If you’re a fan of action-packed interconnected universes, you may have been sad to learn that Universal’s so-called “Dark Universe” has supposedly collapsed. The plan, initially, was for the past spring’s remake of “The Mummy” (starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe) to spark a sprawling series of monster-related projects to rival the superhero properties of Marvel. However, “The Mummy” was met with a poor reception at the box office, relatively speaking, and things appear to have crumbled.
While “The Mummy” wasn’t an all-out bomb, it wasn’t nearly as profitable as a franchise-starter ought to be, and may not have been truly profitable at all when all is said and done. It was also bashed into oblivion by critics, which certainly doesn’t bode well for convincing fans to get out and pay money for the next film (which was meant to be a “Bride Of Frankenstein” remake). These failures could have been overcome, and may still be – but on November 8, the two leading producers and creative types behind the Dark Universe departed to do other projects.
That at least puts the future projects in serious jeopardy. But if there’s any optimism to be found for those who’d still like to see something resembling the planned Dark Universe, it might lie in the fact that Universal has seemingly abandoned a first installment once before. While there was less talk about a larger plan a few years ago, “Dracula Untold” was almost certainly intended to be a sort of soft launch for the Dark Universe. Only after that film, too, proved to be a critical and commercial misfire did Universal distance itself from it. Studio representatives have more or less insisted that “The Mummy” was meant to be the first movie – but had “Dracula Untold” been a success, does anyone doubt that it would have been hailed as the kickoff to the Dark Universe?
“Dracula Untold,” on paper, was actually a fresh and intriguing retelling of the Dracula narrative. Rather than being based on Bram Stoker’s famous novel, the film sought to create a new origin story around the historical figure of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler – a ruler in Transylvania. Luke Evans played the role of a Vlad who was kidnapped and turned into a fearsome warrior by Ottoman forces before returning home to rule his kingdom. Faced with the threat of an Ottoman invasion years later (and a need to protect his family), Vlad seeks the assistance of a vampire in a nearby cave. He makes a sort of devil’s bargain, gaining the power and strength of a vampire, with the knowledge that he can turn back into a human only if he resists drinking human blood for three days.
Not a bad concept, right? It turned Dracula into a relatable antihero, with, as one review described it, “the whole family man thing” making it strange if nothing else. Evans is a generally compelling actor, and in the quieter scenes he actually carried the film successfully. The trouble was there weren’t enough such scenes, and the whole project ultimately devolved into senseless, overblown, and too-dark action. What ought to have been a fresh gothic reboot – a fantasy-infused “Gladiator” shrouded in black – wound up feeling like just another popcorn flick intent upon outdoing its own action sequences and drowning itself in CGI.
As a result of these shortcomings, there’s very little legacy to the project. Unlike so many other modern action properties, it failed to lead to a video game, even in the mobile category. There is a Dracula slot game online that references “The Vampire King” and was made with Universal’s approval. But while its background and slot symbols vaguely resemble the aesthetic of the 2014 film, it claims to have been inspired by the original 1931 “Dracula.” In addition to striking out on games, “Dracula Untold” also failed to generate a sequel – though there was some speculation that a return to the project could ultimately be part of the Dark Universe.
That’s what could have been. There could have been positive reviews, games, a sequel, a whole different beginning to the Dark Universe – had the film not gotten in its own way. Even as Universal fell short on all of this potential however, it pushed ahead with a full vision for its Universe and launched “The Mummy” just three years after “Dracula Untold.” So, while there’s now a lot of justified pessimism about the larger franchise potential, don’t give up just yet. A look back at “Dracula Untold” shows us that “The Mummy” falling short doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be another attempt to spark a series.
Perhaps the third time will be the charm.