Will The Mummy Send Universal’s Dark Universe Back to the Shadows?

by Nick Banks

As detailed by HNN’s John Evan’s on FridayThe Mummy’s (2017) abysmal critical reception led to a domestic financial disaster at the box office with an estimated $32.2 million in ticket sales, amounting to a lot less than the average Pharaoh’s treasure.  While the studio is trumpeting the global box office as a “victory” with an estimated $141 million so far, The Mummy’s domestic reception could not have been worse for a film that was supposed to usher in a “new age of god’s and monsters.”

How much effect this opening film impacts the unveiling of “The Dark Universe” brand is yet to be seen, but Universal can’t be happy with the results so far.  How bad was this opening?  Every modern Mummy film (four films in total) from Universal performed better at the box office, going back to the original reboot in 1999 ($43.3 million) and even including the last entry in the cycle, 2008’s  Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ($40.5 million).  Yes, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (with a “Tomatometer” score of 12%) scored more cash in its opening weekend than the Tom Cruise starring feature that opened this weekend (let it sink in a bit…)

How did it go so wrong?  Many hardcore Universal Monster fans were worried from the start when the initial trailers seemed to be heavy on action and CGI and seemed to cut a lot closer to the recent Brandon Fraser films rather than Karl Freund’s original film.  This, coupled with the fact that director Alex Kurtzman had only one directing credit to his name in the form of 2012’s People Like Us and no familiarity or experience with horror projects as a screen writer or producer, made many fans cautious of the film.  When the reviews were released, and many of the greatest fears of “Monster Kids” everywhere were confirmed, ticket buyer stayed away in droves.

Kurtzman recently downplayed the importance of his film as a franchise starter in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter stating that  “…variety is going to be our good friend when it comes to the evolution of Dark Universe. You obviously want to set a somewhat consistent tone, so that people know what to expect when you see these movies, but it would be ideal for each movie to have its own identity, which is largely going to be dependent on who is directing the films and who is starring in the films. I’m really excited to see what Bill Condon does with Bride of Frankenstein.”

Kurtzman even went so far as to share his excitement about the film’s reception overseas, claiming that “I’ve just been on the tour, I’ve traveled all around the world and I’ve heard it play in different countries, and one of the most satisfying thing for me is hearing audiences reactions. That’s what you make the movie for. To hear the gasps, to hear the laughter, to hear the jump scares, to hear all of those things playing. That’s the moment it all comes together, it’s the moment you go it was all worth it for this sound. I look forward to that. If there’s a great opportunity again that comes up where I feel connected to the character, I’ll happily dive in.”  Although Kurtzman remains as the lead producer and developer of the Dark Universe, with the reception of this film by fans and critics alike, it seems like a risk to invite him to direct another film in this series.

In moving forward, hopefully Universal will learn from their mistakes and follow “the Marvel Way” when it comes to building a cinematic universe. In looking back at how they became the leading power house when it comes to super hero fare, they did it slowly and without the real expectations or announcement of elaborate plans when Iron Man was originally released.  A lot was riding on the film, but they did not announce a series of seven or more films right out of the gate either.  They took time to develop the brand and “house-style” before embarking on their conquest of the cinematic world.  Marvel also knew how to play “money ball” and hired low cost directors and new or down-on-their luck stars (ala Robert Downey Jr.) that showed that they had talent, but did not yet have the clout or track record to demand large salaries.

Since Universal has already blown their opportunity to follow in Marvel’s more measured foot steps, they may be able to take some notes from Marvel’s rival: DC.  Like Universal, DC started out with grandiose plans and a long list of films in development in an effort to “hit the ground running”.  Well, DC/Warner Brothers certainly hit the ground, but they were not necessarily running with the critical reception to Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  While reviewers panned the films, they did make money due to huge opening weekends and a fan base that was looking for spectacle more than quality at the cinema.  The financial success of both films allowed for the company to stay the course and produce a critically and financially successful one in the form of Wonder Woman.  Even though some overzealous fans want to enshrine Wonder Woman in the halls of Olympus just for the fact that it resembles an actual film when compared to B V. S or Suicide Squad, the adventures of DC’s long-time heroine was a success because they hired a competent director (Patty Jenkins), a photogenic star that closely resembled the title character (Gal Gadot), and little to no connection to the first two films in the DC cinematic universe.  Whether this trend continues with Justice League in November remains to be seen, but if Justice League follows the previous pattern established by the original DCU films, critics will certainly be pointing to what Wonder Woman did right (and differently) than the majority of the films in this collection.

Wonder Woman is also playing to a much older and varied audience than DC’s first attempts at bringing their world-famous characters together, something that Universal should absolutely take note of.  Like Wonder Woman, Universal’s monsters also have a diverse fan base, with almost 90 years of recognition, and appealing to older and wiser fans is never a bad idea when it comes to making and marketing films. Going forward, the studio would be smart to downplay any connections to the current Mummy film and instead appeal to the essence of the old films (atmosphere, dread, make-up effects, etc.) with a modern twist.

Let’s all hope that Universal Studios learns from their mistakes and helps deliver a competent Bride of Frankenstein unlike The Mummy which left audiences and the studio “in the dust”.  If not, we may all have to say goodbye to Universal’s attempted “Dark Universe”.

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