The Future of Universal's Monsters Is Coming Into Focus
Paul Feig is building an army of monsters. Thursday we learned that the filmmaker best known for his comedies, Bridesmaids (2011), Spy (2015) and Ghostbusters (2016) will join Universal's tradition of monster movies for a new project called Dark Army. Universal has famously struggled for nearly two decades to find a place for its movie monsters — Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Creature, the Mummy — within the contemporary franchise market. Though Universal monster movies were Hollywood-shaping events in the '30s, '40s and '50s, the studio has never been able to find a similar level of success with characters who arguably become overexposed due to their existence within the public domain. With the cinematic universe ambitions of Dark Universe dead, and Leigh Whannell's Blumhouse produced The Invisible Man coming in 2020, is it possible that Universal monsters darkest days are finally behind them?
In order to fully consider how Universal can do right by its monsters, it's important to understand where they went wrong and how they can avoid the same missteps in the future. Though Universal found success with The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001), further attempts at finding an audience for its monster movies were either critical or financial disappointments, sometimes both. Van Helsing (2004) was a financial success for the time at $300 million worldwide, but after negative reviews it failed to launch a proposed franchise. Likewise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire (2008) did solid business, though it was the lowest grossing of the franchise at $401 million worldwide. Universal opted not to go forward with a fourth film that would have seen the O'Connells face off against Aztec mummies in South America with Antonio Banderas playing the villain, and instead set its sights on a cinematic universe. In hindsight, Universal likely would have fared better with its ambitious crossover if it'd had Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) team-up to face off against a supernatural threat with Stephen Sommers at the helm. But alas, Universal moved on to The Wolfman (2010) and Dracula Untold (2014), neither of which did the kind of business to build a franchise on. None of these aforementioned movies are bad. Flawed and somewhat dated, sure, but they are each entertaining entries, mostly lacking in scares but employing a certain expensive B-movie charm. Universal's greatest fault during these years was attempting to compete with superhero movies. This came to a head with the ill-fated Dark Universe.
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On paper, Dark Universe sounded like a good idea. After all, Universal's monsters had made up Hollywood's original cinematic universe within its interconnected houses of horror and narratives. Putting some of the world's biggest names, including Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe and Javier Bardem in giant action-adventure monster movies overseen by Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek), Chris Morgan (Fast and the Furious), David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation) seemed like a winning formula. But it was too much too soon, and audiences could see right through The Mummy (2017), a film that woefully misused Cruise and felt more like a commercial than a passion project. There's a difference between reinterpreting classic characters and entirely dismissing what made them appealing in the first place. In trying to compete with Marvel Studios, Universal lost sight of why its monsters mattered. Following The Mummy's failure, Universal announced this January that it would focus on individual projects rather than a cinematic universe.
Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man sounds like exactly the right approach. This is not to say that new versions of Frankenstein and Dracula need to follow a similar low-budget, 21st century format through Blumhouse, but that Universal should let passion lead the way. The Invisible Man, which stars Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, isn't adapting H.G. Wells' novel of the same name, or James Whale's terrific 1933 film. Instead, it's looking at elements of the story through the lens of abuse and trauma. Rather than setting up the Invisible Man to be a kind of superhero-spy, Whannell is looking into bringing the horror of the concept into the 21st century. This film, along with Feig's Dark Army, which is based on an original idea by the filmmaker, seems to work on the understanding that when it comes to monsters, one size does not fit all. Adaptations of the novels and straight remakes obviously no longer work for characters whose stories who have been so repeatedly told, but allowing filmmakers to find their own way to express their love for these characters, without having to worry about the connective tissue a cinematic universe entails, sounds like the right path. In fact, Universal's learning curve with its monsters doesn't seem so different from Warner Bros. learning curve with its DC characters and its decision to simply let filmmakers tell the stories they want without wondering how they all fit together and compare to Marvel. So what comes next?
In terms of the future of these monsters, we have to recognize that these characters can't all fit into the same genre box. Some characters are perfectly primed to scare modern audiences, while others have lost their bite. But that doesn't mean they don't still have a purpose. While Feig hasn't revealed whether his Dark Army is an action film or a comedy in the vein of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the filmmaker has recently shown his acumen for defying genre with A Simple Favor (2018). Universal monsters survived as long as they did during their heyday because they were allowed to evolve, defy genre conventions and react to the changing film conversation. What began as pure Gothic horror evolved into multi-monster B movies, and then comedies. Universal's forward motion lies in passionate filmmakers who aren't dismissive of the studio's past success stories. Earlier this week, Brendan Fraser said that he'd be happy to do another Mummy movie if the opportunity presented itself. There's no reason why some filmmaker passionate about the series shouldn't come knocking on Fraser's door now that these stories can be looked at as individual entities with their own distinct merits. For the first time in a long time, it truly feels like a new world of gods and monsters is within reach.
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