How to Fix: The Dark Universe

This was originally published at Flickering Myth on 24th June 2017.

Whilst its international take is admittedly surpassing its domestic performance by quite some way, it is still reasonable to suggest that The Mummy hasn’t been the mega-hit that Universal were hoping for. Weighed down by astonishingly clunky exposition, countless instances of tonal whiplash and a certain high profile ego to contend with (not to mention that embarrassing PR blunder with the trailer audio), the film has been the deserving subject of bad word of mouth and a relentless onslaught of critical maulings. Suffice it to say, it has been something of a rocky journey for the first instalment in the fledgling ”Dark Universe”.

In case you need catching up to speed, this Dark Universe is essentially the latest attempt to revive all of Universal’s classic movie monsters. Many efforts have been made in the past to reboot these characters, including Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and yes, even the Mummy. However, this Dark Universe is the first attempt at something a little different and perhaps more contemporary. You see, rather than crafting straightforward, standalone horror movies, Universal have instead opted to establish a cinematic universe (because there must now be a Hollywood mandate that every studio needs at least one of those), in which the legendary antagonists can crossover, interconnect and presumably one day, face-off against each other.

So The Mummy has now official kicked this franchise off and will be followed in 2019 by the Bride of Frankenstein, which in a perplexing move, is going to arrive before Frankenstein does. Sure, why not? After that, the universe will continue full-steam ahead, with Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a smattering of others. Unfortunately, if the reception of The Mummy is anything to go by, then this universe isn’t exactly off to the best of starts.

But it can still be saved!  In fact, this concept could actually work really well, if it’s approached from a smart angle. All that is really required is a deliberate rethink in terms of approach and a conscious move away from the big budget method of doing things. If Universal can nail that, then they could have something truly special on their hands. With that in mind, here are the main things that can be done to fix the Dark Universe.

1. Make Proper Horror Movies

If the Dark Universe were to ultimately crash and burn, then that would be a real shame, not necessarily because of the films we’d lose out on, but because of the wasted potential. Since Marvel perfected the shared universe formula with The Avengers, every major studio has been gunning for a piece of their success. For a plethora of reasons, none of these efforts have been able to match up to the MCU in terms of quality or indeed popularity. Usually, this is because they were rushed, because they felt derivative or because their cynical motivations were blatantly transparent.

Regrettably, it looks like the Dark Universe may well be heading in the same direction, destined to be remembered as another Marvel wannabee that put the cart before the horse and imploded upon itself. But it didn’t have to be this way. Unlike the other shared universes we’ve been getting lately (including the DCEU, Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse and Sony’s ill-fated Ghostbusters series), the Dark Universe has the untapped potential to distance itself from Marvel and do its own thing.

Those other franchises are, to various extents, compelled into being  big-budget, large-scale action movies. After all, Justice League cannot be anything except a massive blockbuster and the same goes for Godzilla vs. Kong. Dracula, on the other hand, not only has the freedom to be something smaller in scale, but should also have the obligation to. It’s supposed to be a horror movie!

Yet for whatever reason, Universal are insistent upon making the films in this new universe multi-million dollar tentpole movies, ones that are ostensibly intended to go toe-to-toe with things like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Transformers: The Last KnightNot only is there no business sense in this (horror movies are cheaper to make and are consistently performing well at the moment, whereas the blockbuster market is becoming increasingly over-saturated), but there’s no creative integrity to it either. It just reeks of calculated desperation and an obvious ‘me too’ sensibility.

This was the perfect opportunity to put a fresh spin on the stale shared universe framework, by trying it out in another genre. While everyone else blindly follows Marvel’s spectacle-lead footsteps, Universal could have be trailblazing. Imagine all of the new avenues that could be opened up by applying the cinematic universe concept to creepy, classical horror. Sure it could end up backfiring, but it could equally be just the refresher that we need right now.

The sad thing is, the best parts of The Mummy occurred when it briefly flirted with Gothic imagery and creature-feature scaresHowever, as the film trudged along, that stuff began to fall to the sidelines and by the end, they essentially went as far as setting up their first monster as a superhero. It’s beyond frustrating. If Universal had the balls to make proper horror movies, then they’d be having a lot more success right now.

Also, how the hell is The Phantom of the Opera supposed to work as an action-adventure film anyway!?

2. Forget About Star Power

Once again, if Universal followed this simple piece of advice, then they’d end up saving a good deal of money. More to the point however, they would also end up improving their films. Star Power is completely superfluous in horror, possibly more so than with any other genre. Just look at how successful things like The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity are despite their lack of big name appeal.

True, the original Universal Monsters were portrayed by now-iconic legends like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, but their situation was entirely different. Those older stars earned their status as character actors, completely transforming for their roles, often to the point of being unrecognisable.

That’s not something that’s gonna happen if Angelina Jolie gets the part of the Bride of Frankenstein (as is currently being speculated), because make no mistake, she won’t become the Bride. The Bride will become her. The same goes for Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Dwayne Johnson as the Wolf Man. They’re star power overwhelms everything they’re in. None of these casting choices can work, because we’ll never be able to see these actors as the characters that they are supposed to be portraying. They’re too entrenched in the popular consciousness for that.

Moreover, some of these people are quite spectacularly miscast . Dwayne Johnson is a lot of things, he’s charismatic, he’s cool, and he’s consistently engaging. But a horror villain? Nah.

When Universal dropped that cast photo a few weeks ago, they probably believed that was going to be the clincher. Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, all in it together for this ambitious multi-film project. There’s certainly a lot of glitz and glamour in that line up, and if the rumours are true about Johnson, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson getting in on the action as well, then it’s gonna get even more starry. Which is precisely the problem.

All of these actors come with baggage that will only hinder the Dark Universe. For a start, their hefty salaries mean that budgets will balloon wildly out of control, especially with Johnny Depp, who gets paid the GDP of a small country every time he farts out a performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. This unnecessary expense means that the films will get more and more costly, denying us the intimate horror experiences that we sorely need. In short, these films will have to be massive action movies, if the studio is gonna continue to shell out for massive action stars.

Additionally, when you have people like Tom Cruise on board, egos will always get in the way. Post-release, numerous reports have circulated, detailing Cruise’s excessive demands on The Mummy. Some of these sources have gone as far as to say that the actor practically took over directing for whole stretches of the production, with others claiming that he micromanaged everything from character and story decisions, right through to the editing process. It doesn’t take too much inference to realize that Cruise basically scrapped the original idea for the film, and reshaped it into something that would better suit his talents. Ergo, we ended up with a Mission: Impossible style thrill ride, with high octane stunts and constant pyrotechnics, instead of a real Mummy movie.

It’s even been alleged that Cruise insisted Princess Ahmanet have less screen time, in order to shift the focus onto his character instead. So just to clarify, this means that the Mummy was being pushed out of her own story, just to accommodate the whims of a star that the movie didn’t need.

We’re only one film into the Dark Universe, and it’s already becoming apparent that relying on these big names is going to be counterproductive.We don’t need them for this type of thing and we certainly don’t need the films to be adapt for them. What we truly need are appropriate character actors, who can fit in the horror genre and actually work with the material.

SEE ALSO: Reports say Tom Cruise had too much control over The Mummy, and is to blame for its failings

3) Take it Slow

This one is less specifically directed at the Dark Universe and more so at any franchise that is hoping to get itself off the ground. It’s a simple point, but one that apparently alludes most studios. The MCU didn’t happen overnight.

There were five whole films before we got to The Avengers and each of them was a standalone affair. In fact, it was actually quite a slow and considered build up, one that relied on small teases and allusions, rather than convoluted set-up and tortured exposition. This meant that viewers could connect with each film individually and get to know the characters, thereby becoming immersed in their world. Only after they had earned audience investment this way, did Marvel start building towards big crossover events, at which point everyone had a reason to be excited.

Meanwhile, films like The Mummy stumble right out of the gate, by trying to set up an entire universe as quickly as impossible, instead of making a solid first impression. So we get shoddy, half-baked introductions to lots of things and none of them can really make an impact, because they’re all vying for our attention at once. Think about it, The Mummy asked us to meet and then care about Ahmanet herself, her backstory, her minions, Nick Morton and his undead sidekick, Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego Mr Hyde, Sept/who is also the Devil, as well as the Prodigium organisation and its role in the overall universe. It’s a lot to cram into an 1 hour 50 minute narrative.

Marvel didn’t jump in feet first when developing the MCU. Nor did they hastily throw disparate elements together in the hope that they’d stick. Which is exactly what The Mummy did. Accordingly, our first look into the Dark Universe wasn’t a complete or fulfilling experience. It was just a jigsaw piece, intended to fit into a something else later down the line.

More so than anything, the Dark Universe should be taking its time and sowing the seeds of its world gradually, whilst still making good films. Only when they’ve done that, can they ask people to buy into the bigger picture.

4) Don’t Upload Trailers Without Audio Again

Seriously, for fuck’s sake.

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