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Universal’s WTF Monster Moment

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This week brought the news that Javier Bardem — Bond villain, hair icon, italicized Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona — is rumored to be joining the ranks of the burgeoning Universal Monsters cinematic universe. (U … M … C … U?) What is the UMCU? In short, it’s Universal’s attempt to get into the universe business. In slightly less short: It’s a series of reboots of classic monster movies, all tied together by a common theme (monsters) and a common … other theme.

Bardem is in talks to play Frankenstein’s monster, and would be the latest addition to a star-studded [don’t say old, don’t say old, don’t say old] veteran cast that already includes Johnny Depp (53, playing the Invisible Man), Tom Cruise (54, playing something called “Tyler Colt” in a reboot of The Mummy), and promising young Twitter star Russell Crowe (52, playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

That sounds great! And mind-blowingly bad! All at the same time. Let’s take a second to try to sort one from the other.

Universal Monsters universe, we have some notes:

Re-Reboot It

By far the most troubling news about Universal’s project is that, well … it’s already begun: 2014’s Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans as the man who becomes — is this right? — Dracula, is apparently being considered the official launch-point of the universe. Hmm. Huh. Dracula Untold grossed $56 million domestically, and that number divided by a million is my guess for how many people even remember it happened. Launching a cinematic universe with Dracula Untold is objectively insane. That’s like launching an amusement park with, I don’t know — one of those games where you squirt water guns to make the plastic horses go faster.

On the other hand, in Universal’s defense, I do kind of get it: “Soft launch” is a great phrase. I could definitely see myself, as a movie executive at Universal, overhearing someone say “soft launch,” turning to my assistant and yelling, “Soft launch — find out what that is,” and then — before they can answer — adding, “You know what, fuck it, I don’t even care what it is. Let’s just do one.” I totally understand how that could happen. But here’s the thing: Soft launches are for restaurants. They’re for jean jackets you’re not sure you can pull off. They are not for movie universes.

Here’s the actual secret sauce for launching a successful movie universe: Make a successful-ass movie.

Marvel’s cinematic universe feels pretty complicated and intricate now — but the truth is, looking back, the movie that set it all up was anything but. 2008’s Iron Man is great and it isn’t much of an urtext. There are some signals in tone, sure. There are a few structural seeds. And Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is probably as close as the MCU has come to an auteurist vision. But there is nothing in Iron Man to point to and say, “Oh, yeah — this is where we’re going.” And that’s the thing: There didn’t have to be. It’s just good. It just worked. It’s a well-executed movie, that a lot of people bought tickets to, and most liked a lot. Way easier said than done, but still — not rocket science.

So let’s pretend that Dracula Untold never happened, OK? Cruise’s The Mummy may be one of the most “sorry, what?” projects I can ever remember being announced — but I am slowly coming around to the idea that that’s a blessing in disguise. Like, how many questions does this now raise? Is Tom Cruise a fan of the original movies? Did Brendan Fraser somehow wind up on Tom Cruise’s “lives to erase” list? Is it now canon in the interconnected Cruise-verse that mummies exist? Did a mummy actually [spoiler alert] kill Goose? Also, are we supposed to believe the Mummy doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is? It hasn’t seen a single Tom Cruise movie? (Not even Minority Report?) At any rate, “Tom Cruise … rebooting The Mummy?” is something I find myself thinking at least once a week. It makes no sense — but I can’t take my mind off of how little sense it makes. I feel like this movie is about to pull off one of the rarest tricks possible: gaining steam on the back of its own, unadulterated WTF.

Which is to say: A few months from now, when people are walking up to strangers, shaking them, and shouting, “WHY IS TOM CRUISE REBOOTING THE MUMMY, PLEASE JUST TELL ME, I NEED TO KNOW,” Universal — you can thank us. But in the meanwhile, simply have faith: Cruise won’t fail. This is your launch.

Gritty-Reboot These Hands

The second-most unpromising fact about Dracula Untold — after “it happened” — is that it’s [holds nose, shuts eyes, types with one hand] gritty. Like, for the amount of “this feels dated” shit that Universal has gotten for building a universe around older actors and even older monsters, the studio is dating itself much, much more by building a universe around a “gritty reboot.”

Of course, gritty-reboot-wave has had its moments: the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy holds up about as well as one could hope for; Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla takes my breath away; and my Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood Fan Club meetings are actually getting really good attendance lately (it’s just me). But even still: I think we all agreed to chill on “gritty” for a minute.

So let’s stick to our word. And let’s make sure we give this HIGHLY SELF-CONSCIOUSLY INTERCONNECTED SERIES OF MOVIES ABOUT WHERE MONSTERS COME FROM the shlock-factor it deserves.

Please, for the Love of God, No References to the Older Movies

A brief word on callbacks:

Pick the Right Stars

So, yeah, finally, about those [permanent scare-quotes] older actors: The more I think about it, the more I’m — is this crazy??? — all in on “40- and 50-somethings doing an EDM ‘Monster Mash’ remix over a high-stakes studio investment” as a theoretical mission statement for an IP loophole dressed as a movie franchise.

And while initial results have been mixed — Cruise (dope), Depp (world’s nope-est nope) — things are already looking up: Two recent UMCU rumors have the Rock in talks to star in a Wolf Man project, and Angelina Jolie being courted to reboot Bride of Frankenstein. That’s perfect. Let’s make those happen — whatever the cost — then work on filling out the rest of these movies with a diverse and interesting stable of stars. Denzel Washington as the Loch Ness? Brad Pitt as the Abominable Snowman? Jennifer Lopez as Medusa? Cameron Diaz as KONGZILLA? Vin Diesel as Lava Man?

YOU ALL GET A GREEN-LIGHT.

Think of it as a practical middle ground: sitting between the buttoned-up innocence of Star Wars screen-testing unknowns, and the fun-‘n’-gun cynicism of The Expendables salvaging careers and exploiting walking SEO. It can be a cinematic universe for stars … in the afterlife of the star system. It can be on-trend but timeless, profitable but weird. It can be a zig where others have zzzzzzzzagged — and a refreshing bit of anti-ageism, besides. Couldn’t Hollywood use both?