We all know that every studio is trying to copy the success Disney has achieved with its massively profitable MCU. Warner Brothers is doing their DCEU; Sony has plans for an expanded “Spider-Verse”, as well as a possible connected film series about Robin Hood and his Merry Men; And Universal is doing their “Dark Universe”. However, as we’re seeing in the last few years, it’s not as easy to create an extended universe as it may seem.
You need someone with a strong vision (like Marvel’s Kevin Feige) to run a cinematic universe. It requires good planning. It took WB/DC four films under Zack Snyder’s misguided leadership to finally get it right with the excellent Wonder Woman. Now, Universal is demonstrating once again that if you don’t have a solid concept, you can’t make a connected universe work.
A while back, the Hollywood Reporter wrote that Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley had announced the company’s new strategy for beating the super heroes at their own game, by turning the horror films into action films. Langley said, “We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies–unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day.”
What was the result of this terrible strategy? The Mummy—which is the beginning of the “Dark Universe”—cost $125 million to make, and another $100 million to market and release worldwide. On it’s opening weekend, it made only $31 million. So far in total, it’s made $178 million worldwide (the domestic total is a mere $62 million) in 3 weeks. This is far below what Universal wanted or needed it to make. It’s also getting awful reviews from the critics.
The lesson here…you need to understand your property in order to give it the correct foresight and planning. If you have a horror franchise, you need to make horror films out of it. Turning horror movies into Marvel-style lite-action flicks doesn’t work. They tried it with Van Helsing (2004) and it didn’t work. They tried it with I Frankenstein (2014) and it didn’t work. They tried it with Dracula Untold (2014) and it didn’t work. Now they’ve tried it with the Mummy and it didn’t work.
Universal has put out a lot of money to gather some big stars to headline their “Dark Universe”. Aside from Tom Cruise, they’ve lined up Javier Bardem as the Frankenstein Monster; Angelina Jolie as the Monster’s Bride; Russell Crowe as Jekyll & Hyde; and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. That’s a lot of high-priced talent to waste if you don’t have a good overall plan for your universe. (There is also supposed to be a Creature from the Black Lagoon movie.) Dracula was originally supposed to be played by Luke Evans, as depicted in Dracula Untold which was conceived as being the start of the “Dark Universe”, but when that film flopped, it was exorcised from the “Dark Universe” completely.
Universal should not try to out-Marvel Marvel. There’s still a market for good horror today, as The Walking Dead proves. What Universal needs to do is to make moody, scary, creepy films about monsters and maniacs killing people. There’s a long-established formula that works for horror. Stick to the formula, Universal. Don’t try to be Marvel. The Invisible man isn’t Iron Man. The Mummy isn’t the Hulk. Get it right and scare us. That’s what we want from these characters.