Universal’s Dark Universe: Where Do We Go From Here?

How Universal can save their shared universe.

Spoilers for The Mummy below!

I was really rooting for The Mummy. While all you chumps were snickering at the thought of a Universal Monsters cinematic universe inspired by the success of Marvel Studios, I was filling my heart with hope. If Marvel wasn’t going to do anything with their Legion of Monsters properties such as Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula and Manphibian; maybe Universal would find a way to deliver monster brawls on a consistent basis for today’s creature-starved audiences. 

Well, be careful what you wish for. 

The Mummy, warts and all, is very much Universal’s attempt to launch their Marvel Cinematic Universe tribute band, with the first film in their Dark Universe banner acting as an extended origin story for a Mummy-themed superhero that would not have been out-of-place in Marvel’s horror line of comic books from the ‘70s. Ignoring how weird it is that Universal’s much-touted feminist twist on horror conventions ends with Sofia Boutella’s Ahmanet unceremoniously dispatched with a minimum of fanfare or the kind of courtesy all silver-screened monsters are due in order for Tom Cruise to steal her powers and become the He-Mummy audiences seemingly demanded, Alex Kurtzman’s big-budget spooky spectacle does a good job setting up a potential franchise. If this were the ‘90s, we’d be getting a Nick Morton Saturday morning cartoon this fall. But the ‘90s were a long time ago, and with the film flailing at the box office this weekend, it seems that franchise may be over before Tom can tangle with a rebooted Scorpion King or whatever Kurtzman had in mind for the sequel. 

The Mummy could have been Blade, but with mummies. Instead it was Blade: Trinity, but with mummies – and baby, that’s just no good. 

With such an ambitious rollout (even Icarus wouldn’t have spent the time to create a cinematic universe logo before audiences had an opportunity to embrace the first film in the proposed series), it seems very likely that Universal will move forward with at least one more film in their Dark Universe franchise before starting over from scratch (see Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman and Dracula Untold). That said, I would not be surprised if the next film in the franchise is a soft reboot. I will make sure I order a soda when I go to see Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein so I can do a spit-take if Russel Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll and his Prodigium agency make an appearance. 

So where does Universal go from here? How do you successfully reboot a series of horror films in a world where “gods and monsters” evokes the image of Thor and the Hulk? 

I don’t think Universal was in the least bit crazy to try and action-up their horror films. We live in a much different world than when Universal’s original slate of monster movies lit up the silver screen. It’s difficult to scare mainstream audiences with werewolves, vampires and mummies. The scariest monster movies of the last decade have almost always been smaller, more psychologically-based films, where the monsters are barely glimpsed or look all too human. Universal faces a near-impossible task of how to take Creature from the Black Lagoon and make it a four-quadrant hit AND stay true to its horror roots. I truly can understand the idea behind turning these horror films into superhero-lite affairs. If you can’t scare audiences, at least thrill them. 

The problem? The Mummy just wasn’t thrilling. The film is a regurgitation of things we’ve seen before, thrown together in a blender until it has the consistency of a thick, shapeless paste. There are solid beats in the film – moments that work and show the promise of what could have been – but the film lacks any memorable action set piece and Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton never quite settles into whether he wants to be a lovable rogue, cowardly fish-out-of-water guy or tired action hero. Sofia Boutella’s Princess Ahmanet, for all the good intentions of casting a strong actress as a major studio film’s antagonist, is a causality of Universal’s biggest sin with their Dark Universe series – putting the star before the story. 

Before The Mummy was even released, audiences were promised future films featuring Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Rock as The Wolfman (if you believe rumors). Why, Universal? Why spend all that money on actors? All are capable of turning in fine performances – some more than others, lately – but Universal has learned all the wrong lessons from Marvel Studios. 

Marvel realized pretty early on in their success that the actors aren’t the stars, the characters are. While there are certainly actors who have enjoyed successful careers thanks to their role in a Marvel film, the fact that few of these stars can successfully open a non-Marvel film based on their name alone shows the truth – audiences have, for the most part, embraced characters more than the actors who play them. If Universal was looking to really follow in the footsteps of the MCU, they would see that they don’t have to shell out the big bucks for major Hollywood stars. They can save that money and pump it into the film’s stories and set-pieces. People will come to see a fun werewolf action film, you don’t need to figure out a way to fit the film around The Rock’s personal brand.  

If Universal is going to make action films out of their monster movies, I want big action-filled monster movies. Don’t give me a rehash of Hollow Man starring Johnny Depp in a sporty fez hat – spend the money to tell stories about monsters fighting other monsters! I want to see a movie where The Wolfman leads a supernatural task force, hoping to harness his lycanthropic curse, in the hopes of taking down Dracula. I want a movie where Frankenstein’s Monster throws a little girl into a lake only for The Creature of the Black Lagoon to throw the girl back, get out of the lake and uppercut Frank. I want a movie where The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Metaluna Mutant have The Invisible Man cornered and his only hope is Nick Morton summing a sand cloud to act as cover during their escape. I guess I just want a live-action adaptation of the 1994 Universal Studios’ animated television show Monster Force

There’s nothing wrong with turning monster movies into big-budget Hollywood popcorn fare – I only ask that Universal embrace the inherent campiness of the idea and get to the good stuff quickly. I mean – after Bride of Frankenstein. I want to see Bill Condon make an atmospheric, richly detailed ode to Bride of Frankenstein, a movie he clearly has a lot of affection for. But after that – stop with the solo films! Just jump right into the monster mash-ups. Look to 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula for inspiration – get as many monsters in a scene as possible and have fun. If you want to make some of them dark versions of superheroes – see Tom Crusie’s Captain Egypt – that’s OK. But please, for the love of Set, give them something fresh and exciting to do. We don’t need Hollywood stars – we need Universal to make Blade but with werewolves, Blade but with hunchbacks and Blade but with phantoms of the opera. 

Wait. Maybe I just want another Blade movie. 

PS – If you’re looking for a really good Universal Monsters Shared Universe experience, seek out Jeff Rovin’s 1998 novel Return of the Wolfman. This officially licensed Universal Studios novel is straight-up fan-fiction, but it’s the good kind! It is a direct sequel to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein that begins with the cast of the 1948 comedy being murdered by Larry Talbot before flashforwarding to 1998 for a monster-brawl between the Wolfman, Dracula (who has spent the last several decades running a plantation near Havana) and Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s self-serious enough to be campy, full of great action beats and one of the lead characters wears a ponytail and gets eaten by a zombie. It’s an almost perfect blueprint on how to turn the Universal Monsters series into an action-adventure franchise with the monsters as the stars. It’s also out-of-print and pretty hard to find – but if you’re a die-hard Universal Monsters fan and have never read it, I would dare say it’s worth the $50 or so it costs to buy a used copy on Amazon.