So, not what I was expecting to write for my second ever post on this new blog, but here we are. According to a new report from Omega Underground on Monday (January 15th), Universal is putting together a new team with director Bill Condon to begin production on the assumed cancelled Bride of Frankenstein movie, that was planned to be set within Universal’s over-hyped Dark Universe franchise. The same Dark Universe that the universally panned Mummy reboot from last summer was set in, and to which a number of other monster reboots were planned pending the success of said panned Mummy movie. No new details have been released, but again, I’m not here to report on this story. Everything you need to know about the story itself is right there in the link. Instead, I’d like to take a moment and dissect what went wrong with their previous attempts from a writer’s perspective, and to suggest possible fixes for it. Because who doesn’t love reading a giant thought piece from an amateur on the Internet about how a bunch of paid professionals should be doing their jobs?
Yeah, I thought so too. But here we go anyway!…
The Mummy: (Almost) Tomb of the Dark Universe
Before anyone complains, yes I know Dracula Untold was originally supposed to kick off this universe, but we’ll get back to that mess in a little while. If we’re to judge this Dark Universe, we have to start with the first *official* entry in it, this Tom Cruise-led hot mess. (Full Disclosure: I haven’t had a chance to see this movie in full, and I probably won’t until someone eventually starts rerunning it on basic cable)
The movie starts from a simple premise, but gets involved in a long, convoluted plot as the story unfolds.The story revolves around Nick Morton (Cruise), a soldier-of-fortune who plunders ancient ruins for treasures (because just calling him a Grave Robber would be too simple) finding the hidden tomb of the titular Mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), awakening her, and unleashing her wrath on an unsuspecting 2017. But from there, things just spin wildly out of control. There’s unnecessary romantic tension with Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey, unnecessary involvement of the British military (especially considering the start of the movie is set in Iraq), and series of forced scenes to highlight Prodigium, the secret SHIELD-esque organization tasked with dealing with supernatural threats, and that most-likely would’ve been at the center of all of the Dark Universe movies. All these elements come together to turn what should’ve been a monster movie remade to fit current tastes in horror, into a lukewarm summer action movie that inevitably becomes all about Tom Cruise, like every movie that’s ever starred Tom Cruise.
Look, I have no problem with the idea of the Mummy or any of these movies taking on a more action/adventure element. I loved the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, but those movies came out at a time when pulp-style adventure movies were having a resurgence. If anything, this movie was a bad reboot of those movies, only set in current times and with a modern big-budget action movie sensibility (i.e., lots of big effects and a muted color palette). It was a reverse superhero origin story in which Tom Cruise basically became a god, when it should’ve been a story about this new female Mummy, and how women who try to assert their power and freedom are treated even now. In a summer when this movie had to go toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman, all of Hollywood’s biggest problems glared as brightly as possible in every twist and turn. There’s plenty of ways that this could be fixed, but we’ll get to that in little farther down. For now, let’s look at Universal’s previous attempt at a dark cinematic universe…
Dracula Untold: A Dark Knight Rises (Then Promptly Falls)
Ah, Dracula Untold. The dark origin story that tried to remake one of the oldest monsters in cinema into the ultimate antihero. And in the process, came off as the blatant superhero knockoff it always was. (And yes, I have seen this one for myself)
Set in Medieval Transylvania, it tells the story of an analogue Vlad Tepes (in this case, Luke Evan’s Prince Vlad III of Wallachia) who agrees to be transformed into a vampire in order to save his fledging kingdom from an invasion by the Ottoman Empire (over an incident involving his young son that he instigated). Unlike The Mummy, this movie is a bit more straight-forward plot-wise: a long-lost prince returns to take over the kingdom, his captors come a’knockin’ with an unreasonable demand to keep the peace, the prince refuses and starts a war with a much larger empire, and in a desperate act to save his kingdom, he goes to an analogue Nosferatu (Charles Dance as an unnamed Master Vampire) in order to attain his dark, demonic powers. From there, we get battle scene after battle scene of vampiric action more akin to what we’ve seen in recent action movies, all leading up to a grand finale where he defeats the invading empire, but at the cost giving up everything he has to keep his dark instincts from hurting the people he loves. Basically, everything about this movie is as predictable as it gets, and not in a good way…
Everything about this was a blatant copy of a Marvel or DC movie. With its grimdark tone and overbearing motif on the allure of power, it could’ve easily found a home in the pre-BvS DCEU. It even included a mid-credits scene straight out of the MCU’s handbook. If anything, this movie was another test to see if the “Marvel Method” could be copy-pasted into any franchise. And like other attempts at universe-building (sorry Ghostbusters) it fell flat of it’s intended target. Not to say that this retelling of Dracula didn’t have its own merits, but it would’ve been far more effective with a new, different character at the center of it. But it still falls into the same trap as The Mummy in one sense at least…
Copying Everyone but Themselves
Now, that’s not referring to each of these movies individually. Obviously The Mummy was just a remix of the ’99 Mummy, which Universal produced. But both of these movies are bald-faced attempts to replicate the MCU. And like DC’s attempt with the DCEU, they’re trying to jump straight into a connected universe, but without trying to put in the work and years of buildup Marvel put into their Cinematic Universe. The individual faults of these movies put aside, they are part of a greater issue of Hollywood trying to duplicate the success of MCU. Now, there are other articles and posts out there that can go on and on about this problem in better detail than I ever could. Truth be told, I don’t see connected universes as the ultimate problem. In all honesty, they aren’t new. Disney and Pixar both have a long history of including Easter Eggs in their movies that all hint at a connected universe. Not to mention other large franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have both built up expanded universes in the decades that followed their initial introductions. Cinematic Universes are nothing new, which leads us to the ultimate irony in all of this…
UNIVERSAL LITERALLY INVENTED THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE!
That’s right. Back before there was even a name for it, Universal was putting their most popular characters together in blockbuster events that put the biggest B-movie stars together on the big screen, sometimes for the first time.
Kicked off ironically by a series of Abbot & Costello comedies collectively known as “Abbot and Costello meet the Monsters”, it saw the classic versions of the Universal monsters brought together in different ways (for albeit questionable reasons). Eventually leading to the “House of [insert monster here]” movies series, these movies established a light-hearted version of the Dark Universe in which Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and even the Invisible man, all existed within the same Gothic world (admittedly alongside Abbot & Costello’s stage personas, but that’s another matter all-together). The point being, the groundwork is already there and Universal has been spending millions to reinvent the wheel with trying to build up this new Dark Universe.
Audiences already accept that all these characters exist and interact with each other in the fictional world. There are thousands of examples out there to prove it. Building that universe isn’t the real challenge. The real challenge boils down to one thing…
Getting Back to Basics
At the heart of the problems with The Mummy and Dracula Untold is the fact that Universal has forgotten what makes these classic monsters so appealing generation after generation. Or what made them appealing in the first place for that matter. They’re larger-than-life characters that speak to some aspect of people’s deepest fears and insecurities about themselves and the world around them. Dracula is a story about power and lust, and the lengths men will go to satisfy both. The Wolfman and stories about werewolves play into our fears of losing ourselves to our baser instincts. Frankenstein is the oldest story about science gone awry. All of the classic monsters play into some aspect of the human psyche, and until someone at Universal figures that out, their dreams of a Dark Universe will always be doomed to falter.
My last two-bits on this
Despite everything, there’s part of me that still would love to see a modern Dark Universe. It’s not an impossible goal, they just have to find the right tone and the right approach to make it all work. And more importantly, they have to find their own path to make it work. It’s obvious from DC’s own missteps that you can’t just mimic the MCU and expect it to work out perfectly. They have the world already, they just need to find the right people to update it for modern audiences. Though if I could make a few specific suggestions…
- Go easy on the A-Listers. Like the classics before it, let these movies be a chance for lesser-knowns and unknowns to rise up through the ranks.
- There’s plenty of room to reinterpret these characters, but remember what makes them work. Anyone can play these monsters, but don’t twist these monsters to fit the player.
- Remember that the monsters are supposed to be the stars of the show! You wouldn’t expect Marvel to let their villains outshine their heroes, so don’t let your monsters be outshined by an A-list supporting cast who will demand the spotlight!
- And finally, try to allow yourselves to find the humor in these movies. One of the hallmarks of the classic movies was their willingness to laugh at themselves, even before Abbott & Costello got into the act.
- Also, just an idea of mine, maybe include a few comedians in these movies. Foils who could play off some of the absurdities of bringing a bunch of monsters together for one big movie. Maybe even, say, a modern comedy duo who could easily have fun with the darker or more over-the-top elements. (yes I’m fancasting Key & Peele, shut up)
I will say that, no matter what they decide, I just hope they’ve learned something from the failure of The Mummy going forward with the Bride of Frankenstein. Though it may be a long while before we know for sure…
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I’ve got a long way to go with it, but not much time…
Thank you for your considerations,
According to Digital Spy, another planned movie in Universal’s Dark Universe, The Invisible Man, has lost it head writer Ed Solomon, further putting the future of the franchise into uncertainty.
I didn’t feel this was worth a separate update, because if anything this highlights the problems I already mentioned they’ve been having. Solomon’s reasons for stepping await amount to “creative difference”, meaning that they still can’t find a solid direction for the franchise to go in. I’m sure they’ll eventually do a reboot of all these movies, but it’s looking slimmer and slimmer that we’ll be seeing them on the big screen anytime soon, or that they’ll be part of a larger franchise.
(For reals, if anyone at Universal would like some input on what to do with the franchise, I have a few ideas for it that I haven’t listed here…)