Not too long ago, there was talk of a new cinematic universe, not from DC or Marvel, but from Universal. Labeled the “Dark Universe,” it was to consist of Universal’s numerous renowned monster properties, including Dracula, Frankenstein and the like. The idea was exciting, but a botched launch between Dracula Untold (which no one ever seemed to want to confirm counted as a Dark Universe installment) and the remake of The Mummy led to the collapse of the concept before it ever really got off the ground.
For a while the Dark Universe lay dormant, buried in a heap of negative reviews for The Mummy. It seemed dead and gone. More recently though there are some signs of life, primarily in the fact that Universal is moving forward with The Invisible Man, with a “new approach” focusing on characters over spectacle and even using a smaller budget. This is actually exactly what a lot of film fans who have been rolling their eyes at overblown CGI action sequences for a decade now want to hear. Perhaps, after an incredibly ugly start, there’s hope yet for the Dark Universe. However, this attempted soldiering on also raises questions about what specifically has been going wrong up to this point.
There are certainly some identifiable problems, some of which – one hopes – will ultimately be noticed, and lead Universal toward getting things right.
The Mummy Was A Bad Idea
Starting a “universe” based on some of the most popular monsters in all of fiction and lore, and kicking things off with The Mummy, always seemed ridiculous. Not only was it a virtual guarantee to be an overblown mess, but the titular character is effectively a cinematic creation – not a legendary monster. This was a fairly obvious problem, and the suggestion in mentioning it is that The Invisible Man shouldn’t represent a Dark Universe reboot so much as a brand new start. It should be the first film in a new endeavor – not a successor to The Mummy (and maybe Dracula Untold, but again, unclear).
People Don’t Know The Characters
Okay, everyone knows who Dracula and Frankenstein are. But do they really? Ask your friend for his favorite interpretation of one of these monsters and you might get any number of ridiculous answers. For Frankenstein, even now, it would be reasonably likely that the Mel Brooks parody wins out. For Dracula, there really isn’t a defining movie, and certainly not one for modern audiences. For The Invisible Man, there’s hardly anything at all modern and noteworthy, save for a themed slot machine game that can be found at some of the UK’s newest sites with casino activity. In fact, the same sites actually have most of Universal’s monsters thanks to a licensing agreement, so maybe this is where most people would really know all of the monsters from. At any rate, this is a problem if Universal is going to be lazy about origin stories. Just because the names are famous doesn’t make it a given that these monsters are truly familiar to audiences. There needs to be a patient, film-by-film approach to really introducing them to entire new generations of potential fans.
A Heroic Lead Is Needed
The only good reason for The Mummy to have led things off may in fact have been that it was meant to establish Tom Cruise as a leading man in the Dark Universe. Rather than focusing wholly on the monster, this film could give Universal its Tony Stark or Clark Kent – a heroic figure to root for at the core of many films to come. Unfortunately, as you’ve gathered by now (or may have known already), the film was a disaster, and so no satisfying lead was established. This is a tricky challenge for Universal, Unless the ultimate goal is to portray the monsters as antiheroes, or even misunderstood heroes, there needs to be a way to work in a heroic, central protagonist who can help to thread the monsters’ tales together and give audiences someone to relate to or look up to.
The Approach Has Been Too Big
It sounds as if this issue has been fixed, given the aforementioned changes being made for the forthcoming adaptation of The Invisible Man. Still, it has to be noted as a problem with the early Dark Universe project(s). Dracula Untold was frankly a ridiculous rip-off of medieval epics, and The Mummy… well, we’ve covered it. Smaller and more thoughtful movies are the way to go not just to get past these early flops, but to separate the Dark Universe from other blockbusters.
The Roles Are Heavy
This issue goes with the idea that people today don’t truly know these characters. But the specific point here is that these are big challenges for actors. Most people can’t even name the actor with the best interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff), and of history’s greatest Dracula portrayals, none are truly iconic. That means Universal is not just asking people to reboot characters, but rather challenging actors to really define these incredibly famous literary characters for what could be decades to come. It should be a challenge serious actors relish, but it is a challenge nonetheless.