A Dark Universe is upon us. Following in the shared universe footsteps of Marvel, DC Comics, and the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse starring King Kong and Godzilla, Universal Pictures formally announced their shared universe of classic monsters. Dark Universe, as this monster movie amalgam has been branded, will officially kick off with the reboot of The Mummy on June 9, 2017, headlined by Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella as the titular character. Joining them in the Dark Universe will be Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster in 2019’s Bride of Frankenstein, directed by Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast). Johnny Depp has also formally entered the Dark Universe to become The Invisible Man. Binding all of these films together, a la Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the MonsterVerse’s Monarch organization, is a secret cabal called Prodigium led by Russell Crowe, portraying Dr. Henry Jekyll (and also, presumably, his monstrous alter ego, Mr. Hyde).
In addition to the cast and films that will launch Dark Universe, Universal also has remakes of The Wolfman, Van Helsing, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon in various stages of pre-production. Grand plans are afoot for the biggest names in movie monsters… except for one. Curiously missing completely from the hoopla of Dark Universe is the most famous and arguably the most popular movie monster of all – Dracula.
Where is Dracula? Just as vital a question: where is Luke Evans in the hype for Dark Universe? In 2014, Universal premiered Dracula Untold starring Evans. An origin story about how the 15th century Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler succumbed to vampirism as a means to defend his homeland from invading Ottoman Turks, Dracula Untold was designed to simultaneously re-introduce a rebooted Dracula to moviegoers as well as become the opening chapter in what Universal intended to become a shared universe of movie monsters.
This did not go quite as planned. Received tepidly by audiences and faring even worse with critics (rated 23% Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes), the $70-million budgeted Dracula Untold grossed $56-million at the North American box office, with another $160-million in worldwide grosses. Not the smash hit Universal had hoped for, Dracula Untold‘s performance upended its position as the harbinger of the prospective shared universe. Dark Universe’s creative brain trust, including Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek) and Chris Morgan (Fast and the Furious), made new plans to use Tom Cruise’s The Mummy as the new launching point. Dracula Untold was relegated to the shadows. However, as late as September 2016, Luke Evans, while promoting The Girl on the Train, was under the impression his version of the prince of darkness was still an active participant in Dark Universe:
“There have been talks and conversations. I think the bigger picture is exciting for all the monsters that they own. There is talk about it. I just don’t know how it will all manifest itself. I think it will happen and I think they’re just working out how these monsters interact and how they end up in the same realm with each other. If they can stick Captain America in a scene with Iron Man and Thor, I think you can definitely put Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, The Mummy and Dracula in the same film as well.”
Universal’s formal unveiling of Dark Universe and its stars, Cruise, Bardem, Depp, Boutella, and Crowe, left Evans and his Dracula entirely out of this monster mash. Whether Evans or his Dracula will even be a part of Dark Universe going forward is unknown, but it overall, it seems unlikely. However, this isn’t a bad thing. Eschewing Dracula Untold and Dracula the character, especially at this pivotal early point in Universal’s strategy, is a savvy move and should be a boon to Dark Universe.
While nearly everyone has heard of the king of the vampires, Dracula’s fame comes at a price. Dracula is the most prolific of movie monsters; dozens of films starring or involving Dracula have been produced since Universal Pictures introduced Bela Lugosi as the seminal Dracula in 1931 – and that’s not even including Dracula’s countless appearances on television and in other forms of media. Yet the last two live action films involving Dracula that made bank at the box office was Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing in 2004 with $120-million and 1992’s Francis Ford Coppola directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula with $82 million, while the animated Hotel Transylvania and its sequel has them both beaten with a combined $317-million. Like many other public domain characters like Peter Pan, Robin Hood, and King Arthur, Dracula has long been overexposed and overdone. As Dracula Untold discovered in 2014, moviegoing audiences remain generally uninterested in the horrors of Dracula.
Meanwhile, Universal has assembled top tier talent for their initial launch of Dark Universe. Tom Cruise, who remains one of the most bankable movie stars in Hollywood, joining The Mummy franchise initially raised eyebrows, but it turns out Cruise was just the beginning of Universal’s monster plans. With Cruise now being joined by A-list actors Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, and Russell Crowe, who are all Academy Award winners or nominees, Universal makes a powerful statement that the Dark Universe monster movies will not be B-list schlock but high caliber, major motion pictures. In addition, with the exception of The Mummy, which has previously been a reliable blockbuster franchise, Dark Universe is spotlighting monsters from its pantheon that have not been done to death. Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man are relatively unsullied concepts to modern audiences, with the hopes that Bardem and Depp’s involvement will make the package even more enticing.
Yet Dracula remains a crown jewel character, despite the baggage surrounding him. History has proven that when done properly and if it successfully taps the zeitgeist, Dracula can be wildly popular and is big business. The wisest move involving Dracula at this point, which seems to be Universal’s strategy, is to ignore Dracula Untold and hold back use of the vampire king until Dark Universe is more established (i.e. proven to be a moneymaking hit with audiences) and until a worthy way to utilize the character and the concept of vampires within the shared universe can be conjured.
Even without Dracula name checked in this early point of Dark Universe, the character’s presence is already being subtly felt – there is a vampire skull in the Russell Crowe’s Prodigium chambers as seen in The Mummy and the planned Van Helsing film is a natural entry point and the most likely way to introduce Dracula into Dark Universe. Whether or not Luke Evans dons the fangs once more, keeping Dracula under wraps benefits the character and the Dark Universe in the long run. Dracula returning is frankly as inevitable as the character is unstoppable – it’s best to wait until Bram Stoker’s greatest creation can be in an optimum position to be king of the box office once more as he already is king of the vampires.