Why the Marvel approach doesn’t make sense for Universal’s classic monster reboots

Is Universal on its way to botching its planned series of Universal Monster reboots? Based on a piece published yesterday in Variety, it's certainly starting to sound that way.

According to the article, which features interviews with Universal head Donna Langley and writers Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”) and Chris Morgan (“Furious 7”), the studio has hired a stable of storyboard artists, designers and writers to bring such characters as Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy and the Wolfman to life for contemporary audiences. The iconic monsters, each of which has a specific writer or writers attached, will inhabit a “shared universe” in a series of interconnected films set in modern day.

As Kurtzman put it: “The idea is that we have a deep bench of brains to consult with about how their monster fits into our world as we go forward.”

Added Morgan: “”This is not a heightened world. We”re exploring issues of family identity and questions of, ‘Where do I belong in the world?” ”

At first glance, it seems like a solid strategy: take a slew of classic, widely popular movie characters, update them for a modern audience, take a cue from the most successful “shared universe” of all time (the MCU) and sit back and watch as the truckloads of money roll in. There's just one problem with that: the Marvel model simply doesn't translate well to the Universal Monsters.

The reason the Marvel films work as interconnected stories is that the characters' relationships were already established in the crossover-heavy comic book world, where it wasn't unusual for readers to see members of the Avengers, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four sharing the same panel. The Universal Monsters, by contrast, existed in their own separate universes; they were, for all intents and purposes, mutually exclusive worlds. It wasn't until those infamous “monster mashup” films of the 1940s and '50s that the characters came together on screen, to diminishing returns.

Universal's attempt to shoehorn these characters into a paradigm perfected by Marvel (and one that may be all-but-impossible to duplicate) may make sense commercially, but creatively it feels disingenuous. Audiences accepted the Marvel crossover films because they stayed true to the world that had already been created. That's not the case here.

There's also the issue of tone. The original Universal Monster movies were horror films through and through (with some inevitable sci-fi and fantasy elements mixed in), and by hiring Kurtzman and Morgan — writers largely known for their work on big-budget Hollywood action films like “Transformers,” “Fast and Furious” and “Star Trek” — to take the lead, Universal appears to be taking a “four-quadrant” approach with these, in essence going for the same audience that's made the Marvel mega-franchise so wildly successful.

And yet I can't help but feel that in the process of crafting everything-for-everyone blockbusters, the quieter, stranger aspects of the original films will inevitably be watered down, and that's a shame. Take the critically-reviled 2004 monster-mashup “Van Helsing” as a pertinent example: while the would-be franchise starter (helmed by “The Mummy” director Stephen Sommers) grossed over $300 million worldwide, that was mostly due to pre-release hype and a massive marketing campaign on the part of the studio (the reported production budget was a bloated $160 million). You didn't see anyone clamoring for a “Van Helsing 2” because, quite frankly, people didn't like the movie. “Iron Man” kickstarted a franchise because Marvel was committed to a quality production, and it showed on the screen.

I truly hate to sound like a pessimist; and certainly, we'll get a better feel for what the studio has in store once they start hiring directors. At the risk of sounding reductive, if Universal brings in a Michael Bay or Brett Ratner type for the first film in the series (“The Mummy” is slated to begin production early next year), we can pretty much toss all hope for these movies down the drain. But if they hire a Jennifer Kent, or an Adam Wingard, or a Tomas Alfredson? That would be an encouraging sign.

Universal has had varying levels of success rebooting these classic characters over the past couple of decades. They got off to a solid start with Francis Ford Coppola's visually stunning (if dramatically inert) 1992 “Dracula” adaptation, faltered with Kenneth Branagh's poorly-received “Frankenstein” update (though it still grossed over $100 million worldwide) and made boatloads of money with their trilogy of “Indiana Jones”-esque, CG-happy “Mummy” films, which grossed over $1.2 billion combined at the worldwide box office. 

Interesting thing about that last one: after trying and failing to make a darker, grislier, lower-budget “Mummy” film with a revolving door of A-list “genre” filmmakers like Clive Barker, George A. Romero and Joe Dante in the 1990s, the studio ultimately went with Stephen Sommers' “summer tentpole” version — a film that was good for their bottom line but felt all-but-indistinguishable from similarly effects-heavy blockbusters of the period. 

At the very least, Coppola's “Dracula” and Branagh's “Frankenstein” showed real imagination and creative commitment behind the camera — not to mention a loyalty to the macabre, bizarre underpinnings of the source material. As a horror fan, it's hard not to mourn the Clive Barker or George Romero “Mummy” movies that could have been; and it's a shame to think that we could be in store for more jacked-up, empty special effects vehicles like Sommers' “The Mummy” at the expense of films that might bring us dark, iconic new visions of some of our greatest silver-screen nightmares.