The Mummy was a misstep; can the Dark Universe franchise make an impact?
The year was 2008. A pre-Sherlock Holmes and Tropic Thunder but post-recovery Robert Downey Jr., fast on his comeback trail with amazing roles in severely-underrated movies such as Scanner Darkly and Zodiac, was roped in to play the titular superhero character aka Tony Stark in the Jon Favreau directed Iron Man.
I’ll be honest — up until then, Favreau for me was Monica Geller’s multi-millionaire boyfriend Pete on F.R.I.E.N.D.S. And Robert Downey Jr. was, well, Robert Downey Jr. -— you know, the irreverent wise guy in Weird Science, Johnny’s best friend in Johnny Be Good, Winona Ryder’s brother in 1969, the guy after Marisa Tomei’s lovelorn heart in the romantic comedy about mistaken identity Only You. In hindsight, he was perfectly cast in the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man — the witty, not-just-slightly narcissistic and wealthy businessman, playboy, and genius inventor superhero with a personal backstory that is the stuff of legend. Or, well, the stuff of comic book legend. In the summer of 2008, Iron Man released. And the rest is history.
Remember that post-credit scene? Where Nick Fury walks into Stark’s clifftop mansion wanting to discuss the “Avengers Initiative” with him and telling him that Stark’s Iron Man wasn’t the only superhero in the world? Dun dun dun! Post-credit scenes had been done before — Toy Story 2 did comedy, just as a few credits rolled by; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets did an eerily funny scene featuring a post-memory loss Gilderoy Lockhart; and The Matrix Reloaded post-credit scene featured a trailer for The Matrix Revolutions, the third and final installment in the trilogy, which was releasing a few months after Reloaded.
But none of them did it quite like Iron Man’s slow reveal of S.H.I.E.L.D, the Avengers, and the now-ginormous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in that 40 second scene. It was a delicious tease — one that fans of Marvel comics savoured and newbies gobbled hungrily, all while eagerly waiting for the next bite into what was poised to be a meaty future for superhero movies. It’s incredible when you consider that going into the movie, many people had missed that scene on their first viewing; less than ten years later, the MCU and Marvel’s post-credit scenes are a legacy, a tradition, a religion.
Cut to 2017, and a middle-aged Tom Cruise (all action-hero material, intense, and running faster than ever) is battling a mummy in the very-originally-titled The Mummy. You’d be forgiven for believing it’s a reboot of the 1999 Brendan Fraser-Rachel Weisz action horror movie of the same name. Not so much. So maybe it’s just yet-another-Tom-Cruise-action-movie? Because only over a dozen of those is clearly not enough! But wait, it’s not. Trailers and posters had suggested it was a scary monster movie. Nope, not quite that either.
Then, a couple of weeks before the movie released, Universal (the studio producing The Mummy), quite out of nowhere, released this image, and in essentially what was the ultimate “and also btw” moment in history, let potential audiences know that The Mummy was only the beginning of Universal’s “Dark Universe” — an interconnected cinematic universe that would reboot some of the studio’s most iconic monster movies (namely, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame and Invisible Man, besides The Mummy) in a brand new franchise. Besides Cruise, they’ve already got Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, and Javier Bardem on board to play major characters. So take that Disney, Marvel, Warner Bros., and Sony! Except, maybe not.
Don’t get me wrong me — I’m of an age where I have appreciated Tom Cruise in all his bartending (Cocktail), racing (Days of Thunder), and sports agenting (Jerry Mcguire) glory. I’ll even go watch him play the baffled and likeable fish-out-of-water in an Edge of Tomorrow — although honestly, that’s mostly because I’m a fan of All You Need Is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s Japanese novel that the movie was based on. I’m in Sydney for a while and when Tom Cruise visited a couple of weeks ago, I even had a momentary fan-girl moment when I wished I would run into him somewhere. What, that could happen! And yet, very little about The Mummy made me want to go watch it. Add to that the last-minute confusion about the Dark Universe franchise which, correct me if I’m wrong, seemed to be like an appetiser nobody asked for before a main course that diners weren’t all that excited about to begin with.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, The Mummy isn’t even a solely Tom Cruise starring vehicle. Because he’s now part of a franchise that boasts of four A-listers and at least two Oscar winners (Crowe and Bardem), he had to play along when Russell Crowse (who plays Dr Jekyll, and so subsequently, Mr Hyde) came by to talk to him about Prodigium, which we soon realise is the Dark Universe’s version of S.H.I.E.L.D. Which means they’re a secret organisation whose job is to study evil; more specifically, they’re supposed to “record, contain, examine and destroy” monsters.
We’ve been told that Russell Crowe’s Dr Jekyll is the glue that will bind the Dark Universe together. Which means he’s the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe. All of this would have been okay-ish if this was revealed to us in a way Nick Fury would have been proud of. Instead, we learn about this in the most “eh” manner — glimpses of Dr Jekyll’s transformation into Mr Hyde could be seen in a trailer that was posted a few weeks before The Mummy even released!
In the movie, we see him transform into his alter ego twice — once, when he manages to mask/contain it with medicine. And then again when he fully (although randomly) transforms into Hyde for no apparent reason and fights with Cruise’s Nick Morton. Besides the fact that any intrigue about Crowe’s character was squashed as unceremoniously as my hope for a bikini body in three weeks, the transformation itself was completely unnecessary to the movie’s plot. Why on earth would Universal do that! Where was the build-up? The anticipation? Why was Universal revealing all their cards to us right at the start? Had they learned nothing from Marvel? Or the Disney/Star Wars universe? Or the Harry Potter franchise?
It was as if director Alex Kurtzman and co. sat down, rubbed their hands gleefully, and said, “Well well well, we’ve got the big A-list movie star for the big bucks just sitting there. Might as well use him. Let’s make him earn that hefty paycheque by playing out this totally random and unnecessary scene that reveals way too much too soon. So what if that doesn’t make our movie better. Har har har!” Or something to that effect.
Forbes’ Dani Di Placido described Universal’s “lacking in intrigue/Nick Fury’s panache/Marvel’s post-credit scene savvy” blunder really well when he wrote, “It’s cool to have a brand new universe and all, but we don’t really want to think about it until the story is over. The first film must leave us hungry for more, it must tease us with tiny details of a wider reality rather than shoving it in our faces. The eagerness to reveal the mechanisms behind the world just reeks of desperation. The Mummy was like an awkward first date; it wouldn’t stop hinting about our future together. Well, we haven’t decided if we like it enough yet.” Hear hear!
Let’s face it — it’s not that the idea of a cinematic universe with connected classic characters will ever go out of fashion. At least not until Marvel/Disney/Star Wars’ golden goose laying machine keeps functioning. But there’s a certain amount of effort and complexity that has gone into their world building that allows them to churn out these monster hits. Marvel and DC have a long history of interconnecting rich complex characters and building on their universes almost organically. Which is why, when we see a less-Asgardian-than-Aussie Thor just chilling with a pitcher of beer with Doctor Strange in Doctor Strange’s chuckle-inducing post-credit scene, we get it. We know how they might be connected; there’s enough background and context. It feels natural, not forced. And we smile when we see it.
Similarly, George Lucas and co. have built on Star Wars’ already rich and layered universe in such a way that they have created a seamless universe where prequels and sequels can come and go as they please. Every year around Christmas, preferably! Take the Harry Potter universe, which started out as a regular series of sequels but which JK Rowling has now expanded with fish-scale delicacy to the Newt Scamander and the Fantastic Beasts universe — the amount of craftsmanship that has gone into making that world of nostalgia, magic, intrigue, boarding schools and magic suitcases, many flavoured beans and owls and nifflers, into a cohesive universe, is quite staggering! Compared to all of these, Universal’s attempt at “building” their cinematic universe seems like a lazy afterthought that occurred to a bored executive solely focused on making money. And The Mummy didn’t even succeed at that, at least domestically.
One of the reasons analysts are saying The Mummy failed in the US is because Tom Cruise’s star is on the wane there. Americans, apparently, didn’t want to see Jack Reacher Nick Morton battle a vengeful mummy; in the process stabbing himself with a magic dagger thereby letting an evil God take over his human body, becoming a monster himself, and killing said mummy (oh and also, he’s so good and pure inside that he’s able to control all that evil, like, NBD). Pretty much all in a day’s work for Ethan Hunt Nick Morton. That’s such an incredible plotline for a movie, said nobody ever!
In Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Marvel Studios managed to cast an already-famous-but-far-from-being-an-A-list-at-that-point star who then brought his charisma to that role to make it completely his, and his best one to date. And even with the other movies, they managed to cast a bunch of incredibly good looking but also not A-list “Chris-es” (Hemsworth as Thor, Evans as Captain America, and Pratt as Starlord) who have now gone on to become synonymous with their characters. Compare that to the Dark Universe’s trying-too-hard lineup of middle-aged Hollywood A-listers - it just seems so…blah. How do you tell where Ethan Hunt ends and Nick Morton begins? How much do you want to bet Johnny Depp plays Griffin as part-Edward Scissorhands, part-Jack Sparrow, part-Willy Wonka? Ugh, there’s too much baggage. Give us (new) blood!
As a fan of the characters in the Dark Universe, I’m more than a little disappointed. Other than the fact that the books that inspired these movies all sit on my bookshelf, I don’t see an obvious connection between a lot of these “monsters.” And just like their line-up of stars, Universal’s attempt at drawing a connection between these characters for its cinematic universe to take shape, also seems like it’s trying too hard. Then there’s the very valid point that all of these characters are so old and iconic that they’ve become archetypes and tropes, and so a shared universe featuring all of them should be about deconstructing the genre, not building a universe.
Please Universal, these are iconic characters you’re dealing with here; Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley, HG Wells and others poured a lot into creating them. Please don’t belittle their effort by shoving a group of highly paid stars in our faces. They deserve more, the creators and the characters. The audience deserves more as well. Our memories of reading these books are lovely! Nobody’s expecting from you the kind of worldbuilding Tolkien did (individual strains of weed in hobbit pipes are probably beyond most mortal imaginations), but please add some freaking depth to your universe. Please learn from your mistakes, and the mistakes of others. You’ll make money anyhow, but please allow us to make memories.