New Directions for Universal’s Dark Universe
In the age of summer blockbusters and complex shared universes that span both TV and film, it is no wonder that every other major studio wants to follow the blueprint that Marvel Studios has set. Universal Pictures is no exception, unveiling their grand plans for an interconnected cinematic universe featuring their iconic monsters from the 20s to 40s such as Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This universe of horror was to be launched by their 2017 tentpole project The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. Alas, the star vehicle promptly crashed and burned and further talks on the Dark Universe faded into oblivion. However, with the critical and commercial success of last year’s The Invisible Man, it looks like there is still hope for Universal’s shared universe—albeit in a different direction.
2017’s The Mummy wasn’t even the studio’s first failed attempt to start a large-scale shared universe. They initially planted seeds in their 2014 film Dracula Untold starring Luke Evans. It veered away from the classic stylings of the Bela Lugosi version and instead depicted Dracula as the Prince Vlad the Impaler who turns to the darkness to defend his homeland from invasion—more wartime epic than gothic horror.
The film wasn’t the smash success Universal was hoping it to be, so they then turned their eyes to The Mummy, officially jumpstarting the Dark Universe with the Tom Cruise-led project and shelving plans for a Dracula reappearance to further down the line when the Universe is already well-established. The studio threw all its might behind The Mummy reboot, going all out on a star-studded cast that included Russell Crowe (as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), getting big names for future movies such as Johnny Depp (The Invisible Man) and Javier Bardem (Frankenstein), and allocating a whopping $345 million budget.
What these two box office bombs had in common was that Universal was bent on delivering a Marvel-style monster mash complete with the CGI-fest and the A-listers when historically, their horror films became such successes because it leaned more on the unsettling gothic atmosphere and the psychological horror. Their classic monster lineup is plenty scary on their own, they don’t need the big explosions or fancy setpieces.
When The Mummy failed to be a hopeful start to the Dark Universe, the studio paused all ongoing plans for the rest of the Universe. It was clear that they needed to go about it another way. Universal Pictures took a page from contemporary horror filmmakers’ playbook and decided to be more lowkey in its future outings. This is why 2020’s The Invisible Man was made in collaboration with production company Blumhouse, whose relatively low-budget films such as Paranormal Activity and Get Out have amassed critical and commercial success.
The film was a nuanced take on domestic abuse and gaslighting, delivering thrills and a fast-paced plot without ever needing to rely heavily on CGI. The Invisible Man was also no longer interconnected with the previous films of the Dark Universe, existing as a standalone horror under the umbrella of the Universe.
The success of The Invisible Man signified the changing of the tides for Universal. For now, there is no monumental progress on the rest of Universal’s monsters, and they seem to be putting to bed their dreams for a massive cinematic universe for the horror genre. However, A Simple Favor director Paul Feig recently shared that a Dark Army reboot is in development and will feature both classic Universal monsters and new ones. Similarly, Elizabeth Banks also revealed that she has pitched her plans for Invisible Woman (not related to The Invisible Man) which she will both direct and star in.
With Universal’s rich trove of monsters, the possibilities are quite endless for the Dark Universe. One can only hope though, that they have learned their lessons and set out to deliver both spectacle and sincerity in their horror-verse.
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