How the Dark Universe died – and sort of came back to life

Dark Universe
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The Invisible Man finally sees Universal’s classic monsters project on a forward path: but the Dark Universe nearly scuppered it all.

With the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no major Hollywood movie studio that hasn’t looked at it and tried to recreate that model. Warner Bros got its DC and LEGO movies going, Paramount was toying with Transformers and Hasbro titles in a bigger universe, Sony set up, abandoned, and set up again its Spider-Man spin-off world, and the already-missed Fox was making X-Men films left, right and centre.

But no attempt to follow the Marvel formula rose and fell quite as quickly as Universal’s, with its hugely ambitious Dark Universe plans. This, on paper, had some logic. The studio’s catalogue of classic monster movies is enviable, and as a consequence, a connected world of the likes of The Mummy, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Frankenstein – to name but a few – must have looked rather tasty on the Powerpoint presentation.

It would be fair to say that Universal did not go into this venture lightly. Even before one film had been released, we had a fancy fanfare, and a logo, and composer Danny Elfman coming in to do a bit of music for it all. And then, infamously, an image was released featuring Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp. These would be some of the stars of the Dark Universe.

This was the video that Universal released to launch the Dark Universe…

And here’s that group shot.

All of this was released in May of 2017. And then, that same month, came the premiere of the much-hyped The Mummy.

Alex Kurtzman directed the film, Tom Cruise took the lead, and box office success was expected. And – appreciating this isn’t the narrative that tends to be reported – it followed too. The movie grossed over $400m worldwide. Admittedly expectations were a little higher, and the film had cost close to $200m to actually make. But still: this was no box office flop.

But it was certainly a critical one. More than that, it wasn’t just critics who were grumbling about the movie. The audience for the film didn’t seem much more impressed either. In much the same way that Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes movie was a commercial hit in 2001 but managed to endure such a fan backlash that sequels were abandoned, so Universal knew it was in trouble with The Mummy. Reports splashed online quickly about the influence of its star on the production – that were denied, but still added to the negative narrative – and much attention was on Russell Crowe’s appearance in the film, in a role that felt like a blatant trailer for a completely different Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde film.

Even to get this far, Universal had papered over an earlier movie. In effect, 2014’s Dracula Untold was actually the genesis of the Dark Universe, but that didn’t have the posh logo and the press push to go with it. With The Mummy, though, Universal needed a springboard for its future film plans.

It did not get one.

And that was a problem. Already dated by that point was the next adjoining film in the Dark Universe, Bride Of Frankenstein. Dreamgirls and Beauty & The Beast director Bill Condon was set to take that film on, with Angelina Jolie linked with the title role. Furthermore, Universal set a release date of February 14th 2019, 18 months after the wide release of The Mummy.

The studio had also weaved in a central narrative about an organisation called the Prodigium. Russell Crowe was set to be the glue there, given that the group was being led by Dr Henry Jekyll. But elsewhere, plans were being formed for The Invisible Man with Johnny Depp. Jeff Pinkner and Will Beall were being linked with a script for Creature From The Black Lagoon. A new Van Helsing had attracted the pens of Jon Spaihts, Eric Heisserer and Dan Mazeau (with rumours linked Channing Tatum to the role). Aaron Guzikowski and David Callaham were assigned The Wolf Man (Dwayne Johnson was mentioned for that one). Films of Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera were being discussed.

Universal allocated space on its lot for the Dark Universe project. Alex Kurtzman and Fast & Furious scribe Chris Morgan were overseeing the stories. Full steam ahead.

Russell Crowe in a scene from the first teaser trailer for the movie The Mummy. Supplied by Universal Pictures.

But The Mummy hit the studio hard, and the fallout was pretty fast. By November of 2017, The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece suggesting that those Dark Universe offices were empty. Bride Of Frankenstein had stalled over script problems. And both Kurtzman and Morgan had quit the Dark Universe project. Films were quietly mothballed. Angelina Jolie dropped away from Bride Of Frankenstein, and whilst it’s still on the roster somewhere, it’ll now be a completely independent film from the others.

And so will every other upcoming classic monster film from the studio.

Because, in fairness to Universal, there was no prolonged autopsy here. It figured the game was up. It saw everyone – notably Sony and Warner Bros – who had attempted to launch a cinematic universe of their own hitting major problems. And the course correction was quick.

It avoided the temptation to double down, and the fruits of the new approach land in cinemas this week. The studio figured that, rather than trying to force a universe and its encompassing narrative on a series of films, it’d go back to filmmakers. Producer Jason Blum – who has an overall deal with the studio – was one of the first on speed dial. Would he be interested in a more filmmaker-driven slate of films, based on Universal classic monster properties?

As it happened, he would. This was even before the staggering success of the Halloween reboot that he oversaw for the studio, that itself has birthed two upcoming sequels. He, instead, reacted to a pitch from Upgrade director Leigh Whannell for a new take on The Invisible Man that wasn’t a traditional classic monster film at all. Rather, it’s a film that takes the ingredients but does its own thing. It’s immeasurably better than The Mummy as a consequence, and was made at a fraction of the cost. Furthermore, two and a half years after the Dark Universe launched, the logo and fanfare is nowhere to be found.

Instead, there’s a slate of independently-developed films. Condon’s Bride Of Frankenstein remains one of them, but also, Paul Feig has had a pitch accepted for Dark Army. Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher is said to be making Renfield, whilst Elizabeth Banks will direct The Invisible Woman. A Monster Mash movie is also said to be on the slate. None of these films, though, has been deemed ready enough to earn a release date as of yet. And that’s a nice statement of intent as to how Universal is treating these films.

A universe, after all, has to be earned. Forcing films into a structure and a schedule, when the underlying building work hasn’t been done, is a ridiculously high risk strategy, and one that puts the individual films too far down the priority list.

The nimbleness and open mind of Universal, though, seems to have salvaged the idea. It’d be impossible to rule out, at some point in the future, links between the films. Heck, I wouldn’t rule out The Invisible Man getting a sequel. But the difference this time is that it would have been filmmaker-generated, as opposed to fired from the top down, courtesy of a posh Powerpoint presentation in a no-doubt lavishly kitted out boardroom. It’s little surprise that the first fruit of the new approach has been a notable improvement. And early signs are that the box office won’t disappoint either.

Who knows: with the exception of Marvel’s ongoing work, the idea of launching new cinematic universes might just have been consigned – for the time being at least – to the Hollywood recycle bin.  And how’s that for a classic monster coming out on top for a change?

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