With the upcoming release of The Mummy, Universal Studios has been putting forth more information on their shared universe, including this little teaser for their “Dark Universe.” Cheesy name and cheesier music aside, I wanted to really give this some thought before I wrote up my own thoughts on the matter. And if you’ve followed along here for a while, you know I’ll have some. That’s what this post is about, just me rambling out my thoughts on this reboot. I’m an old school monster kid. I love my monsters. I love the stories they’ve spawned from, and I love the legacies they’ve wrought. As picky as I am, no matter how many bad films get made in their names, I come back for more because I know that sooner or later, someone will knock it out of the park.
It’s almost the exact antithesis of how I operate with comic book superheroes these days, which I suppose makes me a hypocrite on some level. DC has left me cold, and I cherry pick Marvel’s offerings when a given hero interests me. As with anything else, I pride myself on being one who can see past the dazzle and shiny to the character underneath. As ubiquitous as superhero films are today, most (not all, but most) are still in their infancy, having regressed from higher standards. Part of that is having to play to a wider audiences across cultures, which for the superheroes forged in specific cultures and mindsets… it waters them down. It makes them lose something in translation. Superheroes did for me what they needed to do at the right time, and I will always respect the incarnations that inspired me, but they’ve evolved past my perception of them and serve a new generation now.
Monsters, on the other hand… Every culture has its monsters, and many of the same monsters touch the same nerves across multiple cultures. It’s almost as though even the cheesiest versions tap into something primal. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I enjoy every version I come across. You have to wade through a couple hundred bad vampire films to find a good one, and I have yet to see a zombie movie that I enjoy. I get it, don’t get me wrong here; it’s just not my jam. Even Dracula himself, the most filmed monster out there (and probably the most incarnated character of all time, running neck and neck with Sherlock Holmes) has more bad films than good. But the whole is stronger than the sum of the parts here. The foundations of Dracula as put forth by Bram Stoker touch upon what came before, from earlier Gothic vampire tales to good old fashioned folklore. The most successful incarnations of Dracula on screen, then, also tap into that and combine it with solid character acting. The people who have made the monsters memorable became stars as a result rather than the other way around.
And that brings us to the new so-called Dark Universe. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, my biggest problem with this entire setup is Alex Kurtzman. He’s the executive producer (re: creative director) in charge of this shared universe. I’ve never liked this guy’s work, and it bothers me that his name is attached to things that I loved before he helped to run them into the ground (Star Trek and Transformers being the prime examples, no pun intended) after claiming to be a fan who wanted to “do them right.” He may be a fan, but history has shown that fans aren’t always the right people for the right job, and his track record speaks for itself. Money has been made, but that’s about all. In the case of the Universal Monsters, he’s not writing, at least not yet. Thank the Force for small favors. Instead, he’s sort of the umbrella man, which will hopefully work better. Time will tell. As I told a friend just yesterday, I’m holding out hope for this simply because where monsters are concerned… odds are good I’ve seen worse.
More than that, however, I have some faith in Universal. They’ve only dabbled here and there with the classic monsters since they passed the torch to Hammer in the 1950s. In the 30s and 40s, Universal set the standard for monsters in popular culture (admittedly after some rather amazing offerings in the silent era). So while I have no doubt that this entire Dark Universe marketing is a money grab set to dazzle modern audiences (what studio doesn’t want to make money?), I have to believe that someone at Universal knows the legacy. The idea of the Universal Monsters has been consistently and heavily marketed through the ages, and the merchandising has really achieved some high standards. So this tells me that not only does Universal want this to work out, but they’re also aware of the standard they’ve set for themselves.
When this whole affair began, there was talk that Dracula Untold was to be shoehorned in as the beginning of this shared universe. They even tacked on an ending to update it to the modern world. Thing is, if you watch the film, Dracula comes across like… well, a monster version of Superman. Really? That’s wrong for both Superman and Vlad the Impaler. And people wonder why I don’t think highly of most mashups. Dracula is a monster, not a superhero, even if the historical Vlad has somehow become something of a local folk hero (as weird as that actually sounds). It seems that Universal has come to its senses and realized that not only should monsters not be superheroes, but also that audiences might be experiencing superhero overload. So, thankfully, Dracula Untold is no longer a part of this and becomes relegated to the vampire’s impressive back catalog of WTF. The other monsters… some of them are tortured souls who might be good people underneath (the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster come to mind), but some are just unapologetically evil, and Dracula tops that list. Based on what I’m hearing now, and in the wake of short-lived and rather under-serviced Penny Dreadful, the powers that be at Universal appear to have their heads properly screwed on. Again, time will tell, but now I have reason for hope.
As stated and as everyone knows, The Mummy is the new beginning for the Dark Universe. I’m not really certain how I feel about Tom Cruise these days, but I’ll say this for the man: regardless of how much I don’t respect his life choices, the man makes some solid action films. More importantly, he’s not the title monster, so whatever they put in place doesn’t rely on him. He’s a box office draw and little else. The title character would have to compete with the likes of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Arnold Vosloo. Sofia Boutella is an interesting choice. I like what I’ve seen so far here, which admittedly isn’t much, but it looks to be honoring the past and pushing forward at the same time. This speaks to that awareness to which I was referring. Apparently in the mix of this is Russell Crowe, and I don’t recall his character being revealed until just the other day, but we now know he’s playing Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde. I have complete confidence in his acting chops, so it’s more a question of how will he play Jekyll, and what will Hyde look like? Curiosity abounds.
Of course I say all of this, but the Doom of Damocles hanging over this whole thing is that Kurtzman is actually directing The Mummy himself. I seriously do not trust this guy. I’m trying to remind myself writing and directing aren’t the same things. I’ve got a short list of creative types that I’d sacrifice karma points to take out of the equation on a great many things, and Kurtzman is near the top of that list. I sincerely hope I’m wrong about this. I keep reminding myself that even Joel Schumacher did justice to Phantom of the Opera after shooting Batman in the foot twice, so there’s always hope that Kurtzman will surprise me at least once in his career. This needs to be that time.
Also from multiple sources recently is the announcement that the next in line for this machine is Bride of Frankenstein, along with some new monster casting. Bride seems like an odd choice for me at this point. I want this to happen, naturally, but both story knowledge and basic logic suggest that Frankenstein should be first for obvious reasons. What good’s the Bride if Frankenstein’s original creature is nowhere to be seen? Well, he is to be seen, so I guess we’ll find out the story logic when it gets revealed. The casting choice is about the most perfect choice I could imagine: Javier Bardem.
Size, presence, acting chops out the wahzoo demonstrating a wide range… Karloff himself is smiling down on this one, I just know it. No word yet on who will follow Elsa Lanchester. Say what you will, the woman had only a few minutes of screen time, and her presence casts as large a shadow as Karloff’s, probably because there haven’t been nearly as many incarnations of the Bride. This provides some interesting opportunities to change that.
The elephant in the room seems to be Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, who will also appear in Bride. I’ve given this some thought, and two things strike me outright.
The first is that Depp’s star is in serious decline right now, as though he seemingly can’t do anything right in the eyes of the world. I stopped trying to figure it out after that ghastly abortion they called The Lone Ranger… another character I deeply respect in spite of modern revivals. The only real capital Depp has to work with these days seems to be Jack Sparrow, and reports aren’t looking good for this latest Pirates film. But… the Invisible Man is appearing first as a supportive role, not a lead. My hope is that this will provide Depp with the opportunity to win back some support before his character gets his name in the title.
And that brings me to the second point. We know Depp can act. We’ve seen it. Some of his career choices may not have been the greatest, but we’ve seen him pull off some amazing performances. I also know from his work with Tim Burton over the years and from interviews I’ve read surrounding that work that Depp understands and honors the legacy of these old films. If anything, Ed Wood proved it to me. Depp knocked that one out of the park as far as I’m concerned, even if it was a generation ago. That Depp is still in there somewhere, and I think he can bring to this role the same frantic energy that Claude Rains did. The only question remains is whether or not that’s the direction they’ll be taking this character. Let’s face it, we don’t know anything at this point. Looking at the same character from The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a film I have a shameless love for in spite of everything, there’s a part of me that wonders if the only reason Depp was cast was to carry on the long-running gag of putting him in white makeup. If you need a reminder from LXG, this is what the Invisible Man looked like in that incarnation:
Need a guy in whiteface? Depp’s your man. Still, part of me is really hoping he’ll pull out of this downward spiral, not just for the sake of these movies, but also because I know he’s better than his recent track record would suggest. And since we know The Invisible Man is coming in short order (along with The Wolf Man, Van Helsing, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon), Depp really needs to resuscitate public confidence fast.
Going back to Jekyll and Hyde… it’s curious to me that this character is in the mix and without a title film slated thus far. But The Wolf Man is on the slate. Universal originally didn’t put Jekyll and Hyde in the mix because of the similarities with The Wolf Man character. Now we get both? I’m all in, of course. Are the two monsters connected somehow in this new version?
I can’t help but notice a severe lack of Dracula and Frankenstein in this immediate lineup. They’re the big guns, obviously, and they need to build to Dracula especially. Hopefully they’ll do that better than they did with Penny Dreadful, but right now I’m seeing similarities there too. I suppose that’s inescapable, but I trust they’ll do something a bit different. Makes me also wonder if Frankenstein might be a period piece told in flashback, giving rise once more to this idea that the creature could be immortal, fire notwithstanding. That’s the nice thing about this. Just because the monsters are in the modern world, that doesn’t mean their origins can’t be timeless. I have to assume they’ll continue to tie Dracula to Vlad the Impaler. And I have to also assume they’ll find a way to honor Bela Lugosi in the process. If they can find Bardem to follow Karloff, who can they get of that caliber to follow Lugosi? To my mind, they’re following Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman here as well, but Lugosi set the standard for Universal, and even without the opera cape they’ll need a presence like that to “lead” the monster lineup.
Speaking of opera capes… my last question / concern here involves my personal favorite of the classic monsters, The Phantom of the Opera. I’m not a big fan of what Claude Rains brought to the role. I get it, and I take it for what it is, but his version of the character was a lovesick weenie. I’m a Lon Chaney fan, and I believe that version is still closest to the character as envisioned by Gaston Leroux. I also haven’t seen where this story can be modernized successfully. Modern versions set in the original time, sure, but it’s not a story easily brought into modern They tried it in a few versions, most notably in ’89 with Robert Englund, but there’s something about that character that demands the time and place of his origin story. He is linked inexorably to the Opera Garnier. Maybe that’s why the Phantom’s not in the lineup yet. Maybe he won’t be, though that seems like a lost opportunity.
Anyway, that’s where I’m sitting right now in all of this. I’m squarely in that position of having been bitten too many times by modern reboots, but I still want to believe in these monsters. I’ll probably write about this from time to time as things get updated. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think.