Why Universal’s Dark Universe Hasn’t Gotten Off the Ground

When The Avengers opened in theaters in the summer 2012 and earned rave reviews from critics but also became one of the biggest movies of all time, the experimental concept of the shared universe that Marvel Studios began with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008 had finally taken off and led to an arms race among studios to have their own interconnected franchise of films. In the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. launched three shared universes in the DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU), The Conjuring Universe, and their own MonsterVerse (featuring Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island). One universe that failed to get off the ground was Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe.

This certainly was shocking as seventy years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Universal Pictures had successfully made their own universe back in the 1940s. They united their various Universal Monsters in a variety of crossover films, starting with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Since then, characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and his Bride, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon all became connected in the branding, The Universal Monsters. So, it made a certain amount of sense for them to bring them together in their own shared universe.

Universal Pictures invested heavily in the brand, outlining many future films and looking to elevate the material by casting A-list actors like Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, and Javier Bardem. Yet the Dark Universe failed to take off before it even began. Why has Universal’s Dark Universe not gotten off the ground, and is there any hope for the franchise in the future?

Update February 22, 2024: With plans announced for a Dark Universe attraction at the new theme park, Epic Universe, in Universal Orlando Flordia, this article has been updated with more details about The Dark Universe, including recent films like Lisa Frankenstein and the upcoming film, Abigail.

The Failure of The Mummy was Seen as the Failure of the Dark Universe

Starring big names such as Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, and Russell Crowe, The Mummy seemed like a perfect choice to launch a new, monster-focused cinematic universe. While on the surface, the movie’s $400 million worldwide at the box office would make it a hit, due to the high production budget and marketing cost, it wound up losing Universal Pictures as much as $95 million. The film was panned severely by critics and word of mouth sank the movie. It also did not help that it opened the week after Wonder Woman, a film from a rival cinematic universe that actually was getting strong critical and audience word of mouth and, in its second weekend, held onto the number one spot at the box office while The Mummy embarrassingly opened in second place.

While The Mummy brand name certainly had a lot of goodwill thanks to the beloved classic from 1999 starring Brendan Fraiser and Rachel Weisz, the reboot looked like a generic Tom Cruise action film. Notably, the movie was not scary. While trying to turn the Universal Monsters into action franchises worked with The Mummy, it notably failed with Van Helsing. Instead of embracing the new wave of horror brought on by studios like Blumhouse and A24, Universal tried to take their classic horror characters and fit them into the mold of the then-popular superhero. Yet, this is not what audiences wanted from these monsters.

The Mummy was plagued by behind-the-scenes issues, with reports saying star Tom Cruise took creative control over the project from the rather in-experienced director, Alex Kurtzman. After the resounding failure of The Mummy, nearly all the plans Universal had for more Dark Universe movies were put on hold. Re-imaginings of Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were put indefinitely on hold. With cautious hesitancy from that point forth, Universal seemed to focus on individual films at a time rather than a shared universe.

A Rocky Start Sank the Dark Universe

Though The Mummy was the official opening entry into the franchise, back in 2014, studio executives tried to make Dracula Untold the opening ensemble. The film was originally greenlit before the plans of a shared cinematic universe were formed, as it was just intended to be a standalone Dracula origin story. Yet by the time the film hit theaters in 2014, the cinematic universe craze was in full swing, so Universal reshot parts of the movie and added scenes that were intended to set up Dracula Untold as part of their plans. Yet the film’s disappointing box office and critical reaction made Universal quickly forget about the movie, and it was seen as the odd film out as nobody ever clarified if Luke Evans Dracula was going to play a part in Universal’s plans moving forward.

Then, with the anticipated hype before the release of The Mummy, Universal went on to announce quite a few films that were set to start pre-production, such as Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and Creature From the Black Lagoon, just to name a few. But with the crushing defeat of The Mummy at the box office (which also did worse than Dracula Untold), studio executives went on to shelve most of these films (along with the rest of their plans). Two failures in a row, and both staining the IP that inspired them. It’s no wonder why the Dark Universe seemed to be dead at some point. One quiet failure, but then came the loud one.

Focus on Establishing the Universe Over Making Good Movies

With Marvel’s Iron Man, the opening entry into the MCU, the plot itself was all focused on Tony Stark and his origin story. No Captain America, no Hulk, no Avengers. Just one man trying to stop a villain. Hints of an expanded universe were only mentioned in the film’s post-credits scenes, but this seemed to be an Easter egg at that point and not a confirmation of the future.

Rather than go that route for their first film, Universal Studios (and a number of other studios made this mistake as well) chose to try and establish their universe in the middle of The Mummy, rather than focus on the story itself. The film’s script was heavily criticized as instead of telling a good story, it was more preoccupied with teasing future movies for audiences. Instead of learning from Iron Man, The Dark Universe modeled their film after Iron Man 2 which stops the plot in the middle of the movie to set up future films and never turns out good. This is a mistake cinematic universe films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice keep making.

Related: How to Watch the Universal Classic Monster Movies in Order

It was clear that Universal’s two big attempts at reviving their classic monsters in the 2010s had failed. Many wondered if these classic characters had a place in the modern world or if they would be stuck being iconography. Luckily, as a new decade dawned, so would new life for Universal’s Monsters.

Universal Takes A New Approach

2020 saw the release of Leigh Whannell’s outstanding adaptation of The Invisible Man. The film was a complete remodeling of the concept of the creature first seen in 1933 in the original film by James Whale. Technology plays a huge deal this time, and the film came out at a perfect time; it was a great horror representation of themes of mental health, abuse, and gaslighting. But it wasn’t exactly as originally planned. The movie was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe with Johnny Depp in the lead role, but following the failure of The Mummy, Universal pivoted. Instead of focusing on an interconnected story, it allowed Blumhouse Pictures to reimagine the story in it’s own standalone world with no need for larger connection.

It also changed the perspective, not making the Invisible Man the central character but the antagonist, returning the franchise to its horror roots by making him a clearly defined threat and monster. It was now no longer bigger, but smaller scale (and more reasonably priced). The film was a hit with critics and audiences, and despite its theatrical run being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, it grossed $70 million domestically and $74 million worldwide against a $7 million budget. The movie made back its entire budget in its opening day alone ($9 million on its Friday, February 7th opening)

Related: 10 Classic Universal Monster Movies That Perfectly Hold Up Today

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly stalled future plans, it became clear that Universal Pictures would allow a variety of creators to take bold creative swings with their classic monsters. In 2023, audiences revisited one very important character in Universal’s Classic Monsters series, not once, but twice. Dracula got two drastically different reimaginings released months apart from one another. Renfield was a horror comedy taking Dracula’s assistant to modern times and causing havoc in New Orleans. The Last Voyage of the Demeter was an adaptation of The Captain’s Log, a chapter in Bram Stoker’s original novel, in which the crew of the Demeter are threatened by a blood-sucking creature that’s traveling in one of the crates. While both movies were box office bombs, they did get their fair share of support from genre fans.

So, the last couple of years haven’t exactly grim for Universal’s Dark Universe. But that’s because the recent adaptations related to the IPs aren’t quite literal. They’re offshoots of franchises and characters, now re-adapted by filmmakers with diverse styles and their own unique takes on classic horror characters.

What’s in the Future of the Dark Universe?

Universal might not have an interconnected Dark Universe the same way that Marvel Studios or the new DCU will, but their classic monsters are still clearly part of their slate, and all look to be bold takes from various creators. First was the 80s-inspired dark romantic comedy Lisa Frankenstein by writer Diablo Cody and director Zelda Williams. Released by Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, it was a fresh take on a classic material that might be underperforming at the box office but has the makings of a cult classic.

Then, in April 2024, Abigail will be released. The movie is a reimagining of the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter. Universal Pictures adapting a lesser-known Dracula sequel shows they are willing to take some creative swings and mine the intellectual property in unique ways. Then, for the Halloween season comes a remake of The Wolfman, with The Invisible Man director Leigh Whannell at the help and Christopher Abbott taking over for Ryan Gosling. With Whannell at the helm of both The Wolfman and having directed the previous Invisible Man, this might be the closest to some sort of cinematic universe connection as hints or Easter Eggs can be alluded to in the newest film. Finally, for Christmas 2024, Universal Pictures will release Nosferatu. A remake of the unofficial Dracula adaptation, the movie looks to bring one version of Dracula now under the Universal Pictures umbrella.

Universal still has interest in Dark Universe as a brand name, as an entire section of their newly announced theme park, Epic Universe, will be modeled after the Universal Monsters and named Dark Universe. Even if the monsters never unite on screen together, fans will be able to go visit them in their own theme park attraction. Whether Universal Studios has plans to resurrect their Dark Universe from the grave remains to be seen. But the reason why it failed in the first place was chasing a cinematic universe, and hopefully, now the studio is more interested in making the monsters relevant for the 21st century by entrusting them to creative filmmakers.

Check out our interview with Lisa Frankenstein stars Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse.


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