Why Must Every Film Series Be a Shared Universe?
Before the opening scenes to The Mummy, there is the official logo for the Dark Universe. The format is essentially the black and edgy version of the iconic Universal logo, with giant letters appearing from behind the globe to spell out this new attempt at a Marvel-style franchise for the audience, just in case there were some viewers unaware that the studio was attempting something big here. When I saw the logo for the first time, after Universal released their ensemble photo of the future stars of the franchise, I rolled my eyes. Everything about it felt awkward and uninteresting: Was that really the best title they could think of? Do they honestly think this will entice the masses before the films have even been released? Who is the target audience for this? None of these questions were answered when I actually saw the newest attempt to make this universe happen. Indeed, in the aftermath of The Mummy, a film too boring to even warrant a bad movie night recommendation, it all felt a tad desperate.
Nothing about The Mummy works, bar a couple of good action set pieces most viewers will already have seen in the trailers. It’s a grey slog of a movie, with nothing unique to offer audiences and pacing akin to crawling through treacle. More creative critics than myself have taken the film to task in colourful form for its many failings, but it’s hard to fully convey the depressing pointlessness of the entire affair. The film exists solely to set up several sequels, meaning it is utterly uninterested in being its own thing. No fewer than six writers worked on this shambles and it shows in every scene, as dialogue veers from discarded one-liners from Uncharted to cringe-inducing declarations of vague threat. Nobody can make any of it sound believable, and half the cast don’t even seem to be trying (bless Russell Crowe, who has moved beyond human notions of caring and delivers a “waiting for the cheque to cash” performance as Jekyll and Hyde that veers between bored snooker commentator and roid rage impersonator of Phil Daniels from the Blur song, Parklife). Not even Tom Cruise, one of the most iconic leading men of the past two decades, wants to be here, and that man was in Rock of Ages. After leaving the cinema, yearning for the delights of King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, I couldn’t help but ask how this whole thing got made.
I could probably write “it got made because money” and just leave this here, but there’s more to this disheartening shared universe trend than mere profit. It’s not just Universal either: The ubiquitous Marvel Studios changed the game and now everyone scrambles in their footsteps to strike lightning twice, from Warner Bros. and their misguided establishing of the DCU, to the ever-growing Star Wars franchise, to plans for shared universes including but not limited to Call of Duty, the Hasbro toy world, Valiant Comics, Robin Hood, the Lego animated movies, Universal’s other shared universe including King Kong and Godzilla, and now their Dark Universe.
Studios seem to have a fishbowl memory when it comes to their failures, and no deeper understanding of how success happens beyond the most easily recognised markers of it. The Marvel universe was a massive risk when it was announced, and it took years of work and several films to get to its mammoth state. Those first few movies in the franchise that establish key characters and the foundations of the world weren’t the gargantuan successes the films would become, but they stand on their own two feet as entertaining movies that audiences wanted to see, regardless of the upcoming baggage. Nowadays, there’s real fan fervour for each and every strand of the story, which can be followed from film to film and woven into an expansive narrative, but the earliest films only required the barest hint of that. They were the cherry on top rather than the films’ entire reason for existing.
It’s not the worst idea in the world for Universal to want to capitalise on this trend, and there’s historical precedent for them using their most iconic roster of characters to do so. The original Universal Monster movies often overlapped with one another: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man; House of Dracula, and the Abbott & Costello hijinks, to name but three. These bastions of classic horror cinema that helped Universal dominate the golden age of Hollywood for close to four decades are the most recognisable brand attached to the studio, and they’ve had little to do over the past couple of decades. A few reboots have been attempted, and The Mummy remake starring Brendan Fraser is fondly remembered, but all previous attempts to revive the universe for a new age floundered. Remember Van Helsing and the mega-series it was supposed to kickstart? How about The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro? Then, of course, there’s Dracula Untold, Universal’s original attempt to kick off the Dark Universe, that under-performed so much they’ve just decided to pretend it never happened. Most of these films were greenlit before the prospect of multiple cross-overs and billion dollar box office receipts were the new normal, but even then, there seemed to be little zeal for such stories from audiences.
By today’s standards, the original Universal Monster films can be pretty campy, and it’s hard for some to imagine a time when such stories were fresh and just radical enough to concern the censors. When Tod Browning’s Dracula premiered in the ’30s, there were reports of audience members fainting in shock at screenings. Nowadays, there’s a veritable sea of Draculas, Frankensteins and Mummies, so updates are required, but by adhering to the blockbuster mould of bigger stakes and darker tones, Universal seem determined to strip their characters of all the fun. Fundamentally, the Tom Cruise version of The Mummy, is a movie devoid of fun. It seems allergic to the mere concept of it, and focuses so much on making everything more epic and serious, as if seriousness is the only way a story like this can be legitimised to audiences.
The big money is in these franchises, and it makes sense for any studio to exploit any vaguely recognisable property for all it’s worth. Why make just one movie when you can have 6 or 7 of them all tied together, with the sea of merchandising potential and theme park possibilities that offers? For this Dark Universe, a phrase I still can’t type without wincing, it’s a model that the material is inherently ill-suited to. An action-horror focused Monster Mash franchise that takes itself just seriously enough would probably fare better with audiences, but Universal is so eager to stick to the expected tropes of modern blockbuster film-making that the material can’t help but sink under the pressure. Why must everything be focused on action and explosions when the original story was so effective as a mood-driven thriller? We have so few of those kind of films in the market now, at least from the major studios, and it would be a creative gap for Universal to fill, yet there seems to be no interest in doing so. Why try something new when you can copy what everyone else around you is doing?
Where Universal’s strategy differs from that of other studios is in their investment in the A-List model. The notion of bankable stars who can be guaranteed to bring in the big bucks, regardless of bad reviews or questionable source material, is one that’s losing a lot of steam in the franchise age. Chris Pratt wasn’t the reason Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World made so much money, and even Tom Cruise can’t be entirely relied on to bolster the fortunes of films like Edge of Tomorrow. Signing on to a Marvel movie when you’re Cate Blanchett or Robert Redford probably won’t do much for your own box office potential, but it does offer a nice paycheck and industry goodwill. It seems like every actor of vague repute sooner or later finds their way into a shared universe, and for a long time it seemed that Tom Cruise would be a holdout in the same way someone like Leonardo Dicaprio or even Daniel Day-Lewis are. They don’t need that kind of support, surely? Yet this Dark Universe has gunned hard for major actors with critical and commercial acclaim to sell this experiment to a skeptical market (or at least they’ve done so with the men: Sofia Boutella, for all her wonderful qualities, isn’t on that level). To their credit, they got proper stars for this: Tom Cruise, Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, and that awful Johnny Depp dude. All are playing various classic horror characters, except for Cruise who is too special for such a thing and gets to be the Gary Stu white saviour of The Mummy. Once upon a time, most of these names could make or break a hit. Now, Universal is hoping that power will hold for the next few years.
To the studio’s credit, that strategy is holding water for now. The power of Cruise is keeping The Mummy afloat on the international market, even as reviews range from apathetic to derisive. It’s doubtful that Universal will change their strategy now. There’s too much money riding on this working, even as many audiences roll their eyes at the prospect of future installments (sure, I’ll take a Dark Universe action version of Phantom of the Opera, why not?) Ultimately, this experiment that so many studios are desperate to invest in has a fundamental flaw none of them seem to understand: People may like movies that happen in a shared universe, but that’s not the same as everyone loving the mere concept of shared universe franchises.
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