Forcing Universal Franchises In The Dark

Universal Studio has unleashed the first of their Dark Universe franchise movies, The Mummy. But is heedlessly tying movies together into random shared world franchises really a good idea?

A couple of weeks ago, Universal Studios took the unprecedented step, ahead of releasing The Mummy, to announce that this film would be the first in a “Universal Franchise”. The film, which mysteriously stars Tom Cruise for reasons no one can quite articulate, would be, like Iron Man and Man of Steel before it, link to other titles in a shared universe.

But where Marvel and DC Comics  have built-in titles that all hang together in a comic book franchise already, The Mummy would be hooked into a world of other famous horror titles that have nothing to do with it. Stories like Dracula, Frankenstein (and Bride of Frankenstein), The Invisible Man, and more recently The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame will all be part of this “shared world of 19th century gothic horror stories” even though none of them were ever related in any way shape or form. (Though the 1970s did bring us the awesomely terrible Dracula vs Frankenstein.)

The question is: why? Why does Universal think this is a good idea? Other than “Marvel is making money hand over fist and we don’t have any comic book rights”? And moreover, why is it attempting to top down a pre-structured franchise, when Warner Brothers has shown how badly that method can go?

Part of the issue is that nearly a decade after Iron Man came out, most people don’t remember that the Avengers franchise was not a sure thing. It was another not an announced thing. Yes, there was a tease of Samuel L. Jackson at the end of the Iron Man movie, but that could have easily been a footnote in a sequel never to come. If the move had not cast Robert Downey Jr., and his performance not hit so perfectly, there would not be an Avengers franchise. Hulk, the follow-up later that year–and the only character Marvel had that was a known figure outside the insular comic book fandom–was a flop. Captain America: The First Avenger opened to tepid reviews, and Thor was merely meh. Iron Man and RDJ carried all of them into The Avengers in 2012, which hit big mostly because of the relationship between him and the recast Hulk. (By then most people didn’t even remember which Hulk film they were recasting, the Eric Bana one or the Edward Norton one).

Growing the franchise from scratch and slowly building movie after movie was risky, and it’s still a wonder Marvel and Disney made it work. Warner Brothers assumed they couldn’t. It wasn’t until they were blindsided by The Avengers success that they realized their just released Superman film–the beginning of another stand alone trilogy in search of an Oscar, much like Nolan’s Batman–had to become part of a universal franchise if they could even hope to compete.

To that end, they top-downed a structure they drew up on the fly and hung the entire thing on Man of Steel like a giant hat it was never supposed to wear–or even had to load bearing structure to support. It’s why it took until Wonder Woman–five years and four movies later–before the franchise managed to score a hit. Hers was the first stand alone in the franchise that wasn’t trying to support a random structure thrown on top.

But it’s one thing to take your competing comic book franchise to compete with Marvel–after all, these are apples to apples comparisons. It’s quite another to attempt to top down a franchise structure on a film that’s not even out yet, and one that doesn’t require such a structure to compete. Horror fans are going to see The Mummy, whether it’s a reboot of the Brendan Fraser 1999 movie, a reboot of the Christopher Lee 1959 movie or a reboot of the Boris Karloff 1932 movie. They’ll go see Dracula whether it’s a reboot of the Luke Evans 2014 movie, the Gary Oldman 1992 movie, the Frank Langella 1979 movie or the Béla Lugosi 1931 movie.

These movies do not require being linked in order to sell them to the public. Heck, Phantom of the Opera would be better served being linked to the Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical (1986) than Tom Cruise making questionable career choices in his mid-50s that suggest he either didn’t invest his earning wisely in the 1990s, or Katie Holmes took him to the cleaners in the divorce more than we realize she did.

Moreover, perhaps Universal Studios should have waited a bit before they went around announcing these ill-conceived grandiose plans. The review embargo lifted less than an hour ago as of this writing, and they are savage.

You heard her. She’s not alone either “Worst Tom Cruise Movie Ever” says Indiewire. “A derivative, empty-headed take on a classic monster” says The Independent.

This is what you’re hanging your franchise on? Look, Man of Steel was controversial among the fans, and wasn’t made to support an entire universe. It caused Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad to both tank before Petty Jenkins came along and showed Snyder and company another way. But at least there were people who liked it.

Universal needs to think long and hard about how to proceed from here. Instead of guaranteeing themselves a rising tide that lifts all stand alones, they may have just tied together a half-dozen films that are linked to disasters so bad they will sink anything worthwhile to the bottom of the ocean regardless.

 

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