Can Universal Create a Marvel-Like Universe With 'The Mummy' and Other Monster Flicks?

Universal Pictures vs Marvel - Photo-Illustration - H 2017
Illustration by Læmeur
The high-stakes blockbuster arrives with so-so tracking as Tom Cruise leads a risky foray into the "Dark Universe," a superhero-style series of interconnected films.

It's alive! Or is it?

On May 22, Universal Pictures unveiled its "Dark Universe," an umbrella under which its monster movies will be released. At least five films are on the way, including The Invisible Man (with Johnny Depp), Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), Frankenstein's Monster (Javier Bardem) and Bride of Frankenstein (not yet cast). But the future of the universe hinges on the performance of June 9's The Mummy, a Tom Cruise-led reboot of a trilogy of films started in 1999. Early tracking suggests the Alex Kurtzman-directed film may debut in the low $40 million range in North America — a modest opening salvo for what is hoped to be a series that could someday rival DC and Marvel.

Behind the scenes, Universal execs are said to be especially concerned about Mummy, even though insiders say a $40 million bow (plus a strong overseas haul) would be enough to move forward with the universe as planned. Comcast, Universal's parent company, is giving the film its so-called Symphony marketing push in the U.S. in which multiplatform divisions work together to promote a single project. And the film is expected to do the majority of its business abroad, where Cruise continues to be a major draw. The Mummy will open day-and-date in more than 60 markets, including China.

"Every new universe has to start somewhere," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "If you look at [Universal's] Fate of the Furious, 80 percent of its box office came from international. Tom Cruise is an international superstar, and he remains so."

Still, the film represents a considerable gamble for Universal given that recent reboot attempts of aging intellectual property haven't fared well (see Alien: Covenant, Smurfs: The Lost Village and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). In addition, Kurtzman, one of Hollywood's top writers, has only one feature credit as a director — the 2012 drama People Like Us, which earned just $12.4 million worldwide. But these days it's not unusual to enlist a director with no tentpole experience for a big-budget movie (think Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow, Pirates 5's Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, and Wonder Woman's Patty Jenkins).

Sources say The Mummy cost about $125 million after a considerable U.K. rebate, and Cruise is said to have earned $13 million upfront with sizable backend participation. Cruise's character will recur in the universe. The studio wants Angelina Jolie for its Bill Condon-helmed Bride of Frankenstein, the next film in the franchise, and she won't come cheap (for a similar effort, Disney's live-action Maleficent, the actress received $20 million plus profit participation). But negotiations with Jolie have yet to begin, even though Bride is the only Dark Universe follow-up that has been dated — for Feb. 14, 2019. There are rumors that Dwayne Johnson could resurface in the "monsterverse" for a Wolfman reboot (he starred in 2002's Mummy spinoff The Scorpion King).

What makes Dark Universe intriguing is that — unlike with DC and Marvel — the budgets of the films will range dramatically and could even include low-budget forays. For instance, sources say Universal-based microbudget horror producer Jason Blum has expressed interest in tackling a low-budget monsterverse outing. Also, insiders are quick to point out that Universal doesn't have to buy the IP (as Disney did with Marvel and Lucasfilm) because the studio has the titles in its library, dating to Carl Laemmle Jr.'s reign at Universal when he oversaw a 1931 Dracula and Frankenstein, a 1932 The Mummy, a 1933 The Invisible Man and a 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. Still, despite their long association with the studio, most of the monsters exist in the public domain, so there's little to stop other studios from pursuing films based on the characters.

Regardless of size, the films will offer a connecting thread, hatched by Kurtzman and Fast & Furious franchise writer Chris Morgan, via a mysterious multi-national organization known as Prodigium. Led by Jekyll, Prodigium's mission is "to track, study and — when necessary — destroy evil embodied in the form of monsters in our world."

But the name Dark Universe could prove problematic for Universal. Warner Bros. already has plans for the title with a supernatural-themed Justice League movie and a series of announced comic books branded under the Dark Universe banner. Warners is mulling legal action, according to a studio source.

Either way, Universal has upped the ante significantly from its most recent monsterverse outings, including the previous Mummy trilogy starring Brendan Fraser and Scorpion King (those four films earned $1.415 billion worldwide). A 2004 Van Helsing toplined by Hugh Jackman took in $300 million globally. But 2010's The Wolfman with Benicio Del Toro and the 2014 Dracula Untold starring Luke Evans seemed to dampen hopes for a revival when their total hauls were just $140 million and $217 million, respectively.

This time around, the awareness is greater, though rival studios question why Universal opted for a Mummy poster without Cruise. Still, the film's first trailer has been viewed more than 179 million times, beginning with its broadcast debut in December on NBC Sunday Night Football; a second trailer had more than 134 million views.

"The first great movie character universe was a vision of Carl Laemmle Jr.'s," says Sean Daniel, who produced this Mummy and the last three. "So creating this Dark Universe brand and bringing back these characters makes sense. Done right, people will always love monster movies."

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.