Tony Black on whether the Universal Monsters will deliver the next big cinematic franchise…
You all remember The Mummy, right? Brendan Fraser doing his best Harrison Ford impression while Arnold Vosloo pranced around in a gold nappy trying to hide his broad South African brogue. Rather good, wasn’t it? You may be surprised to learn it came out in 1999. Some readers of this may not have been born then! The Mummy Returns followed in 2001 and then The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008 (but we don’t talk about that), with a Dwayne Johnson-starring The Scorpion King spin-off wedged in between. Had these films all came out a decade later, chances are they would have been much more of a cinematic universe, which of course are hot stuff these days thanks to Marvel’s successes in the superhero genre. Universal Pictures got into the act last year and announced a new version of The Mummy would spearhead a brand new ‘Universal Monsters’ cinematic universe, and so far it looks like more than just talk; Tom Cruise as we speak is filming The Mummy reboot in London, Johnny Depp is reputedly in line to star in a new version of The Invisible Man, and just yesterday Russell Crowe was announced as being courted to appear in The Mummy reboot as Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, presumably teeing up his own starring Jekyll movie down the road. So far, so impressive. The only question is whether or not Universal are going to strike big here and repeat some of Marvel’s box office dominance.
This all began gaining traction in October 2013 when producer Roberto Orci hinted to IGN that the in-development The Mummy and Van Helsing reboots would occupy a shared universe (we all remember the Hugh Jackman-version of Van Helsing don’t we? Or we at least remember trying to forget it…). Then in July 2014, Universal hired producers Alex Kurtzman (one of J.J. Abrams’ acolytes who subsequently went on to write a lot of the Transformers abominations) and Chris Morgan (scribe of the Fast & Furious mega-series) to act as the Kevin Feige of the series jointly, spearheading–wait for it–reboots of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Bride of Frankenstein, the earlier mentioned The Invisible Man, Van Helsing and of course The Mummy, which would be the first developed. Or not, as it turns out, when in October 2014 the Universal origin story of the world’s most famous vampire, Dracula Untold (starring Luke Evans as Vlad), tacked on a final end moment moving the action to the present day for a Marvel-esque tag scene which director Gary Shore described as “optional for them if they want to use it as a launching pad”. Given Dracula Untold impressed few and has already been largely forgotten, even though technically it’s being considered the first picture in the ‘UMU’ (Universal Monsters Universe), you can bank on the Cruise-led The Mummy being promoted as the real beginning of the franchise. Whether or not they’ll quietly ignore Dracula Untold and reboot the Count down the road if the universe becomes a success is debatable, but the smart money would be on them doing just that and attaching a hot star without having to cleve to the mythology of a film no one remembers.
In any case, The Mummy will land in July of 2017 and will boast Cruise, still one of the biggest stars in the world who can eclipse even the franchise he leads (a la Robert Downey Jr.) and sit as a tentpole blockbuster in the summer season. Universal will no doubt be hoping it can romp home to a large gross after what stands to be a potentially difficult 2016 for them, losing money on The Huntsman’s Winter War for a start after a bonanza 2015 thanks to Jurassic World and Fast & Furious 7. They’re banking a lot on this franchise being a recurring cash cow, fighting the might of Disney’s towering properties, and are investing a lot of cash in Kurtzman/Morgan’s steer-ship – but will the payoff be worth it? The omens look good. Cruise is, as I say, still bankable and most people know The Mummy as a character for a start – indeed the majority of people know all of these monsters from classic late 19th/early 20th century literature and countless film and TV adaptations over the years. Universal were making monster pictures such as these as far back indeed as the 1930’s, with people like James Whale & his memorable version of Frankenstein, many of which have lingered in the memory longer than more modern adaptations. Hammer horror too gave us a legendary Dracula during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the late Sir Christopher Lee who still resonates in pop culture to this day. The general movie going public, not just fans of the fantasy or sci-fi genres know the bare bones of these characters and stories, at least most of them. The really exciting pictures will be for characters we haven’t seen done in the modern era, such as Creature From the Black Lagoon, previously simply the preserve of a schlocky 1954 B-movie. Reintroducing it or, say, the Bride of Frankenstein to a modern audience is as tantalising and potentially successful as bringing the lesser known Marvel comic book characters such as Iron Man or Thor to global attention and popularity.
Who Universal recruit in front of and behind the camera will play a big part too. Aside from Cruise, The Mummy–directed by Kurtzman–boasts a script from celebrated screenwriter Jon Spaihts and now with Crowe possibly in the mix will have an extra wattage of star power; Depp as The Invisible Man feels like a classically eccentric role for the oddball actor, again another star like Cruise who can stand taller than his franchise, and while no director is attached having jokesmith Ed Soloman behind the script suggests a lighter, bouncier entry into the UMU; Prisoners writer Aaron Guzikowski is aboard to write The Wolf Man, and though it’s been pushed back to 2018 it just needs a strong director and star to attach to begin banishing memories of the flawed Joe Johnson version in 2010; the Van Helsing movie, written by Jon Spaihts and Eric Heisserer (behind The Thing remake), was originally to star Cruise before he jumped ship to fight a more Egyptian undead, and too awaits a director or star; excitingly, Jeff Pinkner–another Abrams alumni alongside Kurtzman–is down to write the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Scarlett Johansson has been offered the lead role, but one wonders if she’d want to dip her toe in another major interconnected franchise at this point; David Koepp will write the Bride of Frankenstein film and Angelina Jolie has been courted as the Bride herself, but no firm commitment exists as of the end of 2015. Now with Crowe being strongly mooted as Dr Jekyll, one thing is clear – Universal are hiring some of Hollywood’s most prolific screenwriters behind a range of major tentpole movies, not to mention grabbing the attention of several of Hollywood’s biggest and most bankable stars, to craft a universe they have serious ambitions for.
Will this all pay off? Who knows? Hollywood is a fickle beast. Many have wondered if Jon Favreau’s Iron Man hadn’t been a critical and box office hit if the MCU would ever have become what it is today, and it’s a good question – one being now turned on DC’s own attempt at a franchise, which hasn’t had the smoothest start with the Batman vs Superman backlash. Universal needs a solid, enjoyable blockbuster people can latch onto as the entry point, the launchpad, to hook people in as Iron Man did. Remember, Marvel’s next two films after that were The Incredible Hulk & Iron Man 2 – both of which very few people liked. People were sticking with their plan largely on the back of what Favreau & RDJ did in that first film. Therefore, if Kurtzman & Cruise can nail The Mummy, the Universal Monsters Universe might just do it – and maybe in 2024 we’ll be looking forward to Dracula vs Frankenstein vs The Wolf Man. Stranger things have happened…
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.