Universal's Dark Universe Deserved Better

Like the Edsel, New Coke, and the Virtual Boy before it, and like Quibi after, Universal's Dark Universe has already gone down in the history books as more of the more notorious business fiascoes of all time. For those who weren't paying attention to press releases in 2017, the Dark Universe was intended to be a series of big-budget horror/adventure films, each with an enormous movie star, and each one about a different monster in the famed Universal canon. The series began with "The Mummy," which starred Tom Cruise as a ne'er-do-well tomb raider who runs afoul of an ancient, mummified sorceress (Sofia Boutella), and who ultimately absorbs the mummy's curse, becoming something of a monster himself. The film featured Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who was set be the Nick Fury of this burgeoning cinematic universe. Also planned was a "Bride of Frankenstein" film that was to be directed by Bill Condon and star Angelina Jolie and Javier Bardem. A new version of "The Invisible Man" starring Johnny Depp was also proposed. 

Retrospectively, the 2014 film "Dracula Untold" (in an attempt to redeem its bomb status) was folded into the fabric of the Dark Universe, as that film's Dracula, Luke Evans, made a cameo appearance in "The Mummy." The DU was going to be enormous — a horror version of the MCU. 

After "The Mummy" tanked — and boy howdy, did it tank — everything fell apart. The Dark Universe was immediately scrapped, the project became the subject of widespread mockery, and now the Tweet announcing the DU's presence (which is still at the head of the Dark Universe Twitter account) is shared as ironically as anything with Morbius in it.

But here's the thing: An interconnected monster universe is not a bad idea.

A little background...

The Dark Universe was conceived of by Alex Kurtzman who co-wrote, directed, and produced "The Mummy." Kurtzman had previously worked as a writer on multiple blockbusters ("Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers," Star Trek," etc.), and, the same year the Dark Universe was set to debut, took over all things "Star Trek" over at Paramount+. However one may feel about Kurtzman — he is certainly a Hollywood presence writ large — he has ambitious plans for the enormous pop culture properties he takes on. And while some of his story decisions are baffling (plenty can be said about the sloppy plotting and bad characterization on "Star Trek: Discovery"), his idea to create a Universal Monsters universe is hardly misguided, and, of course, has plenty of precedent, going all the way back to the beginning.

Back in the 1930s, Carl Laemmle Sr., a co-founder of Universal Pictures, was eyeballing retirement. He had worked on hundreds of films, and was raising his son Carl Jr. to take over the business. It was Carl Laemmle, Jr. who convinced his father to look into horror as a potential moneymaker. Carl Jr. had already led the studio into the sound era with great success (1931's antiwar film "All Quiet on the Western Front" was a huge hit for the studio and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards), so Carl Sr. let him run with his monster idea. Carl Jr. oversaw the production of "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Old Dark House," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mummy," "The Invisible Man," "The Black Cat," and "Bride of Frankenstein." In five short years (1931through 1936), horror was altered forever. 

Later added to Universal's monster canon was "The Wolf Man" in 1941. 

Van Helsing: The last time we tried this

The Universal monster characters would interact on the big screen for the first time in Roy William Neill's 1943 film "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," and again in Erle C. Kenton's "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945). When The Creature from the Black Lagoon was added to the canon in 1954, something permanent had finally calcified. Monsters are eternal, and they occasionally hang out. From the 1950s onward, the Universal monsters have all been sold as a family, often lumped together in movie marathons, and usually standing in a circle in neighborhood haunted houses. Everything from "The Monster Mash" to "The Groovy Ghoulies" to "The Monster Squad" (the 1976 TV series and the 1987 movie) to "Hotel Transylvania" have tapped into the innate notion — understood by every five-year-old — that Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein, and his Bride — all live in the same world.

Prior to the Dark Universe, the last attempt to build a high-profile interconnected monster film franchise cane in 2004 with the release of Stephen Sommers' "Van Helsing," a superhero film wherein the titular vampire hunter was transformed into a weapons-wielding combination of James Bond and Batman. Played by Hugh Jackman, Van Helsing teamed up with a freelance badass Anne (Kate Beckinsale) to stop Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) from learning the secrets of eternal life from Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley). The Wolf Man was Dracula's enforcer, and he had Sam Raimi-esque vampire brides as his minions. As fun as that sounds, "Van Helsing" was a bit of an overblown mess, and it did not launch a fresh Universal Monsters universe. While it was not explicitly connected to "Van Helsing," the hope seems to have been an association with Sommers' own Indiana Jones-inflected version of "The Mummy" from five years earlier.

The Dark Universe

The best thing to come from "Van Helsing," by the way, were extensive tie-in DVD reissues of all the original Universal monster films — and all their sequels — compete with new documentaries and commentaries. 

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe calcified with the successful release of "The Avengers" in 2012, many studios rushed to create their own cinematic universes in imitation. Warner Bros' DC Extended Universe was the most closely modeled, and the same studio continued with their expansive "Conjuring" universe. Universal, since they had already kind of invented the notion of cinematic universes, took it back to the beginning with the Dark Universe. This time, however, the films were going to be presented — also like the MCU — as something of a deeply established, superhero-like universe. In "The Mummy," it was made clear that there is already a supernatural CIA-type organizations designed to wrangle monsters for mysterious purposes, essentially creating a S.H.I.E.L.D. for an ever-growing clan of creatures. Dr. Jekyll would anchor it all as the organization's leader. 

It must be said that none of this is a bad idea: Transforming the Universal Monsters into crimefighters or heroes or adventure fodder has been happening on a regular basis since the 1930s, so there was no essential canon being violated. And why not cast some of the biggest movie stars in the world in iconic monster roles? It seemed like a no-brainer. 

The other MCU

The Dark Universe was, of course, openly aping Marvel's model for success, and audiences were savvy to that right away. In calling their project a "universe," it made their imitative ambitions clear, and many looked on the Dark Universe as a risible, pathetic knock-off. A superhero universe where one wasn't appropriate. These attitudes seemed a little unfair as 1. Universal monsters beat the MCU to the punch by 70 years, and 2. The studio was already called "Universal," and could — semantically — lay claim to a "cinematic universe" more easily than Marvel ever could.

In establishing a superhero-like monster universe, the DU cut through a common trope of monster movies: The need to call in an expert to explain monsterhood to an unwitting protagonist. With a DU monster registry, the weapons and experts and lore are already in place, cutting through repeated explanations to, say, what a vampire is or how a Frankenstein works. Audiences know Universal monster movies through mere cultural osmosis. The DU handily cut through narrative knots by establishing a known cadre of monster gatherers. One can't fault them for efficiency. 

Many critics bristled at narrative similarities "The Mummy" shared with the MCU, feeling the nascent DU to be already too derivative. Indeed, "The Mummy" was lambasted for its clunky mythmaking, lack of legit horror, and additional strange rip-offs besides (a scene in "The Mummy" — wherein the Cruise character has a casual bathroom conversation with the mutilated ghost of a fallen friend — mirrors, almost exactly, a scene from John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London"). The film ultimately flopped, communicating openly that audiences didn't want the DU, and the entire thing was discarded. 

All that remains is a totally-not-photoshopped photograph of the DU's intended stars. 

Could it have been saved?

Looking back, it's difficult to picture a world wherein the Dark Universe would have been successful. Too many franchises were eager to jumpstart a cinematic universe rather than slowly establishing one over the course of four years the way Marvel did. Even Scooby-Doo tried to get in on the Shared Universe action with "Scoob!" (2020). All imitators were, well, mere imitators, and the public rejected it out of hand.

A pity, because if any cinematic universe should be allowed to take shortcuts, it's the Universal monsters. With 90 years of cinematic history, and a literary tradition that goes back to Mary Shelley, one can assume affection for these types of characters already lingered in the popular consciousness, even more so than a Batman or a Superman. A high-octane, mayhem-heavy, interconnected Dark Universe — one that culminates with the central monsters teaming up to destroy the world — would have been fun. Well, it sounds fun. 

The DU continued, albeit in an unauthorized fashion. Some retroactively rolled Joe Johnston's 2010 version of "The Wolf Man" into the fold, and others can squint and allow Leigh Whannell's 2020 version of "The Invisible Man" to be included. And, of course, there was Guillermo del Toro's award-winning 2017 Gillman romance "The Shape of Water," as good a modern adaptation of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" as any. 

So while the DU may have burnt itself out, the monsters are going to remain. Sit tight. It's only a matter of time before they try again.