The multiplexes are full of movies trying to kick-start a new shared universe to rival the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ($10 billion at the worldwide box office in a decade and counting), but none have quite fumbled it like The Mummy. In fact, its conception, development, release and expansion into the proposed Dark Universe are pretty much a “how not to” guide when it comes to this sort of franchise.
Taking obvious inspiration from the unstoppable success of the MCU, we’ve seen a rise of attempted mega-franchises in recent years: chiefly, the DC Extended Universe, Sony’s non-Spider-Man SpiderVerse, the MonsterVerse (which is building to Godzilla vs. Kong), the Transformers universe, and many fumbled attempts besides. As you can see, most of these are comic book-based, partly because Marvel is a superhero property but also because that medium has crossover continuity between titles engrained into it (the same is also true of Toho’s monsters). Universal has no such license (the rights to the superheroes they had have reverted back to Marvel in some form) so instead decided to turn to another avenue: monsters.
In the 1930s, the studio’s name was basically made by classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man et al, and over time they began to cross-pollinate with each other, making a sort of proto-shared universe. Now, Universal’s been really smart in recent years. They resurrected Jurassic Park, turned Fast and Furious into a behemoth and through Blumhouse are making some of the best horror movies around. And there is a sound logic to taking Universal Monsters, as it was known, as inspiration – it’s something inherently befitting of multiple movies. But they’ve done it so, so wrong.
The Marketing Is All About Set Up
What a lot of tentpole releases intended as franchise-starters (shared universe or otherwise) miss is that the best way to cultivate excitement for sequels, spinoffs et al is simply to make a good first movie. So many try desperately to provide narrative setup for more adventures, missing that in obsessing about the future they don’t deliver an experience audiences want to come back for. Indeed, Iron Man, the film that started this whole genre, is a mostly standalone adventure – the only explicit establishment of the future is Rhodey’s “next time baby” aside and the Avengers-teasing post-credits scene – and both Man of Steel (DCEU) and Godzilla (MonsterVerse) were made before any future plans were laid out. Prove yourself, then expand. This is why The Amazing Spider-Man 2 floundered to the point Sony decided to share the character rights with Marvel and had to stall their Venom plans.
The Mummy feels more like a feature-length premiere for a TV show akin to Once Upon A Time uniting a bunch of iconic creatures rather than its own film – we have, essentially, Tom Cruise getting on a baseline ahead of more fun adventures (all part of an open ending), and also a bunch of random setup centered around Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll, the S.H.I.E.L.D.-lite Prodigium and his obvious dark secret. The Mummy herself is a secondary concern, with her big action sequences – London swarmed by sand – tacked on.
This should hardly be a surprise. From very early on the advertising was focused on Prodigium, with Jekyll made much more interesting than Cruise’s vomit comet plane crash and unexpected resurrection, and as we’ve gone on that’s only increased, with Dracula easter eggs and featurettes highlighting the legacy and future the film slots into. This peaked when the studio suddenly announced the series’ name and confirmed the hiring of Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster a couple of weeks before release; some would take that as confidence in the film, but seeing as it came in the wake of middling box office predictions it seems more likely that they were hoping to bolster interest with the promise of more.
The Dark Universe is a false economy. “Come see The Mummy because you want to see Bride of Frankenstein.” It presumes franchise interest is a major reason for audience investment – something Marvel didn’t really take advantage of until Guardians of the Galaxy, their tenth outing – and presents the ideology that more planned movies is somehow better. Although perhaps they were only reacting to what was a pretty poor film in the first place.