Is Universal’s Dark Universe Already Dead?

Audiences are gorging on an endless smorgasbord of blockbuster, superhero, and action-adventure films. Movie theaters today have become a kind of roadside buffet offering semi-satisfying appetizers, questionable main courses, and false promises of unlimited dessert. So far, unless you’re Marvel, the menu has included far more mystery meat than chocolate cake. OK, that’s about as far as I’ll stretch this particular metaphor, but I think it’s an apt description for Hollywood’s trilogy, franchise, and universe gluttony (I lied, the metaphor continues).

After the horror that was Tom Cruise’s The Mummy — the first in a planned series of monster films by Universal, which they announced (collectively) as The Dark Universe. The Mummy earned $407 million worldwide on a budget of $125 million; after marketing costs — just double the budget — this film probably turned a decent profit. However, critical reviews and audience reactions were, at best, less than complementary (16% on Rotten Tomatoes with only 37% liking the film).

The big question after The Mummy‘s woes: would there be another film in the Dark universe? The answer is starting to emerge, and it’s a bit scary (especially if you’re a Universal executive).

According to Deadline, the next Dark Universe film was slated to be Bill Condon’s The Bride of Frankenstein, which hoped to star Javier Bardem and Angelia Jolie. Deadline is reporting that Bride of Frankenstein has been put on hold, which raises obvious questions about the other Universal films in this universe (Wolfman, Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Van Helsing, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Universal released a statement, which they hope calms everyone’s nerves:

After thoughtful consideration, Universal Pictures and director Bill Condon have decided to postpone Bride of Frankenstein. None of us want to move too quickly to meet a release date when we know this special movie needs more time to come together. Bill is a director whose enormous talent has been proven time and again, and we all look forward to continuing to work on this film together.”

SlashFilm relates that this announcement comes just days after Condon confirmed that pre-production was imminent. The script is apparently getting “retooled,” which could mean anything from a mere bumb-in-the-road to a indefinite shelving-of-the-property.

In fairness to Universal, these classic monsters are all great properties with broad public recognition. However, as we’ve recently seen with other classic Hollywood properties (King Arthur, Alien, King Kong, Godzilla), audiences are leaning toward more contemporary subject matter like Jurassic Park, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avatar.

It’s also noteworthy that low-budget horror films continue to rake in money (Annabelle: Creation, Don’t Breathe), but these Universal films (at least so far) register more as action, disaster, or creature films, which appeals to a different demographic.

Hopefully the other major studios take note of Universal’s missteps and the (possible) demise of its Dark Universe. Consider that we’re at a point now where one or more blockbuster films debuts in theaters almost every week of the year, many of which are already trilogies, franchises, and universes. Statists relates that movie attendance is steadily dwindling; Just over 30% of Americans visited theaters “a few times” last year, less than 15% attend monthly, and only 3% weekly. It’s hard to build a business around such infrequent attendance, particularly when audiences are already inundated with an embarrassment of major movie properties.

It’s easy to forget that Marvel built their universe slowly, one film at a time until momentum and inertia took over. If there is to be a continuation of the Dark Universe, it will only occur if the next film up is truly awesome unto itself and entertains on its own merits.

SOURCE: Deadline, Slashfilm, Rotten Tomatoes, Box Office Mojo, Statica