Blowing up the universe

Blowing up the universe

By: Thomas Sweet

Over the last ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown from a single post-credits scene after 2008’s Iron Man to a media juggernaut. And whenever there’s success, there are always people trying to get some for themselves.

Recent years have seen lots of other ‘cinematic universes’ announced or planned, with varying degrees of success, but few have publically crashed as hard as Universal’s Dark Universe. On paper it sounds great – take Universal’s beloved monster franchises, give them a modern coat of paint, and let them loose on each other. In practice, it fell apart after one film, but why did the Dark Universe fail, and is the ‘cinematic universe’ concept even viable outside of Marvel’s productions? 

In 2014, Universal released Dracula Untold, which starred Luke Evans as Dracula, and serves as an origin story for the character. In this version, when medieval Transylvania is threated with invasion, Evans’s Dracula is tempted into infecting himself with vampirism by Charles Dance’s mysterious Ancient Vampire, only to succumb to the dark power of the affliction.

The problem with Dracula Untold is that it’s deeply average and unremarkable. Though it whips along at a nice, entertaining pace, there’s little to make the film stick in the viewer’s brain after the credits have rolled. Nevertheless, Universal had announced the Monster Universe franchise earlier in 2014, and the ending was reshot to offer potential connections to future films. An epilogue was added, with Dracula in the modern day, followed by the Ancient Vampire who ominously ends the film by declaring, ‘Let the games begin’.

Although critics were largely lukewarm towards Dracula Untold, it was a box office success. With a healthy profit and an obvious sequel hook, it would be reasonable to expect that Luke Evans would be reprising the role, if not in Dracula Untold 2, then a future instalment of the Monsters Universe. During the promotion of the film, the producers talked about this version of Dracula appearing in the new cinematic universe – even the back of the DVD refers to it as a ‘rebirth’ of the Universal Monster series.

Then, in 2017, The Mummy happened.

Despite the repeated assurance that Dracula Untold was the first instalment of the newly renamed Dark Universe franchise, Universal decided to change tack during production of The Mummy. Now, Dracula Untold was ‘non-canon’ to the Dark Universe, and had no connection to future projects using that setting. It’s not entirely clear why – Dracula Untold was financially successful, and Universal hasn’t announced any other Dracula films, or even a recasting of the role, so why couldn’t Dracula Untold fit into this cinematic universe? 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk feels a little awkward in hindsight, given that it’s a soft reboot/sequel to a film that isn’t part of the same franchise, and that Edward Norton only played the role of Bruce Banner for one film before being replaced by Mark Ruffalo. Despite these issues, Marvel has tried to slot the film as smoothly into their film canon as possible, rather than ignoring it. So why couldn’t Universal do the same for Dracula Untold? With this change of direction, Universal producer Alex Kurtzman began hyping up the Dark Universe project. After the Tom Cruise Mummy film, they had plans for an Invisible Man film starring Johnny Depp, a Frankenstein film starring Javier Bardem, and a wish list for a star studded series of projects in this interconnected series of monster films. Then The Mummy lost 95 million dollars at the box office.

Critics tore into The Mummy, and not enough people went to see it to gather back the film’s high production and marketing costs. Universal quickly announced that future Monster movies had been delayed or cancelled, with Alex Kurtzman leaving the Dark Universe. Before release, IMAX had accidentally uploaded a trailer to YouTube with the music and sound effects missing – which now seems like a fitting metaphor for the film itself.

The frustrating thing is that a cinematic universe based around the classic Universal Monsters isn’t a terrible one. Even though they didn’t invent Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster, the 1930s and 40s versions they created have had a massive impact on pop culture. Who do people always imitate when do a Dracula impression? Bela Lugosi. Even though Universal’s take on Frankenstein is very different to the original novel, the ‘bolts in the neck’ version played by Boris Karloff is the one you see drawn on Halloween decorations. For many people, the Universal Monsters are the definitive versions of these characters.

The original Monster cycle been had what could be seen to be a proto-shared universe, with crossover and team up films and the same actors playing roles in multiple films, even if they weren’t interconnected like modern cinematic universe. Therein lies a big issue with the Dark Universe – what do these films gain from being interconnected? Would a remake of Creature of the Black Lagoon really gain anything from including references to a remake of The Bride Of Frankenstein?

The reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been successful is because of the plot threads that have been woven throughout the films. After the setting and characters were established, subsequent films built and developed the setting, with the quest for the Infinity Stones providing a narrative backbone that peaks in Avengers: Infinity War, mimicking how comic books serialise stories. What clear narrative endpoint would the Dark Universe have? Having Tom Cruise look at a room full of references to other potential films isn’t world building, it’s set dressing. Remember at the end of Predator 2, there’s a shot of the Predator’s trophies, and one of them is the skull of a Xenomorph from the Alien films? Was that meant to be the start of a cinematic universe? No, it was the prop department amusing themselves. But from that seed of an idea came the Aliens versus Predator franchise that flourished in comics, books, video games and later, film – it grew organically, rather than being forced and planned.

Legendary Entertainment have announced a project similar to the Dark Universe with their MonsterVerse cinematic universe - the difference being that they focused on making a good Godzilla film and an entertaining King Kong film first and foremost, rather than focusing on franchise building. There’s a scene that links Kong: Skull Island to the 2014 Godzilla film, but it’s after the credits, and serves as a teaser after the audience has already enjoyed a standalone monster film. We know that Legendary are planning to have this Godzilla and King Kong eventually meet and fight onscreen, but that can wait until there’s a few solo films under their belt, and audiences and critics have responded well to these films not serving merely as extended trailers for possible future sequels. Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island are films first, set-up for a franchise second.

Launching a franchise is hard. Launching a cinematic universe is harder. DC Comics owns some of the most popular characters on the market, but the DC Extended Universe has largely alienated fans and critics alike – Man of Steel and Wonder Woman received praise as standalone movies, but Batman Vs Superman, Suicide Squad and Justice League didn’t fare as well and the future direction of the DC cinematic universe is unclear at this point. Most bizarrely, even Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was meant to be the start of an Arthurian Cinematic Universe, until low ticket sales stopped those plans.

However, the Cinematic Universe concept isn’t dead yet – Hasbro has a cinematic universe based on its old 1980s toy lines in development, alongside upcoming Transformers spin-offs, and Sony is continuing to pursue future Spider-Man projects. But the rise and fall of the Dark Universe provides a cautionary tale – just because you can make a cinematic universe, doesn’t always mean you should. A shared universe shouldn’t be a gimmick, but a key narrative cornerstone on which a franchise is based.

The Dark Universe project might not have succeeded, but it taught studios a valuable lesson: focus on making a good film first – the cinematic universe can wait until after.