Universal were eager to turn their classic monster movies into a Marvel-style franchise, but a year on from The Mummy’s flop, is the Dark Universe still happening?
In 1928, Universal Studios was in a great deal of trouble. While they had many hit movies to their name, they weren't reeling in the kinds of profits their competitors were. They'd also just lost their most exciting studio chief, Irving Thalberg, to MGM. Carl Laemmle Jr., son to the studio's chief founder, decided that one of the best ways to bring Universal to the level of their competition was to appeal to a new audience: horror lovers. They'd already done so with great success that decade, thanks to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but it was the 1930s where this formula would flourish. First came Dracula, then Frankenstein and The Mummy, and soon Universal had become the home of Hollywood horror thanks to its monsters.
The loosely collated series of films known as the Universal Monsters helped to cement the studio’s reputation during the Golden Age of cinema, and it remains their most enduring brand. Dracula and company were to Universal what Mickey Mouse was to The Walt Disney Company. However, the public domain stings: while they’d attempted reboots, remakes and countless re-imaginings over the years, eventually those classic horror creations became as heavily defined by other studios as the place where it had all began. Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein’s Monster stopped being their exclusive property. Yet the historical importance of their contributions endured, and so it made sense for the studio to want to update their brands for a new era of cinema.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, audiences had loved their more blockbuster oriented take on The Mummy. As big-budget Summer spectacles became the foundations of New Hollywood, it seemed sensible for Universal to keep up, and to do so with the work that made them power players in the first place. However, success has not followed as desired.
- This Page: How The Dark Universe Failed (Repeatedly)
- Page 2: The Current State Of The Dark Universe
The Beginnings Of The Dark Universe
For a solid 20 years, Universal has been trying to make the Dark Universe happen. The surprise success of The Mummy encouraged the studio to dig deeper into their horror archives, but the first result was Van Helsing. The 2004 monster mash movie is perfectly serviceable as a trashy Summer flick but audiences weren't enthused to invest further in this planned franchise, and the sequels were scrapped. A 2010 remake of The Wolfman offered similarly disappointing results. However, these films weren't marketed specifically as the planned starting points for major expanded universes in the same way 2014's Dracula Untold was.
It does not seem as though Dracula Untold was greenlit specifically as an Iron Man-style beginning for a horror-oriented franchise. Early reports pitch it more as a re-imagining of Dracula, free of franchise frills. However, shortly before the film was released, it emerged that the film had undergone reshoots after the end of initial production so that it would officially tie into their planned Dark Universe. Sequel plans were openly discussed in the press, as was the possibility of star Luke Evans cameo-ing in a future remake of The Mummy. Dracula Untold opened to mixed reviews and a tepid audience response. While it did make money - $217 million from a $70 million budget - it didn't inspire fervent devotion or any genuine anticipation for future installments. Indeed, the film’s importance to this planned franchise was ultimately downplayed once it became clear it would underperform, and so the 2017 version of The Mummy quickly became known as the true starting point for the Dark Universe.
The Mummy Was a Failed Franchise-Starter
On paper, the 2017 reboot of The Mummy made more sense as a potential franchise starter: The 1999 remake was incredibly popular and proved audiences were open to seeing a more blockbuster focused take on classic horror, and Tom Cruise still carried major international clout as an action hero at the box office. Taking the time to make a real starting point for a new franchise gave the expansive creative team hired by Universal the opportunity to establish its universe more thoroughly.
From the start, this film seemed more carefully planned as the beginnings of a franchise, as evidenced by the hiring of Russell Crowe to play Dr. Jekyll. Directors such as Bill Condon, Christopher McQuarrie and Alex Kurtzman were attached to the universe, and casting for future movies was announced before The Mummy even opened: Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein's monster, and rumors persisted that Angelina Jolie would play the Bride of Frankenstein. A cast image was released as well, along with a Dark Universe logo. It all seemed like a remarkably assured effort from Universal, but it didn’t last long.
The Mummy opened to bad reviews and even worse domestic box office numbers. Critics noted how bland and unoriginal the film was, as well as oddly uninterested in its own premise. Its attempts to set up a wider universe did not inspire either. Prodigium, the movie’s equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and Crowe’s Jekyll/Hyde as its Nick Fury), was introduced weakly to ensure audiences were aware of the potential for future adventures, but it never seemed especially intriguing. The rest of the film was too derivative of other franchises, most notably Marvel, to hook audiences. Indeed, much of The Mummy seemed embarrassed to be a film about an evil mummified Egyptian princess.
The Mummy ended up making $409.2 million worldwide, with the lion's share of the revenue coming from overseas. With a rumored production budget of $195 million (although numbers vary), it was projected that the film lost around $95 million. If The Mummy was offered up as the First Avenger of the Dark Universe, it seemed that audiences had rejected the concept for a second time.