Patrick Jackson is featured on my site today to talk about the immersive world-building of Universal Studios. Take it away, Patrick!
Can Universal Still Build A Monster Universe?
For those interested in expanded worlds and connected universes in fiction, Universal’s Dark Universe has been something to keep an eye on the last few years. The idea was for the studio to use its valuable monster properties to establish a darker version of the Marvel or DC superhero universes (especially after the recent success of Black Panther, and the upcoming Avengers:Infinity War movie). But after The Mummy failed as the first planned installment, the Monsterverse is in peril. Top producers have abandoned the project, and at this point it’s uncertain whether or not the so-called “Dark Universe” will ever come to fruition.
Answering that uncertainty is difficult. But at least on the Universal side of things it seems prudent to start with the simple question of what went wrong. In this regard we have a few theories.
The first is that there was no real foundation for the Dark Universe, despite the studio’s rights to fiction’s most famous monsters. While there are connections and similarities here and there, it’s not as if there are decades’ worth of comic books, or years’ worth of literature placing these characters on teams or in scenarios together. The closest we can come to placing them all together is the library of slot arcade games produced by NetEnt. Showcased by SlotSource, this collection includes nods to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and even lesser characters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This at least places many of the Dark Universe monsters on the same platform. But it’s merely a result of Universal and NetEnt striking a licensing deal, as opposed to any kind of connected storyline.
The second issue is that the Dark Universe was too openly planned. SyFy Wire did a long write-up on the apparent failure of the universe and made the very interesting observation that audiences might just not have cared about The Mummy (which came out in 2017). This, in theory, was because viewers were keenly aware that everything happening was just to set up a bunch of sequels. That is to say, when Iron Man came out in 2008, we knew that Marvel had more plans in the works, but we didn’t know the full scope of the MCU, or how connected everything would be; we were just watching an Iron Man movie, the way we’d watched Batman Begins in 2005 or Spider-Man in 2002. It was its own movie, and we got a chance to dive into it and embrace its character. The Mummy felt like a steppingstone before we even sat down in theaters.
And the third problem, as we see it, is that The Mummy simply wasn’t compelling. From the moment Tom Cruise’s character fell out of an airplane in the trailer it was clear that this was a more modern spring action flick. The Mummy of the late-‘90s with Brendan Fraser was no masterpiece, but it was at the very least a fun experience, caught somewhere between Indiana Jones and National Treasure – undeniably silly, but self-aware and engaging. The modern version of this kind of film is one lost in over-the-top action sequences and special effects. And unfortunately, Universal doesn’t seem to have been aware that this style – more in the Transformers vein – is growing tired for audiences.
These are three very serious problems: lack of foundation, the assumption of sequels, and a poor start. But if we forget about The Mummy entirely, the concept of a “Dark Universe” actually sounds like one that ought to work. The way we can imagine it doing so is if Universal has the courage to scrap existing plans, hire new producers, writers, and directors, and start all over.