Boy, remember those halcyon days when Marvel Studios managed to pull off so much in a relatively short while? They had it down to an artform which resulted in a globally successful shared movie universe with a heretofore unheard-of consistency. Sure, there were some slight missteps along the way, but you must put your hat on only to doff it later in recognition for how much they had accomplished. Think about it: they made Ant-Man popular enough to warrant a sequel. They made Guardians of the Galaxy mainstream. They managed to get three (!?) Iron Man movies done. (Of course, nowadays Marvel can only trip themselves up, but that’s a digression for another day!)
Marvel set the bar so high for a decade that other studios wanted to jump on the bandwagon with their own possible franchises. But unlike Marvel, the others seemingly did not map out a plan to follow. These studios wanted to rocket into franchise success without really earning it. The only thought they had was a base kneejerk concept of “what makes a lot of money repeatedly?” And the middling results certainly reveal the lack of strategic foresight.
For instance, Warner Brothers just couldn’t get anything rolling consistently with a comic book film universe. This was confusing and frustrating since WB owns the film rights to DC characters (something that Marvel doesn’t even have with all their own characters), so the only thing holding Warner back was…Warner. It had got so bad over in Warner/DC Land, that back when Wonder Woman was a financial and critical success, it was viewed as the exception not the rule.
Come to think of it, why did the DC film universe start off with yet another Superman entry anyway? If DC truly wanted to imitate Marvel’s path, why not go with a smaller A-list/established B-list character? Iron Man was far from conventional as a viable movie property let alone a foundation for your franchise hopes. But Marvel cast Robert Downey Jr., got a nice standalone script, hired a good director, and before you can get those leg rockets working, Marvel had good reviews and encouraging box office returns.
Yes, Iron Man was a risk to be sure. But it also planted seeds of a larger universe. If successful, those seeds could possibly bear fruit. If not, then it would be a cute after-credits scene and well, they had their shot. Warner/DC should have taken a page from that blueprint. After all, Marvel and DC have been ripping each other off in the comics for years. (“You killed Captain America? Well, we’re killing Batman! You got Secret Wars? Welcome to Crisis on Infinite Earths, bitch! Nyahh!”) It has been so baffling why Warner/DC kept on missing the target by not flat-out mimicking the competition’s battle plan.
In retrospect, starting off with Wonder Woman instead of Man of Steel to kick off a WB/DC film universe might have been the better way to go. Perhaps the Flash would have been a good choice. What about Hawkman or Firestorm or The Spectre or Green Lante…oh wait, uh, never mind. Okay fine, I’ll cut to the chase: DC should have started off with Martian Manhunter because I want a Martian Manhunter movie, but DC messed up and I didn’t get what I wanted: a Martian Manhunter movie.
Beyond the Warner Brothers, there were other hungry studios desiring a piece of Marvel’s pie as well. For instance, Sony wanted a shared universe franchise with a property they own outright, unlike Spider-Man. This led to a conclusion that a revamped Ghostbusters in 2016 would be an entry point to a Ghostbusters…shared…universe. Uh, okay. Suuuure. Ahem. Moving on.
2014’s Godzilla was a jumping point into a brand new, shared “MonsterVerse” with King Kong and the other classic Toho monsters. We finally got to see Godzilla fight King Ghidorah and Mothra…just like he’s done already…many times…over the course of more than 60 years… Hm. Moving on, again.
And then, not to be outdone in the monster franchise department, Universal jumped into the fray with their Dark Universe that was to bring together all their classic icons of horror. I can see it from their point of view: “Hey, we own these characters, so we might as well just mush them all together and voila! We have an instant franchise! Let’s get those Happy Meal toys out ASAP!”
Of course, like the Toho films of old, Universal had done this before…almost 80 years earlier. (The idea of developing new and original concepts is apparently more frightening than any monster.) The shared monster universe started when Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released back in 1943. Then the monster-filled extravaganzas of House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula followed.
For crying out loud, Universal even had the monsters together to meet Abbott and Costello, so the notion of a monster shared universe wasn’t that revolutionary. But Universal wasn’t claiming to break new ground when they launched the Dark Universe and don’t worry, they didn’t.
Presumably Universal was going to blend all the classic horror characters in some fashion and see what would stick…again. (Remember 2004’s Van Helsing anyone…? Anyone…? Bueller…?) So I suppose that would have ultimately meant having Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Bride of Frankenstein, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon get together to form The League of Extraordinary Monsters Squad.
Despite my thinking that there wasn’t much potential in these worn and frayed properties, I didn’t discourage Universal in their attempts at the time. Not that they ever consulted with me and not that this fact ever stung me deeply at the time…the bastards. But I thought, “Hey, as long as they don’t do something goofy and start with TheMummy, I’m sure those plucky young bonus-hunting corpo-executives will do just fine!”
Oh wait. Too late. You went ahead without asking and started with The Mummy, didn’t you, Universal? Yeah, no. Hm. At least you didn’t cast Tom Crui…oh, you did? Hm, again. Universal, why didn’t you bother asking me at all? I’m rather disappointed in your behavior with this whole thing. I’m not angry, just…just go to your room, please. Thank you, honey.
Hey, I get it. Impatient Universal wanted to get going right away, so they cast a proven box office stud like Tom Cruise. At the very least some theatergoers would come because of “Yay! Tom Cruise!” reasons. But that came at a price too. For instance, if you cast Cruise in a horror movie, I would never believe that he is in any kind of mortal danger. Sure, he can be in suspense flicks and sci-fi movies all day long, but horror? Did anyone learn anything from him being miscast in Interview with the Vampire? Also, let me leave this thought here: how scary can something be if Tom Cruise can outrun it?
Yes, Tom Cruise can beat back hundreds of years of mystical curses and can willfully overpower being the incarnation of an Egyptian god because…he is Tom Cruise. There’s no special plot twist or superpower that he brings to the table in the movie in way of an explanation. There’s no cheat or convoluted scripting moment or Russell Crowe backstory narration or anything other than…Tom Cruise is…Tom Cruise.
I don’t even know why The Mummy got top title billing. A more accurate title would have been Tom Cruise Vs. The Scantily Clad Dark-Haired Woman. The mummy was played by a woman who was not…Tom Cruise, so she’s not that important. Since she just turns out to be a Xeroxed Enchantress from Suicide Squad rip-off anyway, perhaps it is better I don’t remember her name. (Say, that brings up a point: Universal, if you’re going to rip off something, why rip off Suicide Squad? Did that movie look like it was going to be good? Really? Did DC really have a current and proven track record of filmic success that was ripe to emulate?)
Within the running time, there were knowing winks to the audience such as a vampire skull and a Gill Man arm. There’s even a book prop from 1999’s The Mummy too! And Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, the Nick Fury-type of Dark Universe, says the classic line of welcome to a new world of gods and monsters! And…*yawn*, I don’t care anymore.
So why was I even watching this? My wife was curious about The Mummy, so she borrowed it from the library on a lark. (Yeah, that’s right, Universal! Thanks to the socialism that is the public library, no box office moolah from me!) I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it, but as a tradeoff, I said that if we were going to watch it, then she should also see the original 1932 version of The Mummy for the first time.
After these viewing experiences, I think she ended up with the better deal: a shorter, tighter movie that was photographed well with a simple plot that had Boris Karloff not needing to run because he’s…Boris Effing Karloff. In The Mummy (1932), it is obvious why Karloff remains a classic and preeminent genre star: he was marvelously understated with an air of delightful menace, combined with fantastic make-up that today’s CG-infested screens only dream of achieving.
Perhaps Universal didn’t want to do a Mummy movie like their past original films because a plodding, heavily wrapped monster type isn’t all that scary, especially without Boris. Plus, there wouldn’t be a need for Tom Cruise sprinting to get away since a leisurely stroll would have sufficed. Perhaps Universal wanted to steer clear of the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies as well, which is understandable if they wanted to be a trifle more serious in their retelling. I think Universal didn’t really know what to do in the end because The Mummy ended up being far too long while telling far too little and ended up being far too disappointing far too often.
At the heart of the matter is that the Mummy just isn’t that interesting of a character and certainly wasn’t an inspired choice compared to other possibilities. So big talker that I am, what would I have done differently to launch a Dark Universe franchise, since I pressed myself into asking me this question? I’m glad I asked me and so, free of charge, here’s my choice: Creature from the Black Lagoon.
There hasn’t been a Universal Black Lagoon movie since 1956, so it has been a while. Unlike other horror characters in the Universal stable, there hasn’t been a flood of Gill Man versions creeping up over the past 60 years either. Even Hammer Films in their heyday didn’t bother with a Black Lagoon copy because by that time, Christopher Lee had the clout to intimidatingly stare down requests for Gill Man costume fittings.
Think of the possibilities with a modern version! An updated physical monster suit, high-definition underwater photography, convincing make-up/gore effects, and all with a title character that is ultimately sympathetic and has a heart as well. Perhaps the real monsters in the film would be those other than the Gill Man…
And that’s how this could have been a franchise cornerstone! An expedition is underway to investigate a supposed prehistoric man/creature that lives in the darkest, unexplored parts of the Amazon River. This trip is headed by none other than Dr. Henry Jekyll and his team. The expedition members are: Dr. Septimus Pretorius and his assistant Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Dr. Jack Griffin, and field guide Larry Talbot. What mysteries and horrors shall they encounter on their journey? Which skeletons from these characters’ closets will manifest in the story? Why are wolves in the Amazon anyway?
The greatest part of this: how is this different from any other convoluted reasons to introduce a shared universe monster franchise? For instance, I could even take a leap of faith over the suspension bridge of disbelief that Jekyll, Pretorius, Frankenstein, Van Helsing, and Griffin coincidentally went to the same medical school before I could believe that Tom Cruise had a fighting chance in outrunning a supernatural sandstorm in London.
One could even wedge these characters’ respective background skills into the plot. Jekyll is interested in examining behavioral science with the creature, Pretorius and Frankenstein have differing concepts about the origins of life and this creature may provide the key, Van Helsing would add to his knowledge of obscure diseases and native folklore, Griffin is here to examine reptile adaptive camouflage, and even Talbot is an animal expert. Bingo! Time to add an expendable crew and a beautiful lass lab assistant and let the mayhem begin!
No, you’re welcome Universal! See why you should have asked me in the first place on this? You could have saved so much time! I would have even ensured that you didn’t need to steal plot devices from An American Werewolf in London to awkwardly wedge into your mummy movie for some reason. Glad I could help.
Now since I’ve done you a solid, Universal, if you have any pull at all, can you help with that whole Martian Manhunter movie? I just don’t want Warner to mess it up. Please? Anyone?