Where Universal went wrong with their Dark Universe and how they can fix it

Contributed by
Jan 19, 2018

True story: When I went to see The Mummy, Universal’s latest attempt to turn its iconic monster movies into an extended franchise, the audience—a grand total of four people—started laughing before the opening credits were over. After the familiar logo of the studio itself, we saw a grim version with a black planet and foreboding letters follow. This new logo spelled out “The Dark Universe” and immediately our tiny audience guffawed. Everything about it was wrong: the chest title, the faux-edgy take on the studio’s iconography, and the mere notion that anyone gave two hoots about this so-called universe. It was a curious introduction to what ended up being a staggeringly bad movie. The Mummy barely made its money back at the box office, and it didn’t perform anywhere near as well as Universal needed it to. It’s barely been a year since its premiere and already there have been loud whispers that the studio is prepared to scrap its ambitious franchise plans and start again. Frankly, this was a franchise that was dead on arrival, and everyone seemed to know it.

The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, wasn’t the first attempt Universal made to bring its monsters from the golden age of horror back to the big screen for modern audiences. The first revival of The Mummy, with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, was a kick-ass Indiana Jones-inspired adventure romp that delighted audiences but had diminishing returns by the time the third film was released. In 2004, Van Helsing was released as another attempt to create a unified monsters series, but while it did good enough business at the box office, it hardly inspired audiences to invest in the franchise, and those plans were quickly scrapped. Then, six years later, a remake of The Wolfman, starring Benicio del Toro in the lead, flopped so badly that it’s widely considered one of the studio’s biggest financial disasters. Universal’s plans for a Marvel-style epic expanded universe, featuring all the icons of horror together as some sort of team, got another shot at life in 2014 with Dracula Untold. That film, with Luke Evans in the lead showing the origins of the most famous vampire in pop culture, was intended to be the starting point for the Dark Universe—the Iron Man of the series, so to speak—but once again, audiences didn’t care. None of this seemed to hinder Universal’s plans, and they decided to go forward with their new Dark Universe plans, which involved pretending Dracula Untold never happened.

These attempts failed for various reasons, although it’s hard to ignore the reality that most of them just weren’t very good movies. The 1999 version of The Mummy is a blast, even if the sequels are a downgrade, but Van Helsing, The Wolfman, and Dracula Untold are painfully mediocre offerings in almost every way. The latest take on The Mummy is similarly bland and derivative, but on a much bigger budget (estimated to be between $125-195 million). You could play franchise starter bingo with each of them, but with The Mummy, its intentions were starkly cynical. This wasn’t so much a film as it was an investment: a starting block for a multi-film series that would include multiple crossovers between characters and plots. The Mummy doesn’t have much in terms of stakes because you as a viewer are keenly aware that everything happening is just to set up a bunch of sequels.

As such, it gave even the most enthusiastic audiences nothing worth investing in. You didn’t care about the mummy herself—gender-swapping one of the great villains of the genre was perhaps the only savvy idea in the film—because the film didn’t care about her. You don’t care about Tom Cruise’s character because he’s so blandly perfect and you know nothing bad can happen to the star of the franchise. You don’t care about Russell Crowe as Jekyll/Hyde because the chances are you’re utterly baffled by his character; why is he running the equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for monsters, and why does he turn Cockney when he’s evil?

Crowe is there to set up an entire world that would soon include Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. This secret society, known as Prodigium, is said to be dedicated to hunting down said threats, but none of this carried any weight for audiences. Why care about something we know nothing about? By the time Marvel fans got to The Avengers, we’d spent several films with the major characters, and those short but savvy post-credit sequences allowed for subtle world-building that paid off in the long term. Trying to force five or six movies' worth of world-building into one two-hour film will just overwhelm viewers. This is a problem the DC Universe faced, as it went straight to the battle between Batman and Superman, and the latter’s death, in the second movie. When a film only exists to set up the next films, why bother getting excited for it as its own unique story? That’s something Universal didn’t seem to understand.

Now, the chances are we won’t see the Dark Universe as it was originally intended, and that’s probably a good thing. Universal have made some bad investments with their most iconic characters, but it’s not too late to change gears and carve a new path, one that makes them utterly unique from their blockbuster competition.

First of all, they need to drastically slash the budgets. There’s no reason a film like The Mummy needed to cost close to $200 million. This is a big problem across blockbuster and genre filmmaking, as such projects essentially become too big to fail. Horror is a genre that thrives on the ingenuity that comes with lower budgets and increased creativity. And horror these films should be. Turning the classic monsters into adventure fare isn’t a bad idea, but the Brendan Fraser take on The Mummy already did it so successfully, let’s return to the roots of these characters. Bring back a truly terrifying Dracula, or a take on an Man that digs into some of that character’s really horrifying implications, or just give us another version of The Mummy that’s actually interested in the mummy.

Universal wanted the Dark Universe to be a star-studded affair, but the need to satisfy A-listers like Cruise overshadowed the story and characters. So why not bring in some unknown or more eclectic talents to play the roles? Hollywood has an award-winning Egyptian-American actor in the form of Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek. Wouldn’t he be great for a take on The Mummy? Smaller stars would mean a tighter budget too, so everyone wins.

It’s understandable why Universal would want a big interconnected franchise that could keep up with the superheroes. Clearly there is big money and immense creative opportunities in this setup when it works. The monsters already have experience with this sort of franchise world too, as the original films often crossed over with one another, having Dracula take on the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Yet it’s also clear that trying to replicate this past success and splicing it with the Marvel formula won’t yield the best results for anyone involved. Let each film stand on its own and don’t worry about building some expansive universe. Such ideas can be exciting, but they can also prove limiting, so let each monster do their own thing.

As we’ve discussed before on this site, women love horror, and it’s a genre where we tend to be more widely represented than others in the medium. The Dark Universe, or the little we got of it, was notably white and male. Sofia Boutella brought some much-needed diversity to the world, but the film had no interest in her beyond being a weak foil to Tom Cruise. When Universal revealed their photograph of their planned cast, Boutella was the only one there who wasn’t a white dude. It seems foolish for Universal to not want to tap into that audience of female horror fans, and given how many of these characters have their roots in African and international mythology, there’s really no excuse for overwhelmingly white casts.

This Dark Universe needs a guiding hand. It needs a figure at the top to help mold these basic foundations into something richer and more creatively exciting. Let them be treated like passion projects, and Universal should allow them to have some proper creative control over what happens. Don’t worry about setting up six other films before the first one is even finished. Just make the movies good enough in the first place. Our suggestion for someone to take over the Dark Universe: Guillermo del Toro. Nobody in Hollywood loves monsters as much as he does, and as proven by films like Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water, he’s certainly the best choice to take classic horror tropes and make them fresh for new audiences.

Ultimately, Universal tried to put all their eggs into one crumbling basket with the Dark Universe. They were so concerned with replicating Marvel that they forgot the intrinsic value of their own creations, the icons who helped make Universal what it is today. If they truly wish to revive their monsters for a new age, then a return to basics is called for. Let the monsters be monsters, and audiences will come to the movies.