Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Dark Universe

This week, Infinity War comes out.  Marvel's multi-franchise approach is the biggest thing in cinema history right now.  Other companies are trying to replicate their success, announcing universe's and franchises and spending money and trying do or be what Marvel is.  WB has chickened out of the Zack Snyder helmed DC universe, Fox's X-Men universe will be a thing of the past now with Disney solidifying the purchase rights to that integrated universe, CW has the ever expanding Arrowverse on the TV side, and the one that actually makes me sad at watching them stumble with is Universal's Dark Universe.

Universal had the first integrated film universe, introducing the idea to the film world in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man which came after Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula's Daughter (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Wolfman (1941), The Mummy's Tomb (1942) & The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).  Someone got the idea to take two monsters and incorporate them into the same movie. This eventually lead to the House of Frankenstein (1944) which had a hunchback, a mad scientist, Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman.

This would never be confused with a 'team-up' like the Justice League or the Avengers, but it is clearly a multi-franchise movie.  And if we're being honest, the movie wasn't good, but it was the first time it was done.  So when it comes to the mixing of franchises, Universal did it first.  Other companies have tried to use the Universal Monsters in groupings like Leonardo DiCaprio's finest film ever, Monster Squad (1987); movies like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) that took legendary characters from classic literary master pieces; and Universal's own attempt to ride Stephen Sommers success from The Mummy (1999) series, Van Helsing (2004) that had an animated prequel; Van Helsing: The London Assignment.

Van Helsing was supposed to be the start of Universal's shared universe, but it made something like less than half of it's production budget.  They had similar results with the stunningly beautiful Wolfman (2010) that was released for no clear reason in Feb.  Had they released it in October, like they did with Dracula Untold (2014), I'm willing to bet they would have had a much stronger box office performance and it would've been the perfect launch pad back in 2010 to build from.  Really, it should have been. And this is where I think Universal has been failing. 

Ever since 1999, Universal seems like they are trying to replicate the surprise success of the Stephen Sommers' May 7th released The Mummy in 1999 and May 4th released The Mummy Returns in 2001.  It was why they greenlit Van Helsing to Sommers for 2004, and began trying to convert their inventory of creature feature monsters to action stars so they could ride the summer blockbuster train.   This has been a continual mistake, one Universal seems hell - bent on repeating.

Even movies that are financially successful like Dracula Untold, but aren't the run away success that 1999 Mummy was, are being treated like failures, which is ridiculous.  They want to earn Marvel money, but they don't want to put in the leg work, and they wan't to do it by fundamentally changing their characters core essences.  Universal is operating under the false assumption that all they have to do is put a bunch of popular characters in one movie, make a bunch of dope action sequences and destroy some stuff. 

The real secret to Marvel's success is story telling and world; now universe, building. They go to the source material and stick faithfully to it.  They don't 're-invent' any of their characters.  This is a huge reason why they are successful. The atmosphere and their movies it's directly pulled from their comics.  And comics are something kids can watch, monster movies probably aren't. So forget trying to be Marvel. They are going to have a larger audience to pull from by the nature of their source material.

Universal has to stop and consider what their source material is.  Monsters.What is the atmosphere of their source material?  Creepy. Desaturated to the point where it's almost black and white.  The old classic movies have a very specific atmosphere; one that the 2010 Wolfman captured very, very well.   That should be the template.  The story was well thought out and well written, it stuck beautifully to the source material, and visually and atmosphericly it was absolutely flawless. It was just released in February when nobody wanted to think about monsters because Valentine's Day was coming up. You're not taking your Valentine to go watch people get ripped up by a werewolf.

And to be fair, they're advertising campaign completely sucked. I grew up on universal monster movies, and I didn't even know the movie was coming out. That's how completely bad they failed on their advertising of it. But instead of blaming themselves, they blame the movie and use that as a reason to stick with this failure of an action platform method of story telling.

When we go to see monsters, we don't go to see monsters be superheroes.  We don't go to see them be love interests. We don't go to see them be comedians. Understand what your audience expects from a monster. Stop trying to make them accessible.  Stop trying to turn them into anti-heroes. Stop trying to release them around Valentine's or at the beginning of summer when literally nobody gives a shit about monsters during those time frames.  There is a time of the year built for monsters. Universal, instead of trying to be an everyman, be the king of Halloween. 

It can be a shared universe, but these are MONSTERS.  People want to see monster movies in October.  Not February.  Not April or May.   Not June.  October is the month for scary classic monsters. October.

The Dark Universe had a very predictable rough start because anybody who is a fan of the universal monsters could tell from the trailers that it was trying to reinvent itself and go away from the source material. As a result,  there were loads of pre-judging articles from critics who had clearly decided they didn't like the movie months before it ever came out.  You could tell it was going to struggle because they approached it like am action film instead of a horror film.  Following its predictable failure, they've done this whole big shake up, with the main producers, directors and writers and all I see is missed opportunities. 

Make no mistake, I enjoyed the hell out of Tom Cruise in this version of The Mummy, and like I pointed out in my Dark Universe Timeline, I don't even see anything contradicting previous movies and as such they can be left in as a fan retcon right now to include Sommers' Mummy and Mummy Returns, and the slew of spin offs it lead to.  But, I think The Mummy would've done much better if released closer to Halloween, even though it wanted to pretend it was an action movie.  It's just timing.  I felt the same about The Wolfman when I went to see it.  I was sitting in the theater amazed at how beautiful the film was, and could not figure out for the life of me why I was here in February instead of October.

Dracula Untold achieved the success it did because of the timing of it's release.  It wasn't the run away success The Mummy was, but I don't think that should be the goal.  Focus on telling a solid story.   You don't get to earn Avengers level money without having several movies before it to build the brand and trust, and for that to happen you have to focus on story telling.  And while I liked the new Mummy movie, was a hollow in the storytelling department. It's basically traded storytelling for big production action pieces. 

Univseral has no reason not to OWN Halloween.  They have non - monster characters that can work during other times of the year to advance the formation of their Dark Universe, but they have such an inventory of monsters that there's really no reason that I should ever not have a Dark Universe Monster flick to look forward to come October.  Let's take an inventory: Dracula. Frankenstein. Wolfman. Creature From the Black Lagoon. The Mummy.  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide. The Invisible Man. The Phantom of the Opera. The Hunch Back of Notre Dame. 

That's just for starters.

And if they really want to make it impactful and memorable, don't do the 'modern update' bit.  What made people come to creature features was their atmosphere.  Again I go back to the Wolfman remake in 2010. Visually, that should be the goal for their Dark Universe. It sets an unmistakable tone. It creates an unmistakable atmosphere.  One that pays homage to the original movies.  Visual effects should only complement the story, not be the focus of it like they did with the new Mummy. Don't try to get creative with all kinds of nifty gadgets. Don't try to make Van Helsing into a medieval James Bond.  Better yet, get Guillermo Del Toro to helm the universe and just give him whatever he wants.

Basically, if Universal wants to be successful with its Dark Universe, I think they need to go back now. For better or worse, the new Mummy brings us to the modern age, but walking through Prodigium shows there was a history. Now it's a good time to tell that history.  The same way Captain America in Wonder Woman set up the history of their individual universes. Tell the story of Frankenstein, tell story of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and throughout create that justification for having a group like Prodigium out there.

In fact, I can present a fairly easy solve right here. Hugo Weaving's Detective Frederic Abberline (the detective that investigated the Ripper killings, near little head nod there) , following his experience and subsequent infection realizes he is a danger, and in an effort to learn more about his condition, he finds a lot of overlap from myths on werewolves and myths of vampires.  This would naturally lead him to wonder if they're real, then what else is real? Enter Abraham Van Helsing, a man researching the history of Dracula (who happens to be Luke Evans to connect it all together).  The Creature from the Black Lagoon would make a good setting for the two of them to work with each other and realize they should create Prodigium to deal with this new age of Gods and Monsters.


I guess that's just my two cents. Universal could own Halloween if they wanted to. They could absolutely corner that market.  They just have to stop pretending they can turn monsters into anti - heroes. People don't see monsters because they want action heroes; they see monsters because they want to be afraid to go outside at night.  Universal would do well to look at what made those stories classics, and then bring the Dark Universe back to basics.

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