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Let’s talk for a second about “cinematic universes.” The idea of cinematic universes is a pretty new concept for most general audiences, but it actually finds its origins with the so-called Universal Monster Cycle.
This was a collection of films produced in the ‘30s and ‘40s by Universal Studios and are considered the first major horror hits of the talking picture era. Basically, our universally held conceptions of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman all come from these movies, and they all ended up sharing continuity with each other.
The big reason for this was that aside from being owned by the same studio, each of the monster movies had a unique style while still fitting together as a cohesive whole. That’s always been the secret of the cinematic universe, and now, 85 years later, Universal seems to have forgotten it as they return to this particular well with 2017’s The Mummy.
In all Hollywood horror history, I don’t think there’s been a more bizarrely difficult property than The Mummy franchise. The original Mummy, released in 1932, was Universal’s third entry into the horror genre and, interestingly, one of their least successful. The film’s received a lot more admiration now for more or less inventing “mummy horror” as a subgenre, but at the time it was nowhere near as successful as 1931’s double barrel blast of Dracula and Frankenstein.
Speaking of, give The Mummy’s place as the genesis point of mummy fiction a lot of its elements ended up borrowed from Dracula, both the 1931 film and the original novel. The director was the cinematographer on Dracula, and the story embraces the reincarnated love story from Braham Stoker’s original novel.
Most of this ended up cannibalized when Universal elected to do a sequel in the style of a pulp adventure movie with light horror elements. This spawned a whole string of follow-ups, including a crossover with comedians Abbot and Costello, as well as a handful of remakes from Hammer Horror Studios in the ‘60s.
The next remake from 1999 doubled down on the pulp adventure styles though with a greater nod towards the horror origins than most of the Universal sequels. Despite being a big hit, the ’99 film was something of a franchise non-starter given the decreasing returns of the 2 sequels, the failure of the Scorpion King spin-off, and the way everyone forgot they had a TV show. Now Universal is looking to give the Mummy another shot in this new blockbuster landscape of sagas and shared universes with a glossy, flashy action flick full of continuity, crossovers, and big stakes.
Based on the trailer we’ve been presented with the plot seems to surround a US Army expedition led by Tom Cruise to dig up some ancient mummy tomb and ship the sarcophagus to London for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Because this is a movie, the mummy tomb at hand is cursed, and the plane goes down, presumably with the evil mummy now free to wreak her vengeance upon the modern world for plundering the tombs of her people. That’s a decent-ish plot for a movie even if it’s a little too far into the realm of Syfy Channel original feature for my taste. Where the bigger red flags emerge is how this will fit into some kind of expanding the monster universe.
I understand the knee-jerk impulse from Universal to view its monster films now as inverse superhero movies. Origin stories of super-powered beings with highly varied origins that also involve some kind of doomsday device, a ticking clock, a sky portal, and a disposable CGI army only with the beings as evil rather than good. The big problem with this outlook is that it completely misses why these characters were interesting or lasting in the first place, to say nothing of how much it fails to grasp what actually works in the Marvel formula.
Firstly, forcing a horror character into a superhero formula only serves to dilute the elements of the horror subgenre that made them unique. The Mummy works as a monster cause it brings with it a mass of iconography and aesthetic trappings. I will grant that those trappings are based on a horror version of Egyptian myth, but they’re at least more unique than dropping us into “exotic London.”
What’s more, monsters don’t work as Marvel heroes because you end up with a split in cool characters and main characters. If Iron Man had been the same movie but Tony Stark and Iron Man were two entirely different people it wouldn’t have worked at all, and that’s where The Mummy seems to be headed, especially with the Tom Cruise casting.
We were always going to be saddled with a dull dope to schlep around with while waiting for the title character, much like 2014’s abysmal Godzilla, but by making this an action adventure film, it’s going to get so much worse. In a horror movie, the waiting is the selling point- the build up to the monster is the high of anticipation that makes horror movies great.
In an action adventure movie, the waiting for the title character just becomes a tedious slog as we mark time with boring nobodies in between the money shots. Universal’s answer to this seems to be making Cruise more of a damsel in distress to the evil Mummy, with it being pretty clear that she used her mummy magic to bring him back to life after that plane crash from the trailer.
While that’s an interesting, I pitch I do hope it doesn’t mean we’re going to have to keep Tom Cruise around for when/if Universal makes it House of Frankenstein or whatever they call their team-up film. Going back to the Avengers comparison, because it’s the only reason Universal is doing this, the reason Marvel tends to pack their films with unknown actors rather than movie stars is that it keeps them free for their multi-film shooting schedule. But if Universal wants to pack their movies to the gills with big stars it’s going to be a long wait between adaptations.
Speaking of other stars, we’re also getting a decent look at Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll in this trailer. I’m not sure if they’re going to have him already develop his evil formula or not, but I do like the looks of this. Russell Crowe is one of those actors who’s at his best when he’s allowed to just have fun and kind of play around, like in Man with the Iron Fists or The Nice Guys and that seems to be the case here.
I do wonder how he knows about the Mummy and what his “gods and monsters” line is about. If Universal is sticking with all monsters as bad guys the logical conclusion is that someone is probably using passably human monsters like Jekyll to assemble a legion of monsters for some nefarious end, presumably that someone being Dracula.
So overall consider me conflicted about The Mummy. I really want to like this as I’m a lifelong fan of the Universal Monsters and the Mummy redesign is pretty cool, but there’s just too many compromises and straight up ideas contained in this trailer for me to really look the other way on.
Obviously we’ve got a ways to go before the movie comes out so there’s still time for a more positive picture to emerge but at this point I do wonder if it even matters. Bride of Frankenstein and Invisible Man are already in pre-production, so if The Mummy ends up a dud like Dracula Untold before it they’ll just use one of those two as the new starting point. It’ll just be pretty disappointing that we had to shell out for Universal’s 2nd draft of their monsters shared universe.
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