his merchant father and uncle, slay the entire group in a flurry of arrows. The scene is brutal, almost otherworldly, and there’s a palpable sense of terror as the surviving trio is taken as prisoners to face the dreaded Kublai Khan, Mongol Emperor and the most powerful man in the world.
On paper, the stakes are high, and the production value is strong enough to support that. Still, there’s something expected, almost rote about it. By the time Marco meets Kublai Khan, we more or less know what beats to expect. This will be a story about human suffering, war, political intrigue, and other themes we’ve seen before — mostly on HBO.
It’s clear Netflix has lofty ambitions to turn Marco Polo into its new premiere offering, the kind of blockbuster it hopes people will only increase its cachet on the heels of buzzy titles like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. And from the start, it’s clear that this is meant to be a sweeping period piece unlike anything we’ve seen before. The problem is that it’s even more evident that the streaming company spared no expense cribbing HBO’s playbook in terms of style and tone. For all its scale, the whole thing just feels like Game of Thrones in China.
Attractive white people you’re supposed to root for? Check. A war between the North and the South? Check. An ambitious, corrupt courtly figure? Check. Animals used to represent warring factions? Check. A commitment to over-the-top violence? Check. Brothels? Check. Exotic location shoots? Check. It’s not a carbon copy, of course; you won’t find dragons or ice zombies here. But if you replace GoT’s fantasy elements with blind Kung fu masters and vague, mystical homilies about Genghis Khan, this is roughly the result.
Replace fantasy with Kung fu masters and this is the result
The one thing Marco Polo potentially has over Game of Thrones is its real-life historic roots, following Polo’s time in the Mongol court in the years before the Yuan Dynasty. And rather than focus on fictional rival families like the Starks and Lannisters, the show, to its credit, focuses mainly on the burgeoning dynamic between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Marco, played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy, is left in the care of the great Khan because he has a gift with words. We see him learn how to survive in Mongol society, and slowly develop a bond with his captors. As played by British actor Benedict Wong, Khan is a hard yet magnetic ruler preparing for war with the southern Song dynasty. Marco and Khan develop a borderline familial relationship over the course of the first two hours, putting Marco in a precarious position within the court. For a while, one almost cares.
But it’s not enough to keep the the whole from feeling middling, and no one undoes this entire production more than Richelmy in the title role. The supporting cast pulls their weight: Wong is a force to be reckoned with, cutting an imposing yet surprisingly warm figure as the hours march on. Chin Han, who you may recognize from The Dark Knight, plays an unctuous Song advisor known colloquially as "the cricket minister," and you’re content to hate him about as much as Thrones’ Littlefinger. Twin Peaks’ Joan Chen plays Kublai Khan’s wife Empress Chabi, and she’s a soft-spoken yet powerful presence when she’s onscreen (which sadly, is not nearly enough.) But Marco Polo, the series’ lead, is boring as a character, and Richelmy is bland no matter what emotion he’s trying to express. No matter what he’s given to do — falling in love with a fellow captive, learning Kung fu from his blind teacher Hundred Eyes — he’s dull. The entire series rests on his shoulders, and he’s just not up to it.
Marco Polo feels like a cynical copy of what's come before
That’s the thing: Medieval warfare should be fun. It matters less that Marco Polo is lifting from Game of Thrones, and more that it has failed to elevate the form with its own unique performances and innovative storytelling. And since the elements that it can call its own never quite get out from under the shadow of what’s been borrowed, the final product feels like a cynical copy of what’s come before, this time with more Eastern flavor. You could easily argue that that’s how Hollywood works and has worked forever — if something succeeds, copy the formula until it stops succeeding. But Marco Polo was supposed to be a crucial part of Netflix’s effort to legitimize itself as the next HBO. It’s clear that it’s going to take more than $90 million to pull that off.
Marco Polo premieres December 12th on Netflix.