Film in 2017: Universal’s Dark Universe

SPOILER WARNING: this article contains spoilers for The Mummy (2017) and Dracula Untold

AS mentioned in my last article, shared movie universes are all the rage at the moment, with pitfalls and rewards a plenty. We all should know the story of Marvel, and how it built the MCU, as well as Fox and DC’s subsequent and on-going attempts to mimic Marvel’s success. Likewise, Universal is getting in on the fun with their Dark Universe, a shared universe based on their multiple horror properties, and loosely based on their shared universe of monster films from the 1930s.

The Mummy (2017) was the first formal outing; Dracula Untold, a few years ago, was the original attempt, but a lukewarm reception led to Universal changing their plans, which for the record, is actually a shame. Granted, Dracula Untold was not the greatest version of the classic story, but the way it would have started the Dark Universe was actually much better than what The Mummy did, although props to Universal for outdoing DC in the “let’s get this shared universe going” department.

Background: Dracula Untold was about the man who became Dracula, from the machinations of an older, seemingly eternal vampire tempting him into becoming Dracula, and how his vampirism and humanity clashed. It ended in the modern day, with Dracula meeting Mina Harker, a major character in the Dracula stories, and the older vampire following him, proclaiming that “the games have begun.” In essence, replace Agent Coulson with Nick Fury in the main part of Iron Man, and this is what you get; the main character interweaving the stories is a supporting, but significant, character in the film. However, like stated above, the film is about Dracula, not the original vampire, just as Iron Man focuses on Tony Stark and the people surrounding him, not SHIELD.

The Mummy (2017), on the other hand, is seemingly told from the perspective of Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, who heads the Prodigium, which is pretty much SHIELD, except they fight monsters instead of supervillians and terrorists. Now, don’t get me wrong here: I like this shift, especially in light of Tom Cruise’s “jerk without enough redeeming charm” performance, and Annabelle Wallis’s “d-in-d: damsel in distress” portrayal (although in both cases, future films could let them carry these characters to better places, here’s hoping). Indeed, Crowe’s performance is quite brilliant, balancing the good Jekyll and evil Hyde quite well, and watching him try to suppress his darker half is quite entertaining. However, as the Dark Universe moves forward, the Prodigium should remain as a background element, now that it has been established.

I reference Dracula Untold because of its simplicity. Having one character, who is quite dark, although morally ambiguous for the most part, be the focal point is a solid step. Organizations can be unwieldy to script, as shown with SHIELD on occasion, and Charles Dance’s Master Vampire would have worked brilliantly, on the strengths of the actor, character, and portrayal. Alas, it’s not what we’re getting.

I honestly cannot blame Universal for wanting to get in on the shared cinematic universe pie, especially since the studio had done it before in the thirties. Unlike DC, which could have maintained separate franchises, and eventually done Justice League, but instead rushed into the DCEU, Universal seems to grasp that slow and steady is a solid formula, albeit with the connecting threads firmly established early on. Personally, I think the Dark Universe would have been better served being set in the late twenties, since mysticism and other elements would not have been subject to modern technology, something that detracts from many stories, including The Mummy.

The Dark Universe is in a great position, because even though The Mummy has gotten bad reviews, it was successful at establishing Prodigium, Jekyll as a Nick Fury-type, and the power of the organization. Given that Sofia Boutella’s mummy, whose real name is Ahmanet, is extremely powerful, and Prodigium nearly overpowers her, we can see them becoming an important part of future stories, with the hope that the screenwriters get the organization right of course.

Perhaps the one redeeming element from The Mummy, in terms of its frankly bad characterizations (including the substantial sin of wasting Tom Cruise’s charisma and Jake Johnson’s brilliant comedic talents) is the ending, which actually sees Ahmanet’s plan come to pass, only to backfire on her, in a brilliant reversal of what happened earlier with Prodigium capturing her only for her to break out. Tom Cruise’s Nick becoming an almost godlike being on Earth, seeking to find his humanity and redeem himself, whilst questioning his own nature, sets up future movies brilliantly, as well as providing development for a character denied it most of the movie.

The one hope I have for the Dark Universe is that they bring in better screenwriters to round out the characters, sharpen up dialogue, and tailor characters to the actors playing them better. Ironically enough, I think that Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson would have been better cast in the other’s role, since it would have let Cruise unleash his sense of humor (which he doesn’t showcase enough), and Johnson could have played the overgrown frat boy a lot better. The fact that the screenwriters didn’t take the actors into account during later rewrites is a major concern. However, I do have some faith in Universal. They avoided some of the issues DC faced, and I trust them to address and remedy a lot of the issue plaguing The Mummy going forward.

With any luck, we’ll get a better shared universe with Bride of Frankenstein than we got with Batman vs. Superman.

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About brettryanclu

I reside in California, and I am a graduate from California Lutheran University, where I received my Masters in Public Policy and Administration. I like to write, talk politics, and exchange comments and opinions.
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