Why we're worried about Universal's Dark Universe

Universal is taking a stab at the "shared universe" approach that Marvel has used to make a mint at the box office, but we have a few concerns about whether the studio's so-called Dark Universe—built on reboots of classic monster-movie properties like the Mummy, the Wolfman, and Bride of Frankenstein—can actually repeat the same type of success as Iron Man and the gang.

Universal is already all in, with development moving on more than half a dozen movies; the Dark Universe kicked off in earnest with The Mummy, and next the studio's eyeing Frankenstein's bride, the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Phantom of the Opera, and a whole lot more. It could be great! But we have a few concerns.

​The Mummy isn't off to a great start

Much like Iron Man got the Marvel Cinematic Universe off the ground, the whole Dark Universe hinges on the success of Tom Cruise's The Mummy…which doesn't look like it's destined to be a major hit at the box office. Analysts predicted a disappointing $35 million Stateside for its opening weekend—but Tom Cruise is a global star, so there's a chance it'll still make a good bit of money in foreign and international markets. Heck, The Mummy broke the opening day record in South Korea with $6.6 million when it opened there—so Tom can still get butts in seats when he needs to. 

That being said, the film reportedly cost around $125 million to make, so it has an uphill climb to turn a solid profit. Especially with the added pressure of proving there's money to be made with a boatload of additional monster movies.

Reviews for The Mummy are terrible

The reviews are in for The Mummy, and to put it simply: Ouch. The film is trending below 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, landing it firmly in the "Rotten" category. The Hollywood Reporter noted it's "hard to muster anything like desire for another Dark Universe flick after seeing this limp, thrill-free debut," while Indiewire called it "obviously the worst film Tom Cruise has ever made." 

It wasn't all bad. USA Today noted that the movie was a "tomb full of action-packed guilty pleasure that owns its horror, humor and rampant silliness equally," and Entertainment Weekly argued that it's "just good enough to keep you curious about what comes next." Which admittedly isn't the highest of praise, but it could always be worse.

The Phantom of the Opera doesn't work as a monster movie anymore

Universal has announced plans to turn The Phantom of the Opera into a monster movie at some point down the line. Which makes some sense: Though most people associate the story with Andrew Lloyd Webber's legendary musical, long before it was on Broadway, it was actually one of Universal's earliest monster movies. On the other hand, few filmgoers know or remember that. Heck, Joel Schumacher directed a film version of the story as recently as 2004—which was, of course, based on the musical. If Universal wants to tap back into the story as told in the 1920s and 1940s film versions, there'll be a lot of disappointed moviegoers showing up and wondering what the heck happened to Webber's soundtrack. There's no doubt the Phantom of the Opera is a huge property—just not the way Universal wants to use it.

Hunchback doesn't really fit in a monster-verse

Along with the Phantom of the Opera, the studio has also announced plans for a Hunchback of Notre Dame monster movie. Which seems like a weird fit, especially alongside characters like the Mummy and Wolfman. The story of the Hunchback isn't your typical monster tale—if it works as a Disney animated film, it probably isn't meant for the Dark Universe. A period-set Hunchback movie was first brought to the big screen more than a century ago, so there's definitely precedent for it. But will it work alongside Universal's other would-be monster blockbusters? We have our doubts.

Some of these stories work better as period pieces

There are a lot of great things about the original Universal monster movies, and one of their most appealing aspects is arguably the fact that they exist in a different world—and a different era—from the modern audience's everyday existence. The original films were works of their time, and even the more recent remakes (including 2010's Wolfman and the Mummy movie run starring Brendan Fraser in the late 1990s) were period stories. Bringing these monsters into the modern day is a tricky proposition, and risks turning them into just another explode-y summer blockbuster—like, ahem, The Mummy.

Modern audiences may not care about the characters

For hardcore monster movie fans, characters like the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are legendary. But for average moviegoers? Maybe not so much. Attempts to mount a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake have been stalled for decades, while 2010's Wolfman remake didn't exactly light the box office on fire and had to fight to try and break even. The closest thing we've got to a modern-day Invisible Man is 2000's Hollow Man starring Kevin Bacon. Many of these characters haven't had a lot of screen time over the past few decades—and for the ones who have, it hasn't gone all that well. Universal clearly has a lot of confidence in its stable of monsters, but it could turn out to be ill-placed.

They're probably going to be sued over the name

When Universal came out and announced its monster world would be called the Dark Universe, it left a lot of comics fans scratching their heads—DC already has a Dark Universe, which features its mystical and magical characters such as John Constantine and Swamp Thing, and Warner Bros. is developing a Dark Universe film based on the comics. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, a lawsuit could be brewing if Universal keeps moving forward—Warners is apparently "mulling legal action" right now, and you'd have to think it's not a good thing to have to rebrand your shared universe midstream.

There's already been a modern-day Frankenstein, and it bombed

Judging by The Mummy, it seems Universal's plan is to bring a lot of these characters into the modern day. Well, when it comes to Frankenstein's monster (who will be played by Javier Bardem in the Dark Universe), that's already been tried—and it didn't go all that well. 

The 2014 sci-fi flick I, Frankenstein imagined a modern-day world where a still-alive version of Frankenstein's monster (played by Aaron Eckhart) fights demons and kicks butt in a big, action-heavy story, kind of like The Mummy. How did it fare? Not well. At all. The film made a paltry $71 million at the box office, making it one of the biggest flops of the year. Sure, Universal's take will almost certainly be different, but it's worrisome that there was this much disinterest just a couple of years ago.

Universal keeps restarting its monster-verse

As Universal makes headlines about launching its monster universe with The Mummy, it's easy to forget it technically already started a few years ago. Remember Dracula Untold? The 2014 film underwent a few reshoots in an effort to better fit in with Universal's burgeoning plans for a shared universe, but when the film failed to garner much critical success (despite a decent, but not great, box office haul), Universal quietly ignored those associations and positioned The Mummy as the first film in the Dark Universe. 

To that end, when The Wolfman remake came out in 2010, there were some indications that Universal would use it as a launchpad for more monster remakes—then nothing. Before that, 2004's abysmal Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman in the starring role, looked to potentially start a new monster-verse with a decent box office haul. But when critics shredded it, Universal abandoned any plans for a sequel. At this point can we even trust that Universal will follow through with its latest plans? If history is any indication, the studio is quick to pull the plug at the scent of failure — and The Mummy might have more than a whiff.

Mixing aesthetics could be tough

Universal wants to shake things up in the Dark Universe by featuring big-budget blockbusters like The Mummy alongside smaller horror fare, more in line with what you see from studios like Blumhouse. This isn't a bad idea — low-budget horror is doing really well these days — but trying to do that and build a connected universe is a tricky tightrope to walk. 

They're obviously modeling this concept on what Marvel has done over the past few years, but it's tough to weave a consistent visual and storytelling narrative when one movie costs $150 million, and the next one costs $30 million. The studio has established the Dark Universe as a place with mummy insanity that destroys entire cities, and it'll take hard work and a lot of luck to pivot from that into a simple ghost story. As Marvel has learned, these worlds have to evolve with each film. Again, it's not impossible—but it's definitely not easy.

Shoehorning in a version of S.H.I.E.L.D. to tie it all together

One of the most interesting additions to The Mummy is the existence of Dr. Jekyll's (Russel Crowe) Prodigium group, which investigates and studies all the weird stuff in the world. Put simply, it's the Dark Universe's version of S.H.I.E.L.D. (really more like Hellboy's B.P.R.D, but you get the point). It makes sense from a shared universe perspective to introduce a group like this to give the filmmakers a natural point of connective tissue, but if it isn't handled well, it can also come off as clunky and tedious. It can also hamstring the films, forcing them to potentially use the same point of reference (Prodigum) to introduce these characters—which, again, can get old fast. Heck, just look at Marvel. After using S.H.I.E.L.D. to get the Avengers together, they went and literally blew up the agency to get it out of the way.