Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ is franchise filmmaking at its very laziest

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Tom Cruise waits for something, anything, interesting to happen in The Mummy.
Image: Universal Pictures

Blame it on Marvel.

Ever since The Avengers proved there was big money in the “shared universe” model, every studio’s tried to launch their own, with varying degrees of success. The latest attempt kicks off with The Mummy, the first in a whole “Dark Universe” of interlocking movies.

Too bad it’s freaking terrible.

The Mummy is the kind of movie critics are thinking of when we complain about the soulless sameness of big-budget blockbusters but without even the saving grace of basic competence. As the scathing reviews and limp box office numbers have made clear, it’s a misfire on just about every level.

While that’d be disappointing enough if it were meant to stand on its own, it’s downright dispiriting when viewed as the first building block in a franchise that Universal is hoping will be their answer to the MCU or the DCEU.

If there’s a silver lining, though, it maybe that The Mummy is so bad it’s perversely kind of useful as a step-by-step guide in how not to build a cinematic universe.

Don’t cast an A-list star if you’re just going to waste him

What kind of movie puts Tom Cruise in a Jake Johnson role?

Image: Universal Pictures

Universal’s strategy for the Dark Universe looks reasonable enough in theory: A-list stars + existing IP = profit. But that equation crumbles very quickly.

Tom Cruise should be The Mummy‘s biggest asset. He’s a household name who’s got charisma in spades, and his daredevil streak spurs him to do things like shoot an entire action scene in zero gravity. Certainly he’s the most famous actor in the cast, which also includes Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, and Annabelle Wallis.

In fact, though, he’s The Mummy‘s most glaring misstep. Cruise is wildly miscast as Nick, starting with his age: Nick seems to have been written for an actor 15-20 years younger than Cruise, who is 55. When Mr. Hyde, played by 53-year-old Russell Crowe, refers to Nick as a “younger man,” it’s unintentionally hilarious and a little bit pathetic.

Cruise fails to pull off the “lovable asshole” vibe that Nick calls for, in part because of the age issue and in part because the character is just thinly written there’s nothing to him but plot mechanics. You know it’s bad when a Tom Cruise role seems like it would have been better suited for 39-year-old Johnson, who is relegated here to playing Cruise’s funny sidekick.

True, Cruise is likely to sell more tickets than Johnson, particularly in international territories. But The Mummy needs more than a strong opening weekend it needs to be appealing enough to make fans return for sequels and spinoffs. In that light, The Mummy‘s decision to waste an actor of Cruise’s caliber (and price tag) in a role that’s clearly wrong for him is especially baffling.

Don’t lose sight of your vision

Even The Mummy’s highly touted zero-gravity stunt is totally unmemorable.

Image: Universal Pictures

Then again, maybe it wasn’t always obvious Cruise was bad for The Mummy, because it wasn’t always obvious what The Mummy was supposed to be. If anyone, at any point, ever had a clear vision for The Mummy, it’s been muddled beyond recognition on the way to the screen. What remains is a hodgepodge of tones, influences, and concepts halfheartedly tossed together and poured into a generic blockbuster mold.

It’s a given that Universal Pictures was hoping the Dark Universe would make them lots of money. What’s harder to see is what else the studio thought this franchise would do. Did they have something to say about monsters or humans or the concept of evil? Did they want the Dark Universe to be funny, or scary, or exciting? Were they hoping moviegoers would fall in love with the characters, or get drawn into the mythos, or be wowed by the stunt work?

The Mummy hits at a time when Wonder Woman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword are all still in theaters. What was supposed to make The Mummy stand out in that landscape? Why should a moviegoer choose The Mummy over any of those?

I don’t have a good answer for that question, and I’m not sure Universal does either. The Mummy isn’t be the worst would-be tentpole in recent memory, but it’s one of the least inspired. Put it this way: even Suicide Squad had a clearer vision, as ugly and sloppy as it was.

Don’t assume audiences love all existing IP equally

Loved the old Mummy movies? Here’s a totally different Mummy who has nothing to do with those!

Image: Universal Pictures

Universal may not have known what they wanted to do with The Mummy, but they definitely knew the property had made money for them in the past. It’s been part of the studio’s stable since the 1930s, and although the Brendan Fraser films of the 1990s and early 2000s weren’t universally acclaimed, they’ve picked up a devoted following over the years.

But if they thought the popularity of past Mummy movies would translate into financial success for this one, they were wrong.

The Mummy isn’t like Batman or Spider-Man it’s not the kind of brand-name character so beloved that it’s guaranteed to draw in moviegoers no matter what. Even if it were, that wouldn’t necessarily help 2017’s The Mummy, since this version of the monster has little in common with the other versions of the monster. (For starters, she is a princess, not a male priest.)

Universal isn’t the only studio prioirtizing existing IP over original concepts, and it’s true that a familiar brand name can make an expensive movie an easier sell. But even the strongest brand names have to earn the audience’s affection, especially if they’re hoping to lure them back for sequels.

Just ask Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed, which bombed in the U.S. last year despite being based on massively popular games. Or, conversely, look at how the incredible buzz generated by Star Wars: The Force Awakens has translated into excitement for Rogue One and The Last Jedi, even after the disappointment of the prequel trilogy.

The Mummy, on the other hand, seems to assume that the combination of Tom Cruise and a vaguely familiar title will be enough. It doesn’t really try to do anything original with the property, or even to remind people why they liked the old Mummy movies in the first place.

Don’t prioritize the franchise ahead of the movie

What are you even doing here, Russell Crowe?

Image: Universal Pictures

If The Mummy doesn’t spend enough time trying to sell you on The Mummy, though, it spends way too much time trying to set up the Dark Universe.

To be fair, not all of The Mummy‘s faults can be chalked up to its position as the first in a franchise. It’d be incoherent and dull even if it were meant to serve as a standalone film. But references to Prodigium and Dr. Jekyll don’t make The Mummy more fun. They just add more complications to an already unnecessarily convoluted plot.

Dark Universe is trying to borrow a page from the Marvel playbook by launching an interlocking universe of marquee characters. But Marvel was wise enough to realize that filmgoers wouldn’t return for Iron Man 2 or Captain America or Thor unless Iron Man was strong on its own, and to realize that each individual component had to be interesting enough to make audiences curious to see them together.

The Mummy spends a lot of time and energy establishing Prodigium for the sake of future films, when it would’ve been better off using those resources to make The Mummy a better movie. It’s not enough to promise moviegoers that the two hours of movie they just sat through will pay off in another year or two or three, when the sequel arrives. They have to pay off now, so that moviegoers will have faith they’ll pay off even bigger dividends later.

Don’t announce a gazillion movies before the first one works

*exhausted sigh*

Image: Universal Pictures

Oh, and on a related note: Maybe don’t give audiences the opportunity to suffer franchise fatigue before the franchise even properly gets going.

In the weeks leading up to The Mummy‘s release, Universal announced the launch of Dark Universe with much fanfare. A press release included a glossy photo of the leads, and the film itself was prefaced in theaters by an animated logo and a theme song meant to make clear that, yes, you are witnessing the birth of the Dark Universe franchise. In retrospect, that feels more like a threat than a promise.

What’s especially mind-boggling about this latest misfire is that this isn’t even the first time in recent memory that Universal has tried and failed to reboot their classic horror properties.

Before The Mummy, 2014’s Dracula Untold was intended to kickstart a shared universe of Universal monster movies. The studio was so adamant on making it happen, in fact, that a new epilogue was shot to facilitate Vlad’s entry into that franchise. After the film flopped, however, Universal quietly repositioned The Mummy as the start of the Dark Universe, erasing Dracula Untold from that continuity.

Why, then, did Universal think half-assing the Dark Universe again would be good enough?

You may have forgotten about Dracula Untold, Universal, but we haven’t.

Image: Universal / Legendary / Michael de luca productions

Presumably, Universal believed that announcing the Dark Universe before The Mummy even opened would project confidence: here is a movie so good, the studio’s ready to go with a bunch of others before the first one is in theaters!

But at a time when every big-budget movie is touted as having “franchise potential,” there’s nothing special about that. Instead, the Dark Universe announcement feels like putting the cart before the horse. Frankly, it’s exhausting to consider the prospect of four or five or a dozen more of these leaden, unimaginative films.

There’s still time for the Dark Universe to turn things around. Maybe the next film (2019’s Bride of Frankenstein) will be good enough to wash out the bad taste left behind by The Mummy. Perhaps Frankenstein or The Invisible Man will bolster the brand even further, so that in a few years’ time, The Mummy will look like an unfortunate anomaly for an otherwise excellent franchise, rather than a prime example of its creative bankruptcy.

But all of that can only happen if Universal takes to heart the lessons it needs to learn from this latest failure. And winning moviegoers will be that much harder now that we’ve already been let down once by The Mummy.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/06/12/the-mummy-dark-universe-franchise/

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