Can Non-Superhero Cinematic Universes Work?

Universal Monsterverse

Decades before Marvel re-wrote the modern blockbuster rule book, the Golden Age of Hollywood found major success with horror, and nowhere was this more evident than with Universal's Monsters Universe. This loosely connected series of films spanned four decades of the studio's history, beginning in the silent era with Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera and wrapping up in the late 50s with The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Over this period, Universal made some of the most iconic films of all time, including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. While this work remains one of the studio’s calling cards, many of the films are now in public domain and as such cannot be copyrighted by Universal for continued profit. Now, they’re hoping to strike lightning twice by not only rebooting the Monsters for a modern age, but by tying them together in a shared extended universe akin to Marvel or Star Wars.

The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise as the hero and Sofia Boutella as the eponymous villain, is accompanied by the tagline, “Welcome to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” Director Alex Kurtzman, who is one of the main figures behind the Monsters reboot, has talked about building the universe around this project, which hopes to include new versions of Van Helsing, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, among others. Release dates have been given for the second and third instalments in this series, although no actual details of the films themselves were included. The Mummy will also introduce Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, who will bind the stories together over multiple films.

This is not the first time Universal has tried to revive franchise interest in their classic characters. While the Stephen Sommers version of The Mummy did well enough to warrant two sequels, the Hugh Jackman starring Van Helsing disappointed, and the recent Dracula Untold, which was intended to be the starting point for the new universe, failed to meet expectations, and will not be counted as canon from The Mummy onward.

Sofia Boutella in The Mummy

It's easy to understand the appeal of an Avengers-style multi-film universe for the characters that helped make them the studio they were in the early age of cinema: Franchises are the preferred model in Hollywood and a universe creates more spin-off opportunities than the typical sequel format; the characters are familiar to the general public and instil audience awareness without doing too much work; and it’s a fascinating way to strengthen the studio’s ties to its heritage. It gives Universal a leg-up over other studios’ attempts at crafting a shared universe, including the 2014 news that Sony had bought the rights to an epic expanded world version of the Robin Hood story. Before entering their deal with Marvel Studios over the Spider-Man rights, Sony announced plans for further movies and a Sinister Six spinoff to establish their own wider universe. Marvel’s risky move paid off massively and changed the way films are made, so now everyone tries to reinvent the wheel.

While such films have proven popular in the past, the new model of moulding them to fit into an expanded universe with multiple connected films has its problems. Even Marvel struggled with this for a while, as Iron Man’s resounding success was followed by the under-performing second shot at The Incredible Hulk, and filmmakers like Joss Whedon admitted the strain of trying to tie together every thread of the universe into one film affected the story, as with Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But Marvel’s genius, and the reason their model has become so successful, lies in its solid foundations. The first phase of films took their time to develop and build an audience before getting to The Avengers. Iron Man certainly teased a bigger universe with its Nick Fury post-credits sequence but it did not announce entire phases of films years before audiences even had a chance to see them. There has been no indication from audiences as to whether they really want a shared universe featuring the Wolf Man and Frankenstein, but Universal are rushing to establish a series of three films over as many years. These characters are certainly within the public consciousness, but whereas the Marvel superhero canon has decades of continuity for the studio to play around with and use to establish several films, there’s less tangible material tying together the Monsters series, or even Robin Hood and his Merry Men. That gives creators more freedom to experiment, but it also leaves little for audiences to anticipate. The foundations remain too unstable for a whole world to be built upon them.

Russell Crowe Robin Hood

This matter is made all the more complicated by Kurtzman’s own admission that he still doesn’t know how all these planned stories and characters will tie together. In an interview with io9, he confessed, "I don’t know yet. I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that it’s not going to be boring. And it’s not going to feel familiar."

While Kurtzman’s enthusiasm for the material is appreciated, the lack of direction does little to ease concerns over whether a shared universe is the right direction for such characters. Dracula Untold had originally been set up to kick-start this universe, but its box office failure relegated it to the sidelines for Universal to start again with The Mummy. Will they drop that film and start again if it under-performs? Do the two new movies go ahead or is everything scrapped and brought back to the drawing board? Kurtzman says it’s not going to feel familiar, but this practice already is.

While sequels have never been something studios exclusively green-light because the material needs it -- profit talks louder than artistic merit -- the move towards a full-on franchise spanning multiple characters and stories needs to walk a careful line between detailed planning and organic progression of the story. Marvel made it look deceptively easy but studios hoping to replicate the format are putting the foundations of a franchise over the need to craft strong independent stories that can stand separately from the rest of the universe. A good movie stands tall; a failed platform for a wider universe is quickly crushed under the weight of its own expectations.

Whatever the case, the shared universe format will probably become the new norm in Hollywood, as multi-billion dollar tentpoles dominate the top 10 highest grossing lists, and breaking $1bn worldwide is no longer a rarity. Audiences still gravitate towards familiar properties, hence the hunger from studios for a brand name franchise, but they still need more than a series of launching pads for bigger stories: They need good films to care about. An extended universe format is not something that necessarily can’t work outside of the superhero mould, but studios hoping to craft their own bankable franchises need to go back to square one and understand what audiences want first. A franchise built on shaky foundations will crumble to pieces very quickly, regardless of how many sequels are planned.

Next: The 30 Most Anticipated Movies of 2017

Key Release Dates
  • The Mummy (2017) release date: Jun 09, 2017
  • Robin Hood (2018) release date: Nov 21, 2018
  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) release date: May 31, 2019
  • Kong: Skull Island (2017) release date: Mar 10, 2017
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