Imagine you’re sitting down to watch a Universal monster movie. It starts off normally enough, with the Universal logo flying across the screen—only to be replaced with a new one, for the Dark Universe. This was a message that we were getting the newest mega-cinematic universe. But just as soon as it started, the Dark Universe was over, with only one movie to show for years of work.
The original plan was for Universal to revamp its old properties as an interconnected universe of movies, starring monsters like the Bride of Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Invisible Man. Following the failure of The Mummy, the Dark Universe’s debut, the studio is now focusing on smaller, standalone monster flicks. There’s The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss as the victim of an abusive ex who’s turned invisible, as well as Paul Feig’s Dark Army and a musical called Monster Mash. There are even reports Universal’s trying to revamp Bride of Frankenstein.
On the surface, the Dark Universe’s failure doesn’t make sense. The DU—yes, we’re calling it the DU—was Universal’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It seemed like an easy hit, given the appeal of classic character crossovers like Penny Dreadful and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic, not the movie). There are practical reasons why the DU tanked, but the biggest problem had to do with how this classic horror franchise lost its sense of self in the process. In the end, here are the three reasons why Dark Universe was plagued by monsters of its own making.
To get the full picture, we need to take a step back—into the true history of the Dark Universe.
Universal announced the debut of its monster crossover series two weeks before The Mummy opened on June 9, 2017, with an image teasing the huge cast behind it. It included Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Javier Bardem, and Johnny Depp—with Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars in the world, being the one to kick things off. But that’s not when the DU really started. It began with Dracula Untold.
The first rumblings of a monster movie universe came in 2012. Universal announced it had cancelled the planned fourth film in Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy series, which was going to feature Antonio Banderas as the latest undead monster. Instead, the studio was going to reboot that franchise to jump-start a larger cinematic universe—likely to compete with the MCU. But it had a lot of catching up to do, as Marvel already had six films by that point. So, Universal came up with a hasty plan to bump up its timeline.
Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans, was supposed to be a standalone monster film about the vampire’s origins as Vlad the Impaler. But by 2014, with Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan busy at work building a cinematic world, the studio decided to add this movie to the repertoire. Universal ordered last-minute reshoots to Dracula Untold, adding a modern ending that teased Dracula’s inclusion in the larger saga, with Charles Dance’s Nosferatu-looking dude at the center of it all. It made sense. The studio would be starting things off with a prequel about Universal’s sexiest monster, leading into the modern day with this guy as either a huge villain, or maybe a sort of Nick Fury character. If the movie wasn’t well-received, it could be called a soft opening instead of a full debut. That’s exactly what happened, and then some.
Even though Evans was a decent enough Dracula, this movie was really bad—filled with clunky Jesus metaphors, racist stereotypes, and way too many bats. It certainly wasn’t getting anybody hyped for a cinematic universe. In a last-ditch effort to save the future DU, Universal declared the movie non-canonical, and made it clear in The Mummy that Evans’ Dracula would not be in the franchise by showing a skull that looked way too much like his version of the monster. It was a bad way to kick things off.
All right, let’s unwrap The Mummy, which is considered the official start of the Dark Universe. Right off the bat, this movie was coming in at a disadvantage. People liked the Brendan Fraser series, despite the third film’s less-than-stellar reception—and the terrible choice to recast Rachel Weisz (maybe that’s why the DU was cursed). But lo and behold, Universal was rebooting the series less than a decade after it had ended. But the studio was banking on this version of The Mummy, literally, spending about $345-million to produce and promote it—putting it on par with some of the MCU’s most expensive films.
The movie stars Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, an army guy who steals things, becomes a mummy god, and does cool, unnecessary stunts that cost a lot of money to film—because it’s Tom Cruise. In the film, we’re also introduced to Prodigium, a group of “evil hunters” run by Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Amid all the movie’s issues—the over-emphasis on action and special effects, or the uncomfortable mummy sexualization—lies the problem that put The Mummy straight into its own mercury-lined sarcophagus: Prodigium.
Unlike the way Iron Man handled things, Universal didn’t have time to slowly tease its version of S.H.I.E.L.D because it was playing catch-up to Marvel (The Mummy didn’t even do a post-credits scene). Instead, Prodigium was dumped into the movie as this weird, clumsy side quest that took up way too much time and didn’t actually matter to the plot—feeling forced instead of a natural part of the story.
In the end, The Mummy performed OK at the box office but failed to spark interest in the Dark Universe. Some people said putting it up against Wonder Woman was a mistake. Some put it on general reboot fatigue. Others blamed Tom Cruise, who reportedly exerted a lot of creative control over the film, turning it into another Cruise-y action flick. All of those things may be true, to some extent, but The Mummy seemed doomed to fail before it even came out. Because it forgot what made Universal monster movies work in the first place.
The Mummy and Dracula Untold were Universal’s attempts to turn classic movie monsters into superheroes, but that’s not what audiences want out of Universal monster movies.
For decades Universal’s classic monsters scared audiences, starting in the silent era all the way through the drive-in double features of the 1950s. They weren’t all slam dunks and many of them don’t hold up today, but at the time they were effective. These characters were monstrous, dangerous, sometimes a little bit sexy. But the thing they were most of all was scary. They slowly creeped across the screen, frighting audiences with deliberate jump scares.
Universal had an opportunity to bring these monsters into the 21st century, making them scary for us the way they were for previous generations, but Dracula Untold and The Mummy were just not scary. They chose to forego slow burns in favor of big action scenes. The overabundance of CGI made them feel fake, instead of sticking to practical effects that hold up much better over time. It was impossible to be scared because you knew it wasn’t real. And if you’re not going to make it real, do what Fraser’s The Mummy did and at least make it funny.
The studio has abandoned its plans of competing with the MCU, in favor of more experimental Universal monster films. But it’s too late for the Dark Universe. Years of work gone, millions of dollars wasted. All because Universal tried to do something outside of its comfort zone, without realizing that staying in the haunted house would’ve actually been a lot safer.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.