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A Eulogy for Universal’s “Dark Universe”

As ‘The Invisible Man’ arrives in theaters, let us solemnly reflect on one of the most tragicomic Hollywood misfires in recent memory

Universal/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One summer during my college years, I interned for an English-language newspaper in Cyprus. The months were filled with regular internship duties—getting coffee, doing menial tasks, being constantly reminded by coworkers that print media is dying—but I did get to write one feature. It was about, of all things, froyo. You see, after a couple of frozen yogurt shops opened in the buzzy downtown of Nicosia, Cyprus’s capital, the whole city filled up with froyo places. All the owners insisted theirs was the best and that it would outlast the competition. Years later, few of those frozen yogurt shops remain.

It’s a very human instinct to follow a trend: We do it all the time with food, clothes, hairstyles, and countless other things. It just gets messy when trends inevitably fade and whole industries suffer for it. Hollywood is not immune to trend chasing; major studios have spent the last decade-plus trying to make cinematic universes happen following the unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These days, there’s a cinematic universe for just about everything: other superheroes, Kaiju, Legos, haunted artifacts, people in the orbit of Vin Diesel. Some of these projects have fared better than others—though it’s safe to say all of them are still chasing the MCU’s coattails.

But there has been no cinematic universe quite like Universal’s “Dark Universe,” which will forever suffer the ignominy of being so terrible and misguided that it was basically dead on arrival. You can see why the Dark Universe was enticing to Universal: The studio had the rights to a ton of classic monsters they could update for the 21st century, like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, Dracula, and, once again, the Mummy. Wouldn’t it be cool if all these creatures were interconnected and terrorized people in the same film? Probably!

Of course, you don’t just need tantalizing IP to make a cinematic universe work: You need some movie stars. And so, in May 2017, the official Dark Universe Twitter account shared a video showcasing its monster movie classics of old, along with this haunting, maybe-Photoshopped image of four middle-aged dudes and Sofia Boutella vibing in a decrepit basement:

By this point, the Mummy reboot—starring Tom Cruise as generic Army sergeant Nick Morton, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Boutella as the titular mummy—was less than a month from its release, and the studio had plans for films featuring the Invisible Man (as played by Johnny Depp) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Javier Bardem). A reboot of Bride of Frankenstein was also in the works, with Angelina Jolie reportedly eyed for the title role—though I suppose things weren’t official enough for her to appear in this photo shoot. “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters,” intoned the Dark Universe’s slogan—ultimately, an ominous statement for all the wrong reasons.

The Mummy reboot was an abject failure. Rather than lean into the horror of the original film, or the campy spirit of the perfect Brendan Fraser–led franchise of the late ’90s and early 2000s, the Cruise vehicle landed in an unsatisfying middle ground, creating a bland, monster-focused facsimile of the MCU. Dr. Jekyll was essentially Nick Fury, but instead of running S.H.I.E.L.D., he was in charge of Prodigium, an organization of “evil hunters” that existed to stop threats like, say, a resurrected mummy looking to destroy the world. The lengthy Prodigium introduction confused an already overcrowded Mummy movie, coming across like an assemblage of “Let’s make our own MCU!” studio notes. It’ll come as no surprise that there were six writers attached to this disjointed story.

By trying to play catch-up with the MCU in the span of a single movie—lest we forget, Nick Fury didn’t show up until the end credits of Iron Man, and Marvel took four years to build to The Avengers—Universal showed it was more interested in establishing a franchise than actually telling a story that audiences would be invested in. I barely remember the Mummy reboot. I can honestly say the greatest thing about the film—and frankly, the entire Dark Universe—was an IMAX trailer that was accidentally released with some jangled audio, in which Tom Cruise gives his best impression of the Wilhelm scream.

While the movie did gross more than $400 million, it was considered a box office bomb given the $345 million Universal spent between production and marketing. And with critics and audiences slamming the final product, the studio made the hasty decision to put the Dark Universe to rest within five months. As a result, the Dark Universe became a haunted relic and tragicomic representation of what happens when a major studio tries to jump onto a trend without thinking of the bigger picture. Ideally, if all the Dark Universe movies weren’t going to be as campy as Fraser’s Mummy entries, they might as well have frightened viewers. (This is why these monsters resonate in the first place!) Instead, Universal tried to replicate the entire MCU structure, as if it’d make sense to treat scary monsters like they’re Thor or Iron Man.

Technically, the Mummy reboot wasn’t even the studio’s first attempt to kickstart the Dark Universe. The 2014 film Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans as 15th-century warrior Vlad the Impaler, had last-minute reshoots to show Dracula hanging about London in the present day; that way, once things got rolling, the Dark Universe could throw the legendary vampire into the mix. It was only when Dracula Untold also bombed with critics and audiences that the film was decanonized. Not that any of that mattered: The Mummy was the final nail in the coffin, and the new world of gods and monsters was dead before Universal could come close to making whatever the hell the Monster Avengers would’ve looked like.

To Universal’s credit, the latest pivot with the studio’s monster IP is already paying dividends. The remake of The Invisible Man, with Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the eponymous character in place of Johnny Depp, is getting rave reviews—and won’t need any miracles to turn a profit from its $7 million budget. (This is the Blumhouse way.) It seems that the studio is now following an approach more in line with that of the current DC Extended Universe, where stand-alone stories executed with a single vision take precedent over franchise interconnectivity. To that end, Universal is letting Paul Feig take the reins of his own monster movie, called Dark Army. Given the director’s sensibilities, Dark Army will probably be more of a horror-comedy, which couldn’t be further, tonally, from a film where Elisabeth Moss is being tormented by an invisible abuser.

This should be a win for everyone involved. Universal can get its monster movie mojo back, and instead of sitting through a bad blend of blockbuster clichés, audiences can watch something that—at least when it comes to the new Invisible Man—is actually good. But as much as the studio would want us to forget, the Dark Universe will always have a special place in my heart. (It helps that the Dark Universe Twitter account is still up, leaving the faint possibility that we will be blessed with a third tweet that simply reads, “Sorry, we fucked up.”) Harebrained ideas are part and parcel in Hollywood, yet even by those standards this might’ve been one of the most poorly executed plans in recent memory. The Dark Universe is dead. Long live the Dark Universe. Whenever I think about what could’ve been, I shall echo Tom Cruise’s infamous words: AHHHHHHHHHH, HHHUUAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH.