In May of 2017, Universal announced a shared universe of classic movie monsters owned by the studio. This endeavor meant reviving characters like Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, and more to create an interconnected story arc spanning across multiple films. They had landed such notable actors as Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe to play titular roles in these films and the Universe was set to be kicked off by Tom Cruise’s The Mummy in June. Sounds awesome, right? Well, a little over half a year later, Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, the lead producers that Universal charged with being the architects behind the Dark Universe, abruptly left the franchise and left it in dire need of resuscitation. What went wrong in the months following the announcement? How did things from so promising to so bleak? Is the Dark Universe already dead?
Is Universal’s Dark Universe Already Dead?
Stumbling Out of the Gate
Universal Pictures had a lot riding on The Mummy in June of 2017. It not only marked the reboot of one of the studio’s most storied franchises, but it was also set to kick off a major cinematic universe. Tom Cruise was brought on to star and Russell Crowe signed on to play Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Alex Kurtzman, the man in charge of the entire shared universe, took on the role of both writer and director. The film was also given a combined production and advertising budget of around $350 million to boot. Kurtzman’s main goal here was to create a film that both set the tone for the franchise as well as lay the building blocks for the Dark Universe. The result wasn’t quite up to par.
The Mummy was negatively received by critics and fans alike, scoring an abysmal 16% on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Six different people, Kurtzman included, received writing credits for this film. As if that’s not too many hands in the pot, Tom Cruise was also given an immense amount of control over the film as part of his contract. This included the ability to make changes to the script, tell Kurtzman how to direct certain scenes, and adjusting the screen time of certain characters. What resulted was a mess of a film, both narratively and tonally. As stated earlier, this film was supposed to set the tone of the entire extended universe, however, it couldn’t even nail down a tone for one feature. At times it wanted to be horror, other times it wanted to be action, and there we even some out of place jokes thrown in to boot.
As far as world building is concerned, that was the one thing the script actually got right. It did a nice job of establishing the role of Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe’s characters and foreshadowed a bit of what was to come in future installments of the franchise. However, the issue was that they forgot about the film at hand in the process. There was a large chunk of the film that was thrown in for the sole purpose of world building and, in that time frame, the narrative came to a screeching halt. Most filmgoers had no idea going in that this film was supposed to be part of a larger universe and, by the time the credits rolled, few even cared. That is not the way you want to kick off a franchise.
One of Universal’s biggest issues was its failure to create any significant buzz around the planned franchise. The extended universe itself wasn’t announced until a month before the release of The Mummy and the announcement was in the form of a photoshopped cast photo. After that, the only other mention of the franchise was the words “Dark Universe” overlaid on the Universal logo in the opening credits of The Mummy. The movie itself was marketed well, however, making more of an effort to inform the public about the planned franchise would have undoubtedly resulted in higher ticket sales had it not been for one other factor.
Universal Pictures inexplicably decided that the perfect weekend to release this film was the same weekend a little film called Wonder Woman was set to be released. The Mummy didn’t stand a chance against one of the most anticipated films of the year. It finished the weekend in a distant second place in the box office, with Wonder Woman outgrossing it by more than $70 million. The subsequent negative reviews served the death blow and virtually guaranteed a poor box office return for the film.
Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that The Mummy was released on a weekend with less formidable competition and was actually well received upon release. The next film planned in the franchise was Bride of Frankenstein with Javier Bardem and Angelina Jolie set to star. However, this next film was not set to be released until early 2019, nearly two years after The Mummy. Whatever momentum that would have been gained by the success of the film would have surely been lost by the time Bride of Frankenstein was released. A two-year gap between releases is too long for any extended universe not named Marvel or DC. If Universal wanted to wait and see how The Mummy performed, then they should have waited until after it was released before potentially announcing an extended universe.
Is the Dark Universe Dead?
The Dark Universe was already in major jeopardy after the failure of The Mummy. Then, in early October, Bride of Frankenstein was pulled from Universal’s release schedule. What has seemingly become the death blow happened a few days ago when creators, Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, abandoned the franchise.
When asked about the future of the Dark Universe, Peter Cramer, Universal’s President of Production, had this to say, “We are not rushing to meet a release date and will move forward with these films when we feel they are the best versions of themselves…There’s no way to give up on this. This is Universal’s legacy.” So, while the universe is not technically dead, it only has the faintest of pulses.
In order to resuscitate this franchise, Universal needs to start by bringing on creators that truly understand the studio’s intellectual property and what makes these monsters work. Unfortunately, they can’t completely forget about The Mummy since so much essential world building was done in that film. However, with all the turmoil surrounding the franchise, the studio now may as well take as much time as they need to ensure Bride of Frankenstein is as good as it can possibly be. The focus should be on the film’s own narrative and not on the universe as a whole. The time that will have elapsed will have helped distance that film from The Mummy with only small connecting threads tying the two films together.
Universal can no longer afford to wait another two years after Bride of Frankenstein to release the next film in the franchise. The studio needs separate filmmakers subsequently working on the next film in order to ensure that it is ready for release the following year. If Universal focuses on Bride of Frankenstein as if it were a standalone film in terms of narrative, and then follows that up by successfully generating buzz for the franchise, the Dark Universe will be alive and well once it becomes time to market the third film. Fans absolutely have reason to doubt the continued existence of the Dark Universe, however, Cramer said it best when he stated that the properties involved are simply too important to the studio’s legacy to give up on. I choose to believe he’s telling the truth because, let’s be honest, when have these monsters ever stayed dead?