The Future of the Dark Universe is Unclear, But It Always Has Been

The Mummy

‘The Mummy’ director Alex Kurtzman, who has also been a producer of the whole franchise, might be exiting.

Following the negative response from critics and its mediocre $79M domestic box office take, The Mummy is having quite the effect on the cinematic universe it means to spawn. The latest on the uncertainty of the future of the Dark Universe franchise is that director Alex Kurtzman revealed to IGN that he is not sure about his involvement in further installments. When asked about his continued involvement, the filmmaker replied:

“You know, the truth is, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I haven’t really decided is the honest answer.”

After the movie’s disappointing box office, it was not long before the blame game began. While some have argued that the extensive control Tom Cruise had over the project negatively affected the final product, it seems that Kurtzman is taking most of the heat. Ultimately, the prospect of his exit from the franchise would pose yet another setback for production.

Along with Fast & Furious screenwriter Chris Morgan, Kurtzman was producing and overseeing the creative development of the next installment, The Bride of Frankenstein — to be released on February 14, 2019 — and upcoming films The Invisible Man (starring Johnny Depp), Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, and Hunchback of Notre Dame.

While The Mummy definitely has its flaws, it is a stretch to think that Kurtzman’s departure would singlehandedly fix the saga’s sloppy start, especially when Universal’s venture in the shared cinematic universe business wasn’t built up on solid ground. The studio’s plans for this franchise have never been clear, and there lies one of the core problems with The Mummy and the Dark Universe. So, it’s helpful to look back at how the studio has (mis)handled the idea from the beginning in order to gauge how it might move forward.

In May 2012, Kurtzman and writing partner Roberto Orci signed a production deal with Universal and began working on the reboots for The Mummy and Van Helsing, with Tom Cruise set to star in the latter as the titular vampire slayer. A couple of months later, the very busy Kurtzman released his directorial debut, People Like Us. And over the next two years, he worked with Orci as writer and/or producer on tentpole releases such as Star Trek Into Darkness, Now You See Me, Ender’s Game, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, leaving the deal on standby.

In April 2014, Kurtzman and Orci ended — on good terms — their creative partnership. Then, in July, Universal announced plans for a shared universe that would reboot their classic monsters, starting with The Mummy in 2017, with Kurtzman and Morgan overseeing the project. A few months later, the studio put out Dracula Untold, featuring a reshot ending scene that could purportedly connect it to the other monster movies, though even director Gary Shore was unsure about whether the film was the beginning of the franchise or not.

By 2015, the studio had assembled a writer’s room that included Fargo’s Noah Hawley, Prisoners‘ Aaron Guzikowski, and Ed Solomon (Now You See Me), who worked in early treatments of different monster films simultaneously, and planned to release a movie per year. The Van Helsing reboot came up again after Jon Spaihts and Eric Heisserer started working on a script — even though Tom Cruise was now linked to The Mummy reboot — and plenty of A-list actors, ranging from Angelina Jolie to Dwayne Johnson, were rumored to be tapped for leading roles in the franchise. But aside from The Mummy, everything else was very vague.

Finally, in May 2017, only a few weeks ahead of The Mummy‘s release date, Universal officially revealed the name for their cinematic universe, along with a logo and a photo featuring the leading cast: The Mummy‘s Tom Cruise (as Sergeant Nick Morton, an original role), Sofia Boutella (the Mummy), and Russell Crowe (Dr. Jekyll), plus future Frankenstein’s Monster Javier Bardem and Invisible Man Johnny Depp. Even though the reboots’ approach was originally described as “epic action adventures,” the studio released a trailer that focused on the legacy of the classic pantheon of monsters.

Cut to a month later and following the release of The Mummy many people were declaring the franchise dead on arrival. Thus, all things considered, it is reasonable to think that Kurtzman’s potential exit might be the thread that unravels the sweater. Not because he is essential to the success of the franchise, but because he could be the brick on the fragile foundation that gives in to the weight of the expectations that the studio created for itself.

Universal’s motivation to invest in a shared universe is mostly financial: while they own franchises such as Despicable Me, Jurassic Park and The Fast and the Furious, they are one of the few studios without a cinematic universe to provide such a steady flow of income. However, the effort is not entirely misguided either: after all, they were, with the these same monster characters, the first to gather iconic characters together in film.

But the studio’s focus on the business side of cinematic universes is probably the root of their creative issues. In a similar way to DC, Universal seems to feel the pressure to catch up with other franchises — when, in fact, arriving late to the party could provide an advantage — and lacks a sense of direction or an established narrative structure to support their executive decisions (like holding on to Tom Cruise to the point of having to introduce a new character). They rely heavily on star power and the blockbuster pedigree of producers and writers like Kurtzman because, from an economic point of view, they are a safe bet. But their creative choices are put to the test when it comes to storytelling and consistency,  key elements of a shared cinematic universe. Furthermore, the secrecy surrounding the universe’s development makes it harder for audiences to figure out what to expect and how to respond to it.

The Dark Universe is treading a similar path as DC in its early days, but if there’s anything that 2017 has taught us so far it’s that franchises can turn around the tide, even after not one, but multiple missteps. While DC is not out of the woods yet, it has shown that character development is an important part of world-building and it wouldn’t hurt Universal to take note of the lessons provided by DC’s past failures. The question is whether the studio is willing to learn from its own mistakes (and the mistakes of others), with or without Kurtzman.

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