Is The Invisible Man any match for Iron Man at the box office?
That's the question Universal Pictures will be testing with their Dark Universe — a connected, multi-film revival of the studios' classic monster properties from the 1920s through 50s, including The Invisible Man, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Phantom of the Opera. It launches this Friday with "The Mummy," starring Tom Cruise.
The studio already has flashy talent lined up in front of and behind the camera for this expanded universe, including Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man, Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Javier Bardem as Frankenstein's Monster. The Dark Universe has a Danny Elfman-composed theme and a nostalgic trailer looking back at the days of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi. Creatives Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan are stewarding the endeavor.
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It's no wonder why Universal is trying it out. In the hierarchy of Hollywood franchises, it's hard to beat the idea of the shared universe, which superheroes dominate.
"Universal desperately wants a universe to call their own, especially since they are one of the only studios that hasn't been able to capitalize on the comic book craze," said Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations.
Nearly every major studio has at least a scrap of that coveted intellectual property too; Disney has the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and Star Wars), Warner Bros. has the DC Extended Universe, Sony has Spider-Man and Fox has X-Men, but Universal Pictures has remained ardently outside of the comic book squall. Instead, it's focused on homegrown franchises, like the $5.1 billion "Fast & Furious" films, the $3.6 billion "Jurassic Park" films and the $2.7 billion "Despicable Me" films, to name a few.
"This is an incredible opportunity for Universal to set itself apart by leaving Marvel and DC to compete head to head with their superhero line-ups while offering a fresh take on the notion of interwoven characters and stories," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for comScore. "There are unlimited creative possibilities."
The idea of the Dark Universe, including the name, has been on the table for quite some time. While Universal officially announced the name in late May, the company has been scooping up trademarks for more than 600 types of branded items, from energy drinks to canned vegetables and television shows going back to November 2014.
It's also likely been an expensive investment.
"For the studios' sake, this better pay off, as they've invested a fortune already. Tom Cruise, Danny Elfman, Bill Condon, Russell Crowe, Alex Kurtzman, Javier Bardem ... these people demand big up-fronts and even bigger back-end deals," Bock said. "I'm not saying they're betting the farm on this thing, but they're certainly blowing through truckloads of that 'Fast & Furious' cash."
Universal has actually been waging its own experiments with its monsters for years, long before Marvel and its "Avengers" films made the interconnected universe an aspirational business model. The most successful attempt was "The Mummy" reboot from 1999, with Brendan Fraser, which spawned two sequels and a spinoff. Others attempts floundered — like "Dracula Untold" in 2014 and "The Wolfman" in 2010 — and went back into the vault. Even this present-day set "Mummy" reboot has been in various stages of development since 2012.
What is new is the idea that the monster films will all relate to one another. "The Mummy" promises to get this interconnectedness going immediately by introducing Crowe's Dr. Jekyll character as the leader of a shadowy multinational corporation, Prodigium, which is committed to destroying evil in the world (not dissimilar sounding to Marvel's overarching S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Whether or not that means anything to an audience is still up for debate for some. Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson isn't sold on the idea that moviegoers necessarily care about shared universes.
"The only way to make this thing work is to make a bunch of good and crowd-pleasing star-driven monster movies that will get audiences excited outside of their existence in a shared universe," Mendelson wrote. "Make individual stand-alone movies that audiences want to see, and the cinematic universe will take shape."
The kick-off might not be that epic either. "The Mummy," which cost a reported $125 million to produce, is tracking to open in the $30 to $40 million range this weekend. Even the 1999 "Mummy" opened to $43.4 million, and that's not accounting for inflation.
"Could it work? Sure. On an international level it probably will. The problem with 'The Mummy,' of course, is the fact that reboots are a dime a dozen these days and North American audiences have definitely soured on them," Bock said.
It'll be a long time, too, before the next installment hits theaters. Bill Condon's "Bride of Frankenstein," which has not yet cast its leading lady, is the only other Dark Universe film with a release date (Valentine's Day 2019).
That's not a death knell for the Dark Universe, though. Bock said "The Mummy" just has to perform decently worldwide to lay the groundwork.
"Plenty of goodwill and growth will come for future installments as 'Bride of Frankenstein,' 'Creature From the Black Lagoon,' and 'The Invisible Man' sound much more promising — and the key here — are something this generation likely hasn't seen before," Bock said.