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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Universal Announces Classic Monster Shared Universe

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As a long time fan of shared universes and continuity, there’s a big part of me that wonder show this moment of popularity for those things will look once it’s passed into history.  Obviously, that’s assuming any trend can truly pass away anymore instead of simply going into extended hibernation, but by the same token, the young adult film boom of the mid-2010s seems to have thoroughly wound down, so I guess we’ll see.  

One thing seems fairly sure, most of the shared universes of the day will probably be looked back on with awkward disinterest or surprise, and none among them will garner such a response the same way I suspect the Universal Movie Monster-Verse will. 

In case you hadn’t heard, Universal has decided to revive the brands on their classic monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s to act as a new shared universe, which makes sense given the original films also acted as a shared universe.  These new films will be kicked off by this summer’s The Mummy and are being managed by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman- two of the biggest hacks working in Hollywood right now behind such atrocities as Transformers, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the worst parts of the Star Trek reboot.  

Previously Universal had done a good job keeping this whole idea out of focus but as The Mummy nears and they start worrying about getting the hype machine going they’ve produce a big publicity spread to get people like me talking about it so, yeah; let’s talk about Universal’s Dark Universe.  

Just from the outset let me say this isn’t a terrible idea, but it smacks of terrible execution, as befits Universal.  They’re one of the most inconsistent and mercurial studios operating these days, with their output making up some of the biggest hits and least consistent studio vision across the board.  

They’re the folks behind the hugely profitable Fast & Furious franchise and also managed to land a major moneymaker with 2015’s Jurassic World.  Throw in their success with the Despicable Me franchise, and you can see Universal is making cash hand over fist compared to WB’s floundering to get their act together or Paramount’s continued return to the Transformers well. 

The problem for Universal is that their cash cow, Fast & Furious, is on borrowed time as Vin Diesel is pushing 50 and was never a big fan of the series, to begin with.  As such, they’re eager for something profitable to patch the leaks as they transition Fast & Furious into a Rock/Jason Statham series (yes, that’s happening) and given that Jurassic World could’ve been a fluke they want the Dark Universe to be their new tent pole. 

As far as financial stopgaps go a shared universe is a pretty solid answer, allowing the studio to stagger out production among various inter-connected franchise so they can course correct if need be before the next film comes out.  That way, if The Mummy is a complete flop Universal figures they’ve already got Bride of Frankenstein, starring Javier Bardem as the Frankenstein Monster, in pre-production so they can just alter that to avoid The Mummy’s pitfalls. 

Plus, so far these movies are all promising to produce multiple monsters so even if The Mummy doesn’t do big numbers it could serve a launch pad for Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character into his own film.   This is also why the studio has already scooped up Johnny Depp to play the Invisible Man and has cycled through a slew of writers to hammer out a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake. 

As for the actual structure of the Dark Universe in series that seems to be mostly based around the most tired shared continuity hook, there is: a secret agency.  People love this as a concept for inter-connected films in the same way they love brands and companies because it’s an easy thing to weave into the background and supporting characters.  As such, the big thrust of the Dark Universe will be about the ancient organization that’s tasked itself to defend humanity from the things that go bump in the night, much like SHIELD, the BPRD, Argus, Checkmate, and the order of monks from Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing movie. 

My guess is that the films will contemporize the monsters at hand and blow them into global threats, with the agency collecting a new monster each film along with some recognizable allies like Van Helsing or maybe even the Frankenstein monster.  All of this will probably come to a head in a ‘Monsters Unleashed’ type prison break film where the Mummy, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and whoever else they’ve scraped together breakout of the agency prison to menace the Earth. 

Personally, I’m not terribly enthralled with this set-up, largely because it seems to miss the whole point of rebooting this stuff in the first place.  Aside from ditching the iconic visual design, repackaging these characters as action-adventure franchises with villains culled from old horror movies is the kind of bland and tasteless approach to filmmaking that gave us King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and most of the DCEU.  It’s the mistake of thinking a shared universe needs some kind of house aesthetic that defines the entire line when in reality the whole strength of a shared universe is cobbling together a ton of different genres to keep people from getting bored with any one of them. 

That’s why Marvel was so keen on putting together a whacky sci-fi space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy even though most of their films are set on Earth; same for why they decided they needed a trippy wizard movie in Doctor Strange.  Plus, it’s not like horror isn’t making big bucks these days, the so-called Conjuring universe is cleaning up without costing very much at all. 

It also doesn’t help that the entire Dark Universe feels incredibly sketchy, unsure, and tedious more than anything else.  Johnny Depp was over-exposed before, but now with the added revelations of domestic abuse, he’s gone from distasteful to loathsome, so the promise of more him does nothing but drag the whole concept down.  Javier Bardem, though an impressive perform, has never really fit into the Hollywood structure outside of maybe Skyfall, though the threat of seeing him and Depp reunited after Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is pretty disquieting. 

What’s more, all these peoples; Depp, Bardem, Cruise, Crowe- they’re all big name stars who will undoubtedly be prohibitively busy.  The whole reason studios don’t build universes around massive, pre-established stars is that those actors aren’t as free up for cameos and extended supporting roles.  There’s really no way someone with Depp or Cruise’s shooting schedule is going to be able to fit a role like Robert Downey Jr.’s in Spider-Man: Homecoming into their schedule. 

Then there are the characters that’ve been unaddressed so far, but we know to be part of this.  Here I’m mainly extrapolating from the recent Dark Universe sizzle reel created from old Universal Monster movie footage and announcing a lavish new release of the classics.  Among those but not represented here were The Wolfman, Dracula, and The Phantom of the Opera.  So far a lot of folks have assumed Tom Cruise may be the Wolfman, which would be interesting but I kind of doubt they’re going to cast Cruise as such a CGI-heavy character. 

I’ve been assuming Dracula will be the ultimate bad guy of the series, popping after about 4 for the big crossover where he unites the evil monsters against the good monsters and humans.  Like expect the Bride of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and the Wolfman to join Cruise, who is probably Van Helsing, in locking up Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Gilman just in time for Dracula to show up, free the baddies, and launch it all into a crossover movie somewhere around 2020. 

As for the Phantom, he’s easily the most vexing part of this whole rigmarole.  The Universal movies Phantom rarely appears alongside his fellow creatures not because he’s bad, per say, but because there’s never been a truly definitive film version of this character.  Overall, the romantic musical interpretation of the Phantom looms much larger than any of the more interesting cinematic adaptations such as Robert Englund’s 1989 film or the 1974 musical Phantom of the Paradise.  Honestly, I don’t see how the Phantom could fit into my assumed structure of the Universal horror-verse, but I also can’t imagine a clear structure that would support him outside of what I’ve suggested. 

Really, he feels like an “end of phase 1” character, someone to show up after Dracula and the villain monsters are defeated to raise the stakes and promise that there’s more to come, like Thanos at the end of Avengers.  This concept makes sense, but it raises an interesting problem, which is the fact the Universal Monster brand is actually incredibly limited.  

There just aren’t that many solo film worthy monsters or even characters overall worth bringing into the Dark Universe.  Basically, every one of these movies has to form its own solo trilogy and a couple spin-offs to prove the entire venture profitable in the long term IE over the next 10-12 years.

Of course, that’s assuming all of this actually happens.  Notoriously, this entire pitch was meant to kick-off originally with 2014’s disappointing Dracula: Untold, but when that proved a flop, Universal refigured the whole project.  That’s not to say that that we won’t still see some of these films if The Mummy goes nowhere, more likely they’ll just end up completely changed to try and correct whatever flaw Universal thought brought down The Mummy.  

That’s clearly what’s happened here, Universal looked at Dracula Untold’s approach and decided the hero monster and period setting weren’t working so built The Mummy around doing the opposite.  This is the same method DC has been plying since Man of Steel, which was itself based around answering criticisms of Superman Returns.  If the same pattern holds MAYBE, Universal will have something worth watching on their 4th try, similar to Wonder Woman, but that’s also assuming they don’t just give up on the way there and just make some Jurassic World spin-offs instead.  

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