Well, this shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, and yet, somehow, I’ll admit to being a little surprised. Universal hasn’t come out and officially announced the premature end to its Dark Universe, but enough writing is on the wall for the rest of us to see what’s what. The two guys hired to oversee the whole operation, Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, walked away from it this week, leaving the whole plan in limbo and no immediate answers from the executive suites in Universal City. That means it’s entirely possible the studio has thrown millions of dollars out the window in the vain pursuit of a brand new franchise that was ill-considered from the start.
I know it came and went almost six months ago, but it’s still possible you remember the creative and financial disaster that was The Mummy, a movie originally designed to launch a shared universe of classic monsters and mine Universal’s rich horror legacy. In theory, this is a great idea, especially given the genre’s recent resurgence. But when you consider the series of mistakes made at every step of the way — mistakes that, in retrospect, were easily and eminently avoidable — it makes more sense to abandon this plan and start over than to keep calm and carry on.
Now, because I provide a special service to you, my readers, I shall walk us through the litany of errors and misjudgments that would be pretty hilarious if only they weren’t so sad. Seriously, this whole doomed endeavor doesn’t even qualify for the standard level of schadenfreude, simply because the way this business operates these days, I don’t know if another studio in town would have done anything differently. Well, another studio besides Marvel, but hang tight and we’ll get to that.
Let’s start with The Mummy itself, which apparently started out as a true Monster Movie before Universal cast Tom Cruise, which of course instantly changed everything. Suddenly, The Mummy was a Tom Cruise Movie, not a movie about, you know, the actual Mummy, who was ultimately given short shrift in her own damn movie. Suddenly, instead of building a world inhabited by these mythical creatures, the whole universe became eclipsed by Cruise, a massive movie star whose very name implies a certain kind of film — one that keeps the focus on him, and in doing so, defeats the entire purpose of the studio’s original plan.
Beyond Cruise, the whole swashbuckling tone of The Mummy betrayed the concept of a Dark Universe, which is inherently, um, dark. Universal made its bones with these classic monster movies, which prioritized being scary. The Mummy, however, was less of a horror movie than a present-day Pirates of the Caribbean installment, with Cruise doing his best Jack Sparrow — again, defeating the entire purpose of this kind of thing. Why build a universe around monsters if the monsters aren’t going to put some serious fear into us?
Meanwhile, Universal has only itself to blame for The Mummy‘s failure, since the studio made the mistake of entrusting the franchise-launcher to Alex Kurtzman, a talented writer and producer with some really good credits on his resume, but someone who’s considered a mostly untested director. In what world was it a good idea to put the fate of the Dark Universe in the hands of a director whose sole feature was the uneven 2012 drama People Like Us, starring Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks. Was The Mummy really the time to take a chance and test Kurtzman’s directing mettle, especially given the film’s $125 million budget, which swelled in part because of problems that Kurtzman encountered while trying to wrangle it all together?
Having Kurtzman oversee the Dark Universe wasn’t a terrible idea given his background in TV and his experience as a showrunner, but to fire the whole thing up under his directorial aegis? That’s an entirely different kind of confidence, especially when you consider his partner in crime in this operation was Chris Morgan, whose claim to fame has been writing the last six entries in the Fast & Furious franchise. I’m not one to call out another writer, but I think it’s fair to say that he hasn’t displayed a ton of nuance in his work, which is, again, sort of key to this whole enterprise. Now, obviously, this is moot, because Kurtzman and Morgan have bowed out — but not before doing some serious damage to Universal’s prized IP.
Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and these guys don’t deserve all of it. No, Universal bears some responsibility, since they announced the Dark Universe before The Mummy even came out, practically setting it up to fail. Instead of doing the cogent and reasonable thing and taking it one step (or movie) at a time, the studio chose to make a big splash by telling the world it was going to do something huge and amazing. And you can see how that has worked out for them so far.
I mentioned Marvel above, so let’s circle back to the MCU, because that’s obviously the model for every studio these days. When Marvel made Iron Man in 2008, it had the notion of putting together the universe that has grossed billions while unfolding over the ensuing decade, but without that first rousing success, there would be no shared universe. The thing is, people forget that the whole thing almost came to a crashing halt after The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but then Thor succeeded, and Captain America: The First Avenger, which led to the sensation that was The Avengers, and after that team-up movie, Marvel never looked back. That’s how you build a universe, one movie at a time.
In fact, DC tried the same thing with Green Lantern, a hero of the same general stature as Iron Man, but that failed because the movie was so bad. Similar mistakes were then made with subsequent films like Man of Steel, its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, until Warners finally got it right with Wonder Woman. For some reason, people are actually hopeful about next week’s Justice League (though I’m not), which is tracking for a big opening that could bode well for next year’s Aquaman movie and all the others that are in the pipeline, including a Suicide Squad sequel, a Shazam! movie, and, eventually, one focusing on The Flash, among plenty of others.
The point of that is, it took DC and Warner Bros. a while to finally perfect their formula and get their shared universes right, and they were working with much better known and more popular characters than Universal. Sure, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Invisible Man and The Mummy are all known quantities, but Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest sort of put them all to shame these days. Clearly, Universal overestimated the appeal of its classic monsters (and likely a handful of fading stars, such as Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe and Javier Bardem), and dived into the universe pool without checking first to see if there was any water in it.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Condon is still tenuously attached to direct a Bride of Frankenstein project, and considering that he won his Oscar for writing a biopic of James Whale, the man who directed the original film eight decades back, he’s clearly the right fellow for the gig. Universal needs to do whatever it takes to keep Condon onboard and then — and this is really important — take the time to get the script right before moving forward with someone like Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson or Emma Stone in the title role. Otherwise, it’s not even worth doing.
At that point, and only at that point, should the Master Plan of some big shared universe be reinstated, and only then under the same parameters. Take the time to get the script for the Invisible Man, or Creature from the Black Lagoon, or Dracula, or whichever flick comes next, totally and completely right, while attaching not the biggest names, but the most appropriate ones, all while building some real trust with the audience and earning their goodwill.
If Universal does all that, the studio might have something on its hands. I mean, can you imagine a studio making quality monster movies with depth and substance instead of silly popcorn movies that disrespect a dwindling audience? Movies that don’t just entertain, but genuinely mean something? Now that would be scary…