While we tend to focus on superheroes and comic book adaptations here at Cinematic Universe, the name of the site should be somewhat of a giveaway that we’re also interested in all of the shared universes currently being cooked up in Hollywood. The latest is Universal’s Dark Universe, which began in earnest with the release of The Mummy last week, a film which introduces us to their new monster-filled playground and lays the groundwork for the movies to follow. But after a poor weekend at the box office and reviews that were scarier than the movie itself, we thought we should explore what Universal are trying to achieve in their Dark Universe, what The Mummy sets up, and whether too much damage has already been done as we consider the future of the franchise. Stick with us, because there’s a lot to unwrap.
Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Universal Studios were renowned for their monster movies. Technically it all began with a pair of Lon Chaney silent pictures, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but it was really two creature features from 1931 that kick-started horror cinema and made monsters a viable option to build a franchise around. First came Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bella Lugosi, closely followed by James Whale’s classic Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. The portrayals within remain iconic to this day.
Sequels followed, as did further movies featuring the likes of The Mummy (starring Karloff again), The Invisible Man (Claude Rains & Vincent Price), The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill-Man (Richard Carlson), amongst many, admittedly lesser known others. Eventually the characters were meeting each other in crossover movies such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944), and by the late 1940s they were even regularly meeting Abbott and Costello. One could even argue that Universal’s monsters inhabited the first ever cinematic universe.
It’s not surprising that Universal wants to play upon one of its historical strengths when crafting their own shared universe to compete with the likes of Marvel and DC. Technically the monsters are all public domain, meaning they can be used by any studio, but that also makes them free to use, and Universal is banking on their pedigree with the characters to stake out the territory for themselves. Their monster-verse almost began with the Luke Evans-starring Dracula Untold back in 2014, but a tepid response from both critics and fans put the kibosh on that idea. Instead the studio decided to launch in a more spectacular style with The Mummy; a big budget remake of a franchise that they’d had more recent success with in, with a bona fide movie star attached.
Last month Universal trumpeted the launch of what they were now calling Dark Universe with a fancy new logo, a video highlighting their monstrous history, and an awkward cast photo showcasing the stars they’d be building the franchise around. There were the three main stars of The Mummy, of course, starting with Tom Cruise, who plays an original character in soldier of fortune Nick Morton; Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that one); and The Mummy herself, Sofia Boutella. Also pictured were Johnny Depp, who is set to play The Invisible Man, and Javier Bardem who will become Frankenstein’s Monster.
Bardem will presumably debut in Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein, a film still searching for its leading lady, but already scheduled for release in February 2019. And while nothing has been officially announced beyond that, also in development are movies headlined by Depp’s Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Van Helsing, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster himself, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. All of the films will be produced by Chris Morgan, the screenwriter of every Fast and Furious movie since Tokyo Drift, alongside The Mummy’s director Alex Kurtzman.
Okay, well it’s fair to say that the reviews weren’t wrong, and the movie is a bit of a mess, to the point that we’re not exactly sure of what’s going on with Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton by the end of the movie. Basically, Nick is cursed early on by Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella’s titular Mummy), who needs to stab Nick with a magical dagger that will allow the Egyptian God Set to come to Earth and possess his body. That’s not just bad news for Nick, but also for the world in general, because we’re told Set is essentially the devil. For reasons that are unclear, Nick decides to take matters into his own hands (or daggers into his own stomach, if you will) during the final showdown and stabs himself, at which point Set does indeed possess his body.
But after glancing at the dead body of his love interest Jennifer (Annabelle Wallis), Nick manages to wrestle back control, and when he does still has access to Set’s God/Mummy powers. He duly sucks the life from Ahmanet, defeating her, and resurrects both Jennifer and his zombie-fied sidekick from earlier in the movie, played by Jake Johnson. So it seems like Nick is being positioned as the franchise’s central antihero; a good guy who may occasionally succumb to being possessed by a malevolent entity if he’s not careful. Some expository voiceover explains that he’s out there searching for a cure, and will likely find himself drawn to other evil, so we can probably expect him to turn up in the future movies a lot.
Meanwhile, Russell Crowe appears to be playing the Nick Fury of the franchise. His Dr Jekyll is the head of a morally ambiguous SHIELD-esque organisation called Prodigium, which is dedicated to tracking down monsters and destroying them when necessary. And yes, this Jekyll does have a Hyde, and we see the fully-realised alter ego throw down with Tom Cruise late in the second act. Otherwise, Jekyll keeps Hyde at bay by injecting a serum into his deformed hand.
And as for Sofia Boutella’s Mummy, it’s possible that we’ve already seen the last of her. If Cruise is being positioned as the Ancient Egyptian-powered character in the universe, there may not be any need to resurrect the defeated Ahmanet for the second time. That would be a real shame, though, because she’s the best thing about the film by some margin.
Eagle-eyed viewers also spotted some Easter eggs laying around in Prodigium’s headquarters, including the pickled hand of Gill-Man and a vampire’s skull. Given that said headquarters are hidden within London’s Natural History Museum, it seems like a sensible place to keep them.
Is The Mummy really that bad?
Here’s the short answer: yes. But we should probably explore why in a bit more detail.
Forgetting about the larger franchise for a moment, The Mummy is bad on its own terms. Alex Kurtzman’s direction is uninspired at the best of times, and borderline incompetent at others. There are occasional shots that don’t match, frequent examples of obvious ADR, and set piece after set piece of bland action. And outside of Boutella, who we really can’t praise enough, we’re seeing a cast who have all shown they’re capable of better elsewhere deliver some of the worst performances of their career.
You’re never going to get a bad performance out of Tom Cruise (haters gonna hate, but this writer finds him endlessly watchable), but he’s cast against type here and given absolutely no support. Poor old Jake Johnson, who’s usually very easy to warm to, plays one of the most irritating comic relief characters you’re ever likely to encounter in a major franchise. Annabelle Wallis gets lumped with a thoroughly unsympathetic character and gives a performance to match. And as for Russell Crowe… where do we even start? As Jekyll he’s saddled with clunking exposition at every turn, a dodgy haircut and an ill-fitting suit. When he transforms into Hyde he’s essentially the same, only his skin goes a bit grey and veiny, and he cor blimey guv’nor, if you’d Adam and Eve it, he gets really, really Cockney so he does.
Perhaps the film’s biggest sin, though, is failing to adequately establish or explain the rules of its universe. Cruise’s Nick dies during the film and comes back to life, but there’s no clarification of whether he’s immortal then, or immortal come the end of the film following his possession. We have no idea how he keeps Set at bay, we don’t know what Set’s powers are, and we don’t know what effect Set is having on Nick. With no firm rules set in place throughout, nothing comes as a surprise. So even when in the third act Cruise is fighting his way through a flooded Crossrail tunnel and fighting reanimated crusader knights, it all just feels utterly trite and flat.
Can the Dark Universe recover?
Obviously the box office and reviews are pretty disastrous in terms of getting eyes on this new franchise, even if there is a glimmer of hope thanks to a slightly more robust box office performance outside of North America. But funnily enough, we’re wondering whether audiences skipping this first instalment might not be such a bad thing. It’s not going to take future movies too long to explain Cruise and Crowe’s characters to a new audience (one’s part-man/part-mummy, the other’s part-man/part-cockney), and they get to experience them afresh without the sour taste of The Mummy in their mouth. And other than returning characters, we’re not sure there’s much in The Mummy that needs to play into the future movies.
The worry for the larger universe will be whether the returning characters are salvageable. Nick Morton likely is. Cruise will essentially have free rein to rebuild that character from the ground up given the way The Mummy ends, and we’re confident his talent and charisma will shine through. He definitely doesn’t need a comedy sidekick, though, so maybe Jake Johnson’s character needs to die twice just like Ahmanet. His love interest, Jennifer, is also a dud. There’s no real need for her to return other than that she also works for Prodigium and her positioning as the Maria Hill/Cobie Smulders of this universe. Prodigium as a whole just seems like a failed attempt to ape the MCU, and with Crowe’s Jekyll at the centre of it the whole thing’s a catastrophe. If they’re feeling bold, Universal will dump its worst character and concept entirely moving forward.
We also think it’s fair to be more than a little bit sceptical about the stars that Universal have decided to build this universe around. They may all still be relevant in Hollywood, but poor Sofia Boutella stuck out like a sore thumb in that cast portrait next to four middle-aged white dudes whose stardom peaked a decade or more hence. And all that’s before we even wade into the controversy surrounding Johnny Depp and whether he should still be being handed these opportunities anyway. Who are the audience that Universal’s pitching the Dark Universe to? And if it isn’t a young audience, then why does this film go so far out of its way to mimic the superhero origin story format that has played so well with a younger crowd?
All that being said, the DCEU has shown us with the recent success of Wonder Woman that a bad start to a cinematic universe won’t necessarily doom all future movies, and it also showed us that the tone (and perhaps scale) of the movies doesn’t have to be consistent across the franchise. The only thing that’s arguably consistent from Batman v Superman to Wonder Woman is some of the visual flourishes (a relatively muted colour palette and that gorram speed-ramping action), and Dark Universe is lucky in that regard because The Mummy doesn’t seem to have anything resembling a distinct visual style to stick with. Let’s us not forget that Bill Condon is directing Bride of Frankenstein. That’s Bill Condon, director of Gods and Monsters, and not some hack screenwriter who failed upwards. We think he’ll be more than capable of putting his own stamp on things.
That does speak to the biggest concern for the Dark Universe, though. It’s all well and good recognising the flaws in The Mummy, but will its own director be able to? Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan will be playing the Kevin Feige role with Dark Universe, and bluntly, based on Kurtzman’s career to date we’re not inclined to trust that he can right this sinking ship. The Dark Universe probably can be saved, but without a healthy dose of self-reflection and a mea culpa or two, we’re not sure that it will.