Listen, we have bad news: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a fond remembrance of a hallowed piece of pop culture detritus. Or, like today, it’ll be a lament for the utter failure of the Dark Universe, a cinematic universe you probably forgot was ever supposed to happen.
By this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been exhaustively celebrated and criticized in equal measure, but there’s no question that string of superhero movies profoundly changed Hollywood. And one of the most noticeable revamps that happened was, suddenly, stars didn’t matter so much. Not that long ago, you’d buy a ticket for a film because Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise was in it. But with the ascension of the MCU — and franchises in general — suddenly a famous character was more important than a famous actor. No matter how popular a guy like Cruise was, he couldn’t compete with Iron Man.
This seismic shift prompted other studios to follow Marvel’s lead — not just thinking about sequels but plotting out cinematic universes, a whole galaxy of interconnected movies that audiences would rush to theaters to see. Some of them have succeeded (the DC Extended Universe, the Conjuring Universe), but one famously didn’t — in spectacular, very public fashion. And, ironically, it might partly have been Cruise’s fault.
In 2014, Universal had the Fast & Furious films and other modern franchises, but there was also this rich back catalog of properties at its disposal. Specifically, Universal was the home of the so-called Classic Monsters — horror movies made in the first half of the 20th century that featured Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Mummy and Dracula. (You could argue that those films were part of the very first cinematic universe.) In the late 1990s and early aughts, we had gotten Universal monster remakes both good (Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy) and bad (Van Helsing and The Wolfman), but after 2012’s The Avengers, it was clear that studios had to concentrate on linking together their most beloved characters in supersized action movies. And so, the Dark Universe was born.
If you even remember the name Dark Universe, it’s probably thanks to 2017’s The Mummy, the Tom Cruise reboot that was designed to kick off this exciting new mega-franchise. But that cinematic universe was actually in Universal’s mind three years earlier, when executives hired red-hot writers Alex Kurtzman (who worked on Transformers and the Star Trek reboot) and Chris Morgan (one of the masterminds behind the Fast & Furious series) to oversee the ambitious undertaking. The idea was to create a group of films that revolved around those old monsters, but in modern times — a universe in which, say, Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man both operated.
In fact, Universal executives were so pumped about this concept that a film they were close to releasing, 2014’s Dracula Untold, went through a quick reshoot so that it had a new final scene that could be folded into this upcoming universe. The movie ended with Dracula (Luke Evans) no longer gallivanting around 15th century Transylvania — suddenly, he was in contemporary London, as Charles Dance’s character Master Vampire keeps a close eye on him from afar. “Let the games begin,” Master Vampire says to himself, as if he’s Nick Fury assembling the Avengers.
But Universal got its first indication that maybe audiences weren’t that jazzed about a bunch of overlapping monster movies when Dracula Untold failed to ignite the box office, forcing the studio to backpedal and announce that its next monster movie, The Mummy, would be the official start of the Dark Universe.
Despite that initial setback, the studio still had reason to remain optimistic. The Mummy had been a huge hit a couple decades earlier with Fraser — surely the same property with Cruise attached would be even bigger. And Universal had lined up star-studded subsequent films, including Johnny Depp in The Invisible Man, Russell Crowe for Dr. Jekyll, Javier Bardem in Frankenstein’s Monster and Angelina Jolie in Bride of Frankenstein. On May 22, 2017, about three weeks before the release of The Mummy, the company proudly unveiled the official logo and name for its nascent cinematic franchise. Who wouldn’t be excited?
Well, it turns out, lots of people weren’t. Box-office tracking suggested The Mummy wouldn’t be the smash Universal was hoping for. Plus, there was no getting around the fact that the name Dark Universe … just seemed dumb. “Marvel Cinematic Universe” might not have been blindingly original, but at least it described what the damn thing was. Maybe there was no getting around the problem — calling it the “Universal Monster Universe” probably would have been worse — but the more that the studio tried to push the concept of the Dark Universe, the more desperate the marketing seemed.
Undeterred, Universal soldiered on, sending out this complicated explanation for what, exactly, was going to tie all these monster movies together:
“Dark Universe films are connected by a mysterious multinational organization known as Prodigium. Led by the enigmatic and brilliant Dr. Henry Jekyll, Prodigium’s mission is to track, study and — when necessary — destroy evil embodied in the form of monsters in our world. Working outside the aegis of any government, and with practices concealed by millennia of secrecy, Prodigium protects the public from knowledge of the evil that exists just beyond the thin membrane of civilized society… and will go to any length to contain it.”
And in case that sounded terribly convoluted, Universal went to the added trouble of arranging one of those super-cool photo shoots where all our heroes would be together in one place…
…except they actually weren’t all in the same place, as it later came out that the studio quickly photoshopped them all together. Never mind that the very notion that aging A-listers Depp and Crowe were still bankable leads — something that hadn’t been the case for years — indicated that the studio was clinging to an old star-driven model to create the perfect blockbuster. The strategy seemed as antiquated as the characters Universal was trying to revive.
If this was meant to be the splashy launch of the next great cinematic universe, it was failing badly. Which put a lot of pressure on The Mummy to silence the doubters. But Kurtzman, directing his first big-budget event film, simply looked to the old Universal Classic Monsters classics as his guide, not worrying so much about starting a franchise as just focusing on what made the Mummy such an enduring icon. “[The original movies] knew that the audience needed to fall in love with each individual character first, and if they did that, then a world would present itself,” Kurtzman said in late 2016. “So that has been the goal in making The Mummy. It’s not so much ‘build a universe’ as it is ‘make a great Mummy movie.’”
He did not succeed.
For the record, I don’t actually think The Mummy is as terrible as many of my colleagues do, but that’s not the same as saying it’s any good. The film was a mess, a jumble of tones and confused plotting that felt generic rather than the confident blastoff for a franchise. And once The Mummy underperformed at the box office, the backstabbing started, with Variety publishing a lengthy piece about a week after the film’s release that put the blame squarely on Cruise. “The reboot of The Mummy was supposed to be the start of a mega-franchise for Universal Pictures,” the article stated. “But instead, it’s become a textbook case of a movie star run amok.”
Unnamed sources accused Cruise of having undue influence on the film’s rewrites, editing, marketing and release date. He reportedly made sure that he had more screen time than Sofia Boutella, who played the actual Mummy. Even when crew members were trying to be complimentary about his perfectionism, it sounded bad. “I have heard the stories about how he drives everything and pushes and pushes, but it was amazing to work with him,” supervising art director Frank Walsh enthused at an advance screening. “The guy is a great filmmaker and knows his craft. He will walk onto a set and tell the director what to do, say ‘that’s not the right lens,’ ask about the sets, and as long as you don’t fluff what you’re saying to him … he’s easy to work for.”
In other words, it was Cruise’s way or the highway — which also came across in his comments at The Mummy premiere, where he told the audience, “I don’t just make a movie. I give it everything I have, and I expect it from everyone also.”
But even more embarrassing for Universal than the Cruise-is-an-egomaniac hit pieces in the press was the fact that The Mummy tried to make the Dark Universe happen, the studio shoehorning in an awkward Crowe cameo so we could meet Jekyll and hear him blather on about Prodigium. Fun fact: No matter how many times you say “Prodigium,” it never sounds less ridiculous.
Most would-be event movies that bomb have to merely suffer the indignity of crashing and burning in public, but The Mummy bore an extra layer of shame as Universal watched its hopes of a Dark Universe go down in flames, too. Audiences rejected the movie and the idea of this cinematic universe in one fell swoop.
The repercussions were fast and brutal. Bride of Frankenstein was shelved, although it might finally be getting a second life. The Invisible Man didn’t happen with Depp, getting reimagined as a #MeToo parable starring Elisabeth Moss, which turned out to be one of the surprise hits from earlier this year. When Bardem was asked about the Dark Universe in 2018, his reply said everything: “Things were moving fast, and then it stopped.”
After months of speculation and endless social-media mockery, Universal had to acknowledge that, yes, the Dark Universe was dead. “Throughout cinematic history, Universal’s classic monsters have been reinvented through the prism of each new filmmaker who brought these characters to life,” Universal’s president of production Peter Cramer said in early 2019. “We are excited to take a more individualized approach for their return to screen, shepherded by creators who have stories they are passionate to tell with them.”
But however Cramer wanted to dress it up, the stink of that failure to launch couldn’t be washed away. Soon, everything associated with the aborted Dark Universe developed a satiric second life on Film Twitter. Writers and journalists treated the moribund franchise with faux-reverence, as if it enjoyed the same cultural cachet as the MCU. Instead of being the next bold cinematic universe, Dark Universe had been anointed the Zune of terrible Hollywood ideas:
We might still get more Universal monster movies, but the dream of Prodigium is no more. So who really killed the Dark Universe? It’s not fair to place the blame squarely at Cruise’s feet. Kurtzman had never taken on such a large-scale project as director, and from the Variety postmortem, it sounds like, if anything, Cruise had to intervene in order to save the film from complete disaster. (Reflecting on the fiasco in 2019, Kurtzman said, “The Mummy wasn’t what I wanted it to be. … I look back on it now [and] what felt painful at the time ended up being an incredible blessing for me. I learned that I need to follow my own instincts, and when I can’t fully do that, I don’t think I can succeed.”)
As much as Cruise has been the brilliant architect of the Mission: Impossible franchise, his meddling tendencies, and supposed wish to bolster his role as The Mummy’s roguish action-hero centerpiece, contributed to dooming the Dark Universe. But the warning signs were there long before Cruise got involved. As The Ringer’s Miles Surrey put it earlier this year, Universal’s big mistake was thinking it could snap its fingers and make a cinematic universe happen. “By trying to play catch-up with the MCU in the span of a single movie — lest we forget, Nick Fury didn’t show up until the end credits of Iron Man, and Marvel took four years to build to The Avengers — Universal showed it was more interested in establishing a franchise than actually telling a story that audiences would be invested in,” he wrote.
It’s easy to hate on Marvel because of the way its movies now rule the multiplex — well, back when there were multiplexes, of course. But the care that went into mapping out those films, avoiding missteps and bad creative decisions, is really impressive. Only in retrospect did it look preordained. Look no further than the Dark Universe to see how easily it can all go wrong.