There are two words that light up the eyes of movie studio executives in Hollywood – but lately, they’ve also come to dignify a collective groan from some audiences: “Shared Universe”.
The phrase that Marvel and its owners Disney have used to great effect to create an interlocking jigsaw puzzle of colourful characters and storylines has granted other studios and companies carte blanche to replicate it themselves – only the problem is, everyone seems to be doing it, with varying degrees of success.
And it seems that the latest attempt, Universal Studios’ plan to create a “Dark Universe”, is the point where people are getting fatigued by the whole idea of having to watch at least 12 films to understand the greater narrative. The first part of their collective idea is a reboot of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise. Reviews have been less than stellar – not least because the movie itself is a colossal disappointment despite having a pretty heavyweight cast and the full power of Universal’s marketing and promotional department behind it.
The problem is that it just isn’t good.
Shared universe issues aside (which we’ll get to in a minute), The Mummy suffers from an incoherent plot, poor special effects (even when compared to its 1999 predecessor), largely flat acting and the relentless need for Tom Cruise to appear as anything other than the Tom Cruise archetype of wise cracking good guy, who isn’t 55. Honest.
The movie would be much better served by having Cruise, who’s character acts recklessly throughout, fully embracing his destiny by becoming the bad guy – which is what the titular character wants from him. But Cruise reverts to type again, giving his character, Nick Moreton, an unlikely but predictable redemption arc, finishing the story as an even greater hero than he began it.
The biggest issue though, is the fact that Universal, the studio behind the film, goes to great, some would argue gargantuan, lengths to establish the fact that this is just the first episode in a grand litany of stories from the monsters that first helped make the studio successful in the first place. Thus, The Mummy will be followed up in a couple of years time by The Bride of Frankenstein, which comes before a further EIGHT movies featuring the likes of Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Phantom of the Opera.
It means Universal have mapped out exactly where they want to go, before the first movie had even been released. But what to do when a tepid reaction, like that of The Mummy, ensues? As ever, the priority will be cash. 2014’s Dracula Untold was originally due to be the studio’s first attempt at creating a shared universe, but it poor financial, as well as critical, performance that has seen Universal distance itself from it as the jumping off point for its franchise. The Mummy had a bad opening weekend in the US, it took $31m, down on expected projections and second in the box office charts behind Wonder Woman – which had already been out a week.
But Universal has already stalled on the Dark Universe once, so now, given the fact that there are so many pointers in The Mummy itself, and the movie actually starts with a huge placeholder title screen with the words “Dark Universe”, it seems there’s no way back.
It’s almost as if in teeing up the rest of the franchise, Universal forgot to make the first film worth watching – and that’s where they, and Warner Brothers, and the group of studios that have Hasbro properties on their books – can learn from Marvel, who up until this point, seem to be the only people that can do it right.
The Mummy features the shadowy organisation Prodigium, presided over by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, who are the SHIELD-like group that will provide a common thread amongst all the upcoming installments. In this first feature, lots of time is spent establishing its location, motives, key players, monsters they’ve already fought and studied, and the fact that Jekyll himself is the monstrous character of lore that his name suggests.
In Iron Man, the only mentions of SHIELD are in a brief scene towards the end of the movie, and the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury for a few seconds in a post-credit sequence. The majority of the movie focuses on Tony Stark himself and his redemption – a far more credible one than Cruise’s made-for-this-feature Morton, who has no recognition value beyond the fact he’s played by a Hollywood A-lister.
And herein lies the lesson that Marvel has got right that the others have yet to hit upon: The franchise never comes before the movie (yes Iron Man 2 somewhat belays that, but not to the extent it detracts from the story the character goes through). Marvel had a clear plan to begin with, and have flourished by virtue of having a blank template. Links between movies were limited to the odd scene, a shared character like Fury or Phil Coulson, and the origin story allowed to grow naturally. Marvel knows that to overload the idea of an intricate web of overlapping stories and characters at an early stage, franchise fatigue would have set in by 2017. The fact it hasn’t is testament to its vision and plan – given the whole thing started in 2008 and now encompasses 15 films, 5 shorts and 6 TV series, with a further 11 movies, and 4 TV series on the way. To have sledgehammered SHIELD, the Infinity Stones, and Thanos into the first couple of movies would have meant, by now, people would be bored of what was to come, having been teased, but not delivered, for 12 years.
Warner Brothers have adopted the opposite approach. Its DC Extended Universe has, by default, got to take a different route – but one that has sought to introduce as many characters as possible in a short space of time. But its problems lie not just in trying to establish a shared continuity between its movies. Man of Steel had issues with both source material and lack of clarity over the motivations and morals of Superman. Batman v Superman suffered from cramming in as many storylines from the books as possible, taking liberties with characterisation (like Batman’s reliance on guns and quite happily gunning villains down), then dropping in cameos for the upcoming Justice League feature, and finally bringing Wonder Woman in – despite the fact she ended up being one of the best parts of the film itself. Suicide Squad had a drained palette, detracting from the colourful craziness of the books, and while it didn’t link explicitly to the Justice League plans, it did include a Batman cameo, and set up spin offs for Harley Quinn and Deadshot, at the expense of the contemporary narrative.
They, like Universal, have a stable of characters ripe for franchise material, so it’s entirely reasonable that they would want to use them to enhance their product. The issue is how they use them. Marvel will always have the advantage because they are pioneers, and anyone replicating their successful formula will be accused of copying them. But there are different ways to alter the somewhat haphazard nature of building these universes.
Patience is key – Warner Bros has produced 4 DCEU movies in as many years, but three have come within the last 12 months. Universal is at least waiting 3 years before adding to its monster portfolio, but now has to reexamine whether or not the lukewarm reception The Mummy has received is cause for a rethink. As mentioned earlier, Hasbro has tentatively explored the idea of a combined universe of its properties, strewn across a variety of studios. The likes of MGM, Universal and Paramount all the movies rights to the likes of Transformers, GI Joe, Visionaries and Micronauts, all of which are now being rumoured to be part of the same universe. While the idea of The Rock’s Roadblock having a dust up with Optimus Prime may excite some, others may just think “what’s the point?”
Shared universes are now commonplace, and that’s because of Marvel’s success – the problem is that success is something other studios are so desperate to replicate, they may have forgotten the reason they got into the business in the first place – to make good movies.