cinematic universes

What Is Going On With Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’?

The Mummy. Photo: Universal Studios

You may have heard that there’s a new Mummy movie coming out this weekend, though you may not fully understand why. And we wouldn’t blame you: We’re not even a decade removed from the end of the last Mummy cycle, which starred Brendan Fraser and included 1999’s The Mummy, 2001’s The Mummy Returns, and 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Now, the Mummy is back — or at least, a mummy is back — except this time, it’ll be facing off with Tom Cruise and carrying with it the burden of launching an entirely new cinematic universe based around the various monsters in Universal’s stable.

In the heat of the IP gold rush that’s recently gripped Hollywood, it would be easy to overlook just how weird that last sentence is. Universal is going to launch a cinematic universe, currently being referred to as the Dark Universe, that it hopes will rival that of Marvel’s world-conquering constellation of films. And it’s going to do so with classic Hollywood horror characters like the Frankenstein monster (and its bride), the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, and, of course, the Mummy. There are many questions you might ask about this concept, including how it’s all going to connect (Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, seems to be the lynchpin) and why Universal wants to tie all these monsters together (short answer: because it can), but one seems to be the most pressing: Could it possibly work?

Early indicators aren’t rosy. If the Dark Universe is going to get off the ground, it would start with The Mummy, and projections for the film’s opening have been steadily trending downward, from $40 million to $38 million to $35 million. (Early reviews have not been kind, either.) It doesn’t help that Cruise’s movie is competing with Wonder Woman’s second weekend, which has sucked all the air out of the room; while these tracking numbers are far from bulletproof, the safe bet is that Wonder Woman will top the box office for the second weekend in a row.

But to place too much emphasis on the Stateside opening of The Mummy would be to misunderstand Universal’s intentions with the Dark Universe. The signs are all there: in the casting, which has favored older stars like Cruise, Crowe, and Johnny Depp, whose worldwide appeal far outweighs their domestic power; in the choice of IP, which is broadly familiar worldwide but not terribly relevant to an American audience; and in the reported $125 million price point, a large sum, to be sure, but substantially lower than the cost of most studio tentpoles these days, believe it or not.

All of these factors combine to suggest a strange experiment being conducted by Universal, a studio that’s had great success recently with huge franchises that were hits both at home and abroad (Jurassic World, Furious 7) as well as more eccentric and original filmmaking (Split, Get Out). With the Dark Universe, Universal essentially seems to be splitting the difference. It wants to make a movie universe that’s propped up by its shoo-in overseas appeal, pinned to the backs of Cruise and Depp, that also allows it to push and prod the concept in a way that the more disciplined and consistent Marvel can’t. How broad can a cinematic universe be? How many different styles and diverging threads can it accommodate? If The Mummy doesn’t crater the whole enterprise — and that’s no small if — we may be about to find out.

So far, cinematic-universe filmmaking has been relatively conservative. Marvel essentially both invented the form and set the gold standard; its movies are almost comically foolproof as commercial properties at this point, and, even across its sub-franchises, they have a well-honed (some might say anodyne) consistency. While early glimpses of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther suggest that head honcho Kevin Feige could be allowing some individuation, those films are still beholden to the 15 movies that came before them. Elsewhere in Disneyland, we have the Star Wars universe, whose first gesture in the direction of a cinematic universe, Rogue One, felt much more like its subtitle (A Star Wars Story) than it did the war movie it was rumored to be. Warner Bros. has DC, which is showing glimmers of life with Wonder Woman but still has to fix the problem of everything else. And regardless, all of these movies share the same budgetary burden, and subsequent commercial obligations, that keep them from straying too far from the norm.

But The Hollywood Reporter pointed out a distinct quality in what Universal’s attempting here, one that could fundamentally differentiate it from comparable cinematic universes: “What makes Dark Universe intriguing is that — unlike with DC and Marvel — the budgets of the films will range dramatically and could even include low-budget forays. For instance, sources say Universal-based microbudget horror producer Jason Blum has expressed interest in tackling a low-budget monsterverse outing.”

At first glance, this might seem thoroughly beside the point: If they can’t even sell a Tom Cruise–fronted blockbuster, what does it matter if they have a bunch of no-budget horror movies in the offing as well? But if you think about what Universal does have, it makes sense. They have experience turning those small films into hits, as well as the personnel, like Blum, to do so — a fact that no other studio can claim at this moment in time. And, thanks to the looseness of the ties holding this particular universe together, they have the flexibility to play around within it — again, an advantage that no other studio has. And with the Jurassic Park franchise alive and well and the Fast and the Furious series a worldwide force of nature, the Dark Universe doesn’t have to be the biggest, or even second-biggest, moneymaker in the stable.

If the writers room that Universal convened to break the Dark Universe — which reportedly included writers like Noah Hawley and Men in Black writer Ed Solomon — can come up with enough good ideas that make use of this open-ended structure, and guys like Blum can bring quality directors into the fold who can operate with freedom, we could see something halfway between a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a serialized drama like The X-Files: a series of films that riff on a similar theme, mood, or motif, but still contain an overarching framework and characters.

Of course, to accomplish this, a few things would have to happen. Universal would have to avoid becoming too bound to the constrictions of big-budget, indistinct franchise filmmaking that characterizes so much of what’s made for a worldwide audience, while still making a majority of their revenue from that audience; two, they’d have to skirt the temptation of connecting these films too rigidly or linearly, a move that would undermine the potential of such flexibility; and three, they’d need to make some good movies that generate the kind of buzz Wonder Woman is currently producing for DC.

One further advantage of their situation is that there’s no reason why Universal couldn’t give a platform to female filmmakers and filmmakers of color, a major weakness of the other studios and cinematic universes, and an easy, not to mention worthwhile, way of differentiating theirs from any others. Get Jordan Peele into the Dark Universe and instantly it becomes a much more interesting concept.

After all, Universal also has proof that the conventional way doesn’t work. The studio has spent over a decade trying to revive the Universal Monsters brand, with Van Helsing in 2004, The Wolfman in 2010, and Dracula Untold in 2014, and none of them really moved the needle, though Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing did respectable business worldwide. (Not coincidentally, it was the most star-focused of the bunch.) Cruise and Depp may be bigger stars than Benicio Del Toro and Luke Evans, who anchored the most recent monster movies, but people aren’t going to see these movies purely because of the subject matter.

So: Can it work? Quite possibly, despite the less-than-smooth first steps. Will it? That’s up to Universal. Although it’s far easier to profess an interest in taking risks and pushing boundaries than it is to do so, the studio has earned some credibility from what it’s been able to accomplish over the last couple of years, particularly with its Blumhouse films — and, at least based on the rhetoric, it’s certainly aiming high with this one. But Hollywood is becoming increasingly littered with the bodies of nascent cinematic universes that thought they could turn any old IP into an endlessly perpetuating gold mine. (R.I.P., those planned Pan sequels.) If Universal doesn’t tread wisely, there’s plenty of room for another headstone.

What Is Going On With Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’?