Sad news hit Universal Pictures this summer when their adventure thriller The Mummy flopped at the box office. It was supposed to ignite a sprawling monster franchise known as Dark Universe. But this first outing starring Tom Cruise was not the summer blockbuster hit the studio was hoping for. They have Bride of Frankenstein next on the docket. But many fans believe that this series, based on classic horror movies of yesteryear, is doomed. Well, guess what? It doesn't have to be that way. Universe can turn this sinking ship around, and we're confident that Dark Universe can live and thrive in today's modern cinematic landscape. But how you might ask? Let me explain.
With big movie franchises like Despicable Me, Jurassic World, Fast and Furious, The Bourne series, as well as the Fifty Shades of Grey films, one would think that Universal Pictures would be happy. This isn't to suggest they should rest on their laurels. It's just stating that they have some huge tentpole franchise, and people seem to want more of those movies. So, what's not to love about that? Plenty, it appears.
The reality for Universal is that, try as they might, Vin Diesel just doesn't seem to be able to to break out of the role of Dominic Toretto in the Fast and the Furious franchise. Try as they might, the xXx franchise is floundering, nobody cared about The Last Witch Hunter and does anybody even remember Riddick? This isn't meant to be a cut on Vin Diesel. The guy has done very well for himself and it's not like he isn't a box office draw. And to their credit, Universal didn't release all of those aforementioned movies. The thing is that Vin Diesel makes a fair amount of films for that studio. It really is in their best interest for Diesel to be as big a movie star, and to have as many ongoing properties under his belt, as possible.
The problem for Universal is that unlike Disney and some other studios, they don't have any superhero franchises. They've got big movies, they've got franchises, and they've even got something kind of quirky (almost arty) with this whole Fifty Shades thing. However, without any superheroes, and being one of the biggest studios on the planet, that ultimately seems like it leaves a gaping hole in their bottom line. And with all the costs to develop new projects it seems like the old adage, "you've gotta spend money to make money," might ultimately put Universal into a financial sinkhole.
Or do they really even have to 'spend' money? Is their development work already done? I can't say for certain, but I think that they have had a similar talk to what I've written here. I think that they looked at their back catalog of films and said, "Hey, why are we fretting over what we don't have? We practically invented this whole shared universe thing that all these superhero movies are doing!" It is this thinking, taking old properties and making them new again, as well as merging old and new properties, that just might be the constructs that save Universal's Dark Universe from seriously going dark. However, before we get there, lets get a bit of a perspective.
If you doubt that Universal first pioneered the shared universe realm, you can go all the way back to 1931 when Universal put out both Dracula and Frankenstein. For those without perspective, that is basically the same as Disney releasing Captain American and Iron Man. At that time in movie history, Universal ruled the roost of horror moviedom. They would go on to release films like 1943s, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and others that continued to bolster Universals cred in this genre.
In the late 1990s, Universal would have a good amount of success releasing The Mummy in 1999, The Mummy Returns in 2001, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008. These films starred Brendan Fraser and The Mummy would gross $415 million worldwide. The Mummy Returns would bring in $433 million worldwide. Lastly, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor would net the studio $401 million in total. That's a billion dollar franchise if you're scoring at home. An even bigger star, say Tom Cruise, could bring his version of The Mummy to even loftier heights, right?
Over the years something happened and Universal lost its shared universe mojo. In 2014 they attempted to get back into the shared universe realm with Dracula Untold. This film saw Dracula defending his own people from the Turks. Made for $70 million, this film would only make $56 million in the US. It would fair much better overseas, where it would make $160 million. However, even with a gross of $217 million, that didn't seem to be enough to revive Universal's hopes for their monster movie properties.
All of this brings us to 2017 and the recent release of The Mummy starring the aforementioned Tom Cruise. In this new version of this familiar tale, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) accidentally resurrects an ancient Egyptian princess who has been entombed for quite some time. Now, Morton must stop her before she destroys the world. Same ole, same ole, right?
Universal pulled out all the stops in this remake. They had a big star, they made slick trailers, and The Mummy was supposed to kick off their Dark Universe. This would be Universal's answer to all those superhero films that they weren't a part of. Well, that universe seems to really be in peril as its opening weekend in the US only saw it bring in $32 million. Overseas the movie would make $140 million. With a budget of $125 million, this film will probably turn a profit, but we all know that Universal didn't reignite their monster movie franchises to merely break even. Its second weekend in the U.S. saw its box office tally rise to $56 million, and it's foreign total went up to $239 million. As it stands The Mummy has brought in nearly $300 million worldwide, which isn't terrible. But it's not great either.
The Mummy was supposed to set the tone for Universal's glorious return to monster moviedom. The idea was that this shared universe would bring back such players as Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man, etc. The characters would probably first be established in their own films. Or, Universal might lump some of them together and then eventually start the whole shared universe concept where The Phantom of the Opera was suddenly engaging with The Wolf-Man. Who knows, perhaps Universal would take a page from The Monster Squad's book and put a bunch of these iconic characters together in their own film?
Whatever the plan was it is clear that even Universal seems to have a certain amount of apprehension. This apprehension didn't seem to arise after The Mummy failed to perform in the US. How else to explain why the only other film that's slated for release (in 2019!) is Bride of Frankenstein? While there is a screenplay, this film whose expected release date is February 14, 2019, is still only in pre-production. Not to compare apples to watermelons, shouldn't Universal's plans for their Dark Universe have been a bit more laid out? Remember when Marvel announced all the phases for their films? Remember how much better that seemed? Not better from a content standpoint, but better from a, "Hey, we know what the hell is going on perspective!" As it stands, it seems that aside from Bride of Frankenstein, we also know that Johnny Depp is set to play The Invisible Man and Javier Bardem is tapped as Frankenstein. Heck, Danny Elfman created a very special theme for this whole Dark Universe.
Now, it is still early days. At the same time, with The Mummy is clearly not burning up the box office, and with no other films (aside from Bride of Frankenstein) in the Dark Universe slated for production, this is certainly a problem. There's also talk that Tom Cruise himself was a big issue on the set of this film. Apparently, he was something of a micromanager and that is why the film wasn't as good as it could've been. One has to wonder if other actors that will be in the Dark Universe films might pose similar problems. Marvel, as is widely known, has most of their actors clearly locked down. The idea is that those movies are so big, they're seen by so many people, that it is probably seen as a fast track to any new actor's career. They are willing to make less because ultimately exposure in a superhero franchise will allow them to make more. Obviously, Robert Downey, Jr. breaks this mold but the point is still valid.
It is high time for Universal to go back to being bold. If they can make Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (as they they did in 1948), is it really that hard to imagine "Minions Meet The Mummy"? Or, "Fast and Furious Frankenstein"? "Fifty Shades of Frankenstein"? "Dracula World"? Or, "The Invisible Man Identity"? As crazy as this might sound, crazy is exactly what Universal's Dark Universe needs to be. At the very least, it can't be the same old rehashed content. The Mummy's tepid box office reception has proved that. Audiences have moved beyond movie stars and splashy special FX. They want something audacious. Something that they have never seen before.
At the very least, it would behoove Universal to not follow Marvel's method entirely. They've got to start putting Frankenstein with The Wolf-Man now. Maybe they put all of their main creatures together in one big film? Then they put all of their lesser known creatures in another film? (The film with those creatures would obviously be made on a lower budget.) Then, perhaps all the characters from those films appear in one incredible, battle royale of a film? Or, Universal's Dark Universe could get really bold and maybe, gulp, create new creatures to add into this mix? Tom Cruise is always looking for new challenges, right?
Or, maybe Tom Cruise and Universal are shrewder than we thought? Maybe they realize that the domestic market for films has been on the decline for quite some time? It is painfully obvious that most big budget movies made in the US have "Chinese elements" involved. Whether that comes in the form of funding, or the films are made to please the censors in China, overseas box office has long been greater for a lot of US films than their domestic haul. This is just another evolution of the film medium. Like when lower budgeted movies started coming out for very short periods in US theaters. The goal was to get the name out there and then reap big rewards with the home video profits. Perhaps now we are seeing this with big budget films? They will make some money in the US. Then they will really clean up overseas and eventually in the other ancillary markets.
At present, Universal's Dark Universe looks to be doomed, but if they implement some of the changes suggested here, perhaps their Dark Universe might start looking brighter than anybody ever could have have imagined?