Is the new Dark Universe over before it even started?
For the life of me, I don’t understand the strategy of announcing “The Dark Universe” without being fairly positive that the first offering in the series – The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise – would be a surefire winner. Judging from its early Rotten Tomato score and its box office tracking, The Mummy seems a long way off from being “a winner.” (Though, it could still do well internationally). And now Universal has a whole slew of “Dark Universe” movies still to come that were announced with much fanfare and a photo shoot featuring famous actors like Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe. Yes, someone at Universal has some tough decisions to make soon. (May I suggest Dom Toretto and his crew start fighting monsters? At first I wrote this has a joke but I think I just talked myself into it.)
Here’s the thing (the thing): There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what people like about the preexisting cinematic shared universes that already exist. What people do like is watching their already established favorite characters interact with one another – which is being confused for “people love shared universes.” I honestly don’t think people have much of an opinion on shared universes one way or another, let alone actively “like” them.
Yes, people are excited to watch Iron Man interact with Spider-Man. We got a taste of this in Captain America: Civil War and now we are about to get an entire movie. The excitement comes from many years of anticipation of wanting to see Downey’s Iron Man and a Spider-Man in the same movie because people love those characters. Yet somehow this is being confused with “people just loved movies where people crisscross in-between them!”
Marvel works for a few reasons. The biggest reasons is they were operating with a host of characters people already love and then, with a lot of planning and some luck, they developed themselves a shared universe. Warner Bros.’ DCEU movies work because people already love the characters. Now, the little secret there is the shared universe doesn’t even have to work because people love the characters so much there’s built in anticipation for each movie. And, thankfully, the fourth movie in the series, Wonder Woman, does work, but there’s not a lot of sharing of universes in Wonder Woman. And Star Wars is Star Wars. If you didn’t know, people love Star Wars. (And I’m not 100 percent sure, even with the side stories, Star Wars counts as a shared universe. These aren’t really separate movies with interacting characters. It still feels like all “one thing.”)
Warner Bros. also has their monster movie shared universe, which is a weird thing. Gareth Edward’s Godzilla was a good movie. Kong: Skull Island is crazy fun and both did well. But neither did well because they were part of some larger universe. Yes, I realize these movies are set 40 years apart, but no one is out there hoping that somehow Tom Hiddleston’s character from Kong can somehow meet Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character from Godzilla. I feel confident saying this because there’s very little chance you know both of these character’s names without looking them up. (For the three of you shouting “it’s James Conrad and Ford Brody, smart guy,” I will concede that you love the monster shared universe.)
I have never heard someone say, “I just love the Invisible Man, but Chevy Chase just didn’t do him justice and I hope he gets his own movie someday.” But that’s the very bizarre logic being used to sell this new “shared universe.” It’s as if the Nick Fury scene at the end of Iron Man was interpreted as, “People will love it if we do something similar with Dr. Jekyll.” Can you imagine anyone this weekend screaming, “Oh my god, it’s Dr. Jekyll!” (Though, personally, I’d kind of love to see a Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive shared universe based off the discography of Men at Work. I hope Ryan Gosling plays Mr. Jive.)
(While we’re here, I want to pitch my own shared universe series of movies. Basically it would be based off of John Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” where he just tooled around Los Angeles for a couple of years and did a lot of drugs. During this time period he was hanging out with Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, and Micky Dolenz. To me, this is one of the most interesting foursomes of human beings to spend time with one another. What did they talk about? Did Micky Dolenz think they might all form a supergroup of musicians and Dolenz would get to be part of it? Anyway, this should be a shared universe. We start with a John Lennon movie. Then a Harry Nilsson movie. Then Cooper. Then Dolenz. And these four all sometimes show up in the other person’s movies as we go along. Like, we can watch when Micky Dolenz and the rest of The Monkees meet The Beatles. Then, for the fourth movie, they all combine forces and we watch them all hang out for four hours. This, to me, sounds so much more interesting than Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man.)
What does Universal do now? I don’t even know! (Thankfully, no one is expecting me to have an answer.) Do they go ahead with the next Dark Universe movie and make sure everyone knows it’s tied to the movie that people didn’t like very much? And why did they release the details of this plan when they did? Was it some sort of thought that if people know it’s all tied to a greater “universe” that people will come see it for fear of not missing out? In reality, I suspect we won’t hear much about the Dark Universe for a while and maybe everyone involved will be happy if It just goes away. But who knows, maybe the next one will still come out and it will be received more positively – but that would be unprecedented. Studios usually don’t make sequels to movies that get this kind of critical scorn and do poorly at the box office (as The Mummy is on track to do) – let alone plan five sequels (or whatever it’s up to now).
Whatever happens, this should be a lesson that just because people like movies that happen to have shared universes, that doesn’t mean everyone just loves the concept of shared universes. And it also means if Universal wants to save this Dark Universe, it’s probably time to call in Dom Toretto. (Honestly, I would instantly be on board if this were announced.)
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.