Shared universes are dying, and Universal’s Dark Universe is the first casualty.
Or maybe the second, if you count the studio’s first attempt at creating a Marvel-esque movie series.
Dracula Untold wasn’t exactly a hit when it first came out.
Luke Evans plays a benevolent vampire in a fairly forgettable medieval period piece, until, during the final few minutes of the film, the action suddenly switches to a modern day setting, and we’re promised some kind of future instalment that will probably also feature Frankenstein and a bunch of werewolves.
This promised continuation never actually surfaced, because it was a terrible idea. It turns out you can’t build an entire shared universe on a dud movie, and if you try to make a longrunning franchise instead of just focusing on making a solid standalone film first, you end up failing on all fronts.
So did Universal learn their lesson?
Nope. Next came The Mummy, an attempt to reboot the classic horror (and sometimes comedy) franchise, that also served as a reboot of the Dark Universe, just one movie in.
This film didn’t do any better. Universal made all the same mistakes again, trying so hard to build a universe that they failed to make a decent film. There’s not a lot of redeemable elements in this movie, not even with Tom Cruise doing his standard crazy stunt thing and leaping in front of genuine busses, or fighting stuntmen in zero gravity.
Future movies in the Dark Universe were postponed indefinitely following the failure of The Mummy, and now, the franchise has lost two key executive producers. Universal made all the same mistakes twice, and now has two dud movies instead of an actual shared universe that anyone cares about.
So is this the end? Will Universal try a third time to kick off an interconnected monster movie franchise?
Almost certainly. Give it a few years, and the studio will revive its plans, bringing a new monster – possibly the Bride of Frankenstein, as that was the next film the studio planned to make – out into the foreground to serve as a launching point for their new series.
The thing is, though, by now it might be really too late to get a Dark Universe – or anything similar – off the ground.
This week, DC Entertainment announced that their shared universe of superheroes is essentially going to disintegrate after Aquaman – going forward, they’re not going to try and stick everything to a solid, rigid continuity.
Whether or not the studio goes through with this plan, it’s understandable that they would want to try playing things faster and looser with franchise interconnectivity. The only truly popular movie in the DCEU is Wonder Woman, as DC has learned that if you build an entire shared universe around a couple of problematic and awkward movies like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, you very quickly paint yourself into a corner.
Fox is finding something similar, albeit with a few more successes. Logan and Deadpool are the studio’s biggest recent hits, and they’re decidedly not connected to the canon of previous instalments in the X-Men franchise – not the this series has ever had particularly rigid continuity to begin with.
Meanwhile, the upcoming Transformers spin-off that will feature Bumblebee in a starring role looks like it might be very distinct from the style and perhaps even the canon of the Michael Bay movies.
Across Hollywood, studios are learning that the Marvel method might bring in lots of ticket sales initially, but such a tightly connected universe isn’t actually good for helping creators to make genuinely enjoyable and innovative films.
Even Marvel is adapting their practices. While Thor: Ragnarok and Captain America: Civil War are set in the same continuity, they’re so tonally different that they feel like completely separate worlds – truth be told, these two movies aren’t even in the same genre, with one being a campy swashbuckling fantasy space opera, and the other being a gritty political thriller-cum-heartfelt wartime bromance love triangle movie.
If Universal is smart, they’ll abandon plans for a future revival of the Dark Universe. Unlike Dracula and The Mummy, this is one concept that’s better off staying dead for a while.
Instead, the studio should work on making good, solid films, and if they prove to be hits, connecting them after the fact. That’s how the original Universal shared universe of horror movie monsters first developed, and it’s also how Marvel got their start as well.
There’s a reason nobody in the MCU ever explicitly references Edward Norton’s escapades as The Incredible Hulk, and why plot points such as The Leader have never been explored further.
The Universal Dark Universe doesn’t need to rise from its tomb a third time. Instead, maybe the studio should work on making one good movie, and worry about sequels once they’ve proved that they can at least get a single film right.