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Dark Universe Starts Slow with ‘The Mummy’ Flop, But ‘Wonder Woman’ Offers Hope

Contrary to popular belief, this mega-franchise isn’t exactly dead on arrival.
By  · Published on June 12th, 2017

Contrary to popular belief, this mega-franchise isn’t exactly dead on arrival.

No studio should ever plan on starting a movie franchise, let alone a cinematic universe mega-franchise, before releasing a single installment. Marvel didn’t do that, and DC did do that, and you know which one has had more success overall because they initially let things evolve rather than force it from the beginning.

Universal isn’t like Disney and Warner Bros., though. They’re the king of reinventing their own series or exploiting what they realize is popular. Look at the Fast and the Furious series for the former success, Despicable Me and Minions for the latter. But they don’t always know. They didn’t foresee Jurassic World being quite so huge.

And they surely didn’t expect for The Mummy to perform so poorly at home. Early predictions set its domestic opening at $50M, then more recently it was down to $40M (Entertainment Weekly dipped as low as $28M last week). The actual number for US and Canada gross wound up being only $32M.

That’s lower than each of the three Brendan Fraser-led Mummy movies (yes, including Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), even before adjusting for inflation. It’s lower than the Tom Cruise movies OblivionThe Last SamuraiEyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky, and Collateral (all adjusted), none of these being viewed as his greatest hits.

It is a bit higher than Edge of Tomorrow, at least, and that movie is getting a sequel. However, that’s in part because it has had legs and a fan base, especially globally, since its debut. It called for a sequel after release. The Mummy, on the other hand, had been set up before its production as the introduction of a whole new cinematic universe.

Dark Universe, as this mega-franchise has now been branded, almost began with 2014’s Dracula Untold, yet that didn’t perform well enough. Of course, The Mummy didn’t even improve on that by $10M. Could Universal still be banking on this being the start of something so big — or of anything at all?

Let’s look at other franchise kickoffs for comparison:

Dark Universe seems to have had the lowest debut for what would become a major franchise player, planned or unplanned. Universal’s ambition now looks overly optimistic, at least from a domestic perspective. Fortunately, the foreign opening is $142M. That’s better than Man of Steel, which opened globally over two weeks to about $130M. And Iron Man‘s $99M. And Transformers‘ $110M. (None of these adjusted.)

The new franchise will carry on thanks to that international audience, so long as the grosses continue to be positive in those overseas territories — especially the ones where audiences want spectacle and stars and can ignore nonsensical plots, scenes, and dialogue mashed from multiple screenplay drafts penned in English.

And that’s fine. If Universal is also interested in improving its movies as it moves forward. The studio knows about turning things around both financially and for greater quality. Jurassic World pulled in better reviews and much bigger box office than the previous two parts of that series. And the Fast and the Furious movies went from nearly becoming a direct-to-DVD series to an acclaimed box office behemoth.

Universal can also look over at the movie and franchise that beat it at the box office over the weekend: DC’s Wonder Woman.

The DCEU is comparable to The Mummy in its critical reception, with the Dark Universe movie initially having a Rotten Tomatoes score equal to the low percentages for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad (the score for The Mummy later fell further down). DC has now changed its course with one of the best-reviewed superhero movies of all time.

Wonder Woman is brighter (literally and tonally), more comprehensive, more autonomous, more empowering and heroic, and more open to a wider audience’s interests. And moviegoers are responding just as much as critics. It may not have opened as well as the other three DCEU movies, but it appears to have better legs and could make more money in the end (it was cheaper, too).

That’s what happens when you actually make a good, enjoyable movie: word of mouth for Wonder Woman is terrific, and so is return business. As a result, its second-weekend drop of only 43%  (with $59M) is one of the best for a superhero movie in a decade. Certainly better than Batman v Superman‘s 69% and Suicide Squad‘s 67%, and Man of Steel‘s 65%. The movie also just grossed more in its second weekend than did each of those.

Dark Universe can easily make a similar reversal. For audience appeal, it might bring Dwayne Johnson into the fold, just as it did with Fast and the Furious (and the previous Mummy series, in fact). The Rock as the Wolf Man could make lots of money, even in the US/Canada. Maybe throw in Kevin Hart as a guy who isn’t having any of a werewolf being on the loose.

Up next from Dark Universe, or at least the only one scheduled at the moment, is Bride of Frankenstein, and there’s a lot of promise there. Bill Condon, who knows Universal Monsters (he wrote and directed the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters) and relevant franchise successes (he directed the last two blockbuster Twilight sequels) is at the helm. That’s one plus.

Condon has had his hits and misses both with critics and at the box office (2013’s The Fifth Estate was a low point on both fronts), but he’s an Oscar-winning talent (for the Gods and Monsters screenplay; he also was nominated for writing the Chicago movie) and his most recent effort, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, has grossed $1.2B worldwide.

He’s more qualified and capable than Alex Kurtzman, who’d made one other, unsuccessful film prior to The Mummy (2012’s People Like Us), so Condon’s hire is encouraging. Of course, Kurtzman, better known as a writer/producer involved with such problem-laden franchises as Star TrekThe Amazing Spider-Man, and Transformers, will remain in charge of the whole shebang.

We can’t count Dark Universe a disaster just yet. It’s not dead on arrival, as many claimed. It’s just off to a poor start with the Mummy. Like that movie’s namesake, this thing could be resurrected from apparent death. And it could wind up successful in all regards. The Universal Monsters have continued to be iconic for more than 90 years in various forms, and the studio can’t let it all go fall away with one measly misfire.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.