How A Universal Monsters Revival Could Work

Marvel Studios pretty much set the standard for its how to do shared cinematic universes. With 13 films grossing over $10 billion dollars and a plethora of successful shows on ABC and Netflix (with Cloak and Dagger coming to Freeform next year), rival studios are doing their absolute most to create their own shared universes. Fellow Disney property Star Wars branching out beyond the main saga. Warner Bros has two in the works, the DC and the Godzilla-Kong Universes. Paramount wants to start a Hasbro Cinematic Universe around Transformers, GI Joe, and Shem (80s y’all!).

Universal on the other hand wants to rebirth an old predecessor to contemporary shared universes, the monsters. Yup, they want to bring back The Mummy, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Dracula, Invisible Man, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the Bride of Frankenstein from the 1930’s to the 50’s. They crossed over a few times, though none of them were particularly good.  However, 2014’s Dracula Untold restarted a new universe that will continue with The Mummy (2017) starring Tom Cruise. Apparently, Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll will be the lose thread that helps lay the groundwork of universe, with Johnny Depp starring in an The Invisible Man remake, and potentially Javier Bardem and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, respectively.

So what does Universal have to do to make a financially and critically successful franchise? Well, let’s explore what has to be done.

Make Good Individual Films 

No one can set up Rome in a day. Marvel did not create their uber successful cinematic universe in its first film. They just created a successful first film, Iron Man, which boasts a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed over $500 million. Story-wise, it didn’t waste too much time trying to set up for other films, doing so in brief segments that did not take away from the overall narrative. With each film, they introduced more elements and Easter eggs, some of which worked to help tell a concise story (like Thor and Captain America) and some of which did not (Iron Man 2). As such, their movies accrued enough financial and critical success to make The Avengers possible, which in turn created enough hype for Phase 2, which started off with Iron Man 3 grossing $1 billion. Phase 2, in turn raised the bar and collectively grossed a prettier penny than Phase 1. Now, Phase 3 has started off well with Civil War grossing over $1.1 billion!

Universal should learn from DC as well, as Batman v. Superman tried too hard to world-build while telling an erratic and unfocused story. BvS was a sequel to Man of Steel, which already had mixed reception, a Batman reboot, a brief Wonder Woman intro, a prequel to Justice League, and an adaptation of several DC Comics story-lines. That’s doing the absolute most! Don’t create a film for the sole purpose of hyping for a future movie. That’s how you get BvS, Iron Man 2, and X-Men: Apocalypse. Either make that future film or concentrate on the movie you have at hand.

Also like DC, Universal is already off to a somewhat rocky start with the negative reception of Dracula Untold. Now, because the studio decided during post-production that it would be connected to other films, it almost did not fit well. As such, The Mummy is an opportunity to rectify the Universe’s mistakes and tell a solid narrative whereas Dracula Untold could not. If they fail to do this, it is likely that the Monster’s Universe will collapse before it can spread.

Connective Tissue 

As mentioned earlier, the individual films need to tell their unique story. However, connective tissue via easter eggs and common characters will help formulate the Monster’s Universe. Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll seems to be a connective character.

Universal will likely come up with a Thanos or Darkseid type character, i.e., a big bad whose threat ranges across the films. Or, perhaps, they’ll just weave common elements that’ll lead to a team-up of all these monsters with a unique threat that is only specific to that particular film. We don’t know. But they’ll have to figure something out that won’t be looked down upon as “ripping off Marvel.” They have more than enough mythology to work with but with a limited amount of chances to get it right.

Diversity! 

Diversity is not just a buzzword I’m using simply because I’m a Black leftist who loves egalitarian societies and representation for us. There’s actual monetary value in diverse leads and casts for film studios. Films with diverse casts and leads do pretty well at the box office, simply because of the rising population of POC here in the US as well as the largely non-white world we live in. Take Universal’s Fast and Furious series: it does well! The cast has Black, White, Latino, and Asian characters in significant roles. Hell, even the damn cars are diverse from American to damn near everywhere else.

While The Mummy has Tom Cruise, a White male as the lead, it also has Sofia Boutella, an Algerian woman, as the titular character. I actually have little issue with this since Tom Cruise is still a box office sensation at the age of 53. I’m also happy that a woman of color gets to play the villain just as long as she’s afforded the type of characterization and multi-dimensionality that the best White villains are offered. As long as she’s not a silent sex object, I’ll have no issue with this casting. Plus, her casting beats Gods of Egypt and Exodus,  since they represented an ancient African civilization as being White.

Right…

And of course, The Wolf Man is trying to get the Rock to play the titular character. However, if he’s not cast, it would still be great to see a man of color play the lead, even if we see him in makeup/CGI most of the time. I personally would not mind a savage beast played by a man of color so long as it does not affirm certain specific tropes that demonize MOC. I’d love to see Dev Patel or Michael B. Jordan within the role if not the Rock. I’d also love to see the Lupita Nyong’o, Priyanka Chopra, or Tessa Thompson in significant lead roles as well. Expand your audience share and develop stars as well.

It’s okay to have some color in film y’all. This is not the 50’s.

Pick a genre

The earlier incarnation of the film series was strictly horror. This means that the tone of those movies was that of dread. Audiences were supposed to be frightened of what happened throughout the film and they certainly were back in those days, where special effects and visualizing terror were new and advanced techniques back in the day.

Now, in a post 9/11 world where both nuclear proliferation and distrust of government are our realities, folks just aren’t as terrified from vampires and werewolves. So, the horror elements of these monsters are going to have to be toned down. For a successful franchise, Universal is needs to stress action as its primary genre. Whether it’s the monsters or some human as the film’s protagonists, action-adventure has to take precedence if they want to draw in moviegoers.

Don’t try to be like Marvel or DC 

Marvel and DC are comic book properties with thousands of different characters, ranging from heroes, villains, and supporting characters as well. They also have hundreds of worlds, alternate universes, and elements that make them unique. Universal’s monsters are not superheroes in any conventional sense and their source materials do not have enough characters. Does not mean they can’t be intriguing, but their franchise cannot do what Marvel does or what DC has potential to do. They have to carefully craft original characters that are just as intriguing as the beasts themselves.

It’s also okay Universal’s first few films do not make a billion dollars each. They have the Jurassic World and Fast and Furious franchises more than capable of making that kind of profit. But they need to understand that the monsters, while having history, are at a disadvantage in the market given their dormancy and relative over-saturation from other studios (Dracula and Frankenstein exist in the public domain). Also, competition from Disney and Warner Bros franchises are going to lead some some slightly lower box office receipts for Universal.

This also requires for the films to be produced with manageable budgets so they can see better returns. They don’t need to have $150+ million dollar budgets in order to appeal to be great. They don’t need a whole lot of CGI to work either.

Conclusion

Universal Studios’ monster movies are already facing an uphill battle. Already, this summer alone has seen a dip in profits for theater chains and studios alike. Movies that were expected to be box office smashes have been anything but. Disney (Marvel included) are rock solid bets that will payout to all its players. For Universal Monsters to do well financially, they’ll have to tell solid stories with compelling characters, diversify their casts, and create its own signature that makes them distinct from the MCU, the DCEU, and GK series. Otherwise, they could get off to a rockier start than the DCEU and the series could die before it can turn into a monster under the full moon.

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