It may sound a bit funny, but Universal making a shared continuity out of its classic monsters isn’t a bad or even a new idea. Unfortunately, in its inaugural film The Mummy, the studio managed to completely miss what made these characters work in the first place.
You have to feel for Universal. Disney owns Marvel, Warner Bros. owns DC, and both were getting a lot of attention for using those properties to create a giant shared universe. But Universal helped pioneer the shared movie universe way back when — the classic Universal monsters all existed in the same timeline, albeit it in a roughish sort of way.
If you had to conjure an image of Frankenstein, Dracula or a mummy in your mind, chances are you’re probably picturing the Universal versions. For example, Frankenstein — yes, I’m calling the monster Frankenstein, do not send me letters — was described by Mary Shelley this way:
I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast to his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
And yet, it’s Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, bolt-necked, green-skinned creature that pop culture remembers.
Universal’s monster movies technically began in 1923 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it was performances like Bela Lugosi’s 1931 turn as Dracula, Karloff’s 1931 Frankenstein, Claude Rains as the Invisible Man in 1933, and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man that turned the monsters into icons.
By the ’40s, Universal really started cashing in on the interconnected worlds of these monsters by having them show up in movies together, starting with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Crossover sequels, including the significantly less serious Abbott and Costello Meet Insert Monster Here series, kept the series going into the ’50s, until Universal went on a break from monster movies.
This history should mean that Universal has a great well to tap when creating its new, very poorly named Dark Universe. Yet Universal has stumbled twice out of the gate. It first tried to launch this new universe with 2014’s Dracula Untold, which ended by showing Vlad/Dracula in the present day. That’s fodder for a sequel and puts Vlad where he could conceivably meet up with the characters in this year’s Mummy.
But Dracula Untold went so badly that Universal did a U-turn and declared that the new universe wouldn’t actually be starting with that movie, but with the next monster movie, The Mummy. And once again, it missed the reason the old films worked so well in the first place.
The iconic part of the Universal monster movies were the monsters. The design of Sofia Boutella’s Princess Ahmanet isn’t going to go down in history. They removed the mummy wrappings that Universal itself made famous in order to create a “sexy” mummy. There’s no look there that stands out. Worst of all, the mummy’s forgettable. I still don’t know what her powers are. The 1999 Mummy movie had its faults but, dumb as it was, at least it explained the Mummy’s powers were the 10 plagues. Ahmanet’s motivation is… daddy issues… so… she made a pact with the devil? It doesn’t matter, because she’s gone by the end of the movie anyway.
Universal’s classic monsters were either compelling in their darkness — like Lugosi’s Dracula — or there was something about their situation that made them tragic — like Karloff’s Frankenstein. The 1932 Mummy gave its creature the classic motivation of recapturing a lost love, with Karloff’s mummy being an avatar for loneliness. The 1942 Mummy’s Hand created the popular mummy-as-mindless-shambling-undead-creature version. Ahmanet is neither tragic nor scary, with the result that she isn’t interesting, either.
Not that any of that matters because the point of this movie isn’t the mummy, it’s Tom Cruise. The mummy isn’t going to be back to meet Dracula and Frankenstein, but Cruise might. The “pact with evil” plot exists to imbue Cruise’s character with power so that he, being the star, can come back. But does his character have a journey of growth that makes us root for him? No, as evidenced by the fact that the character is totally unmemorable except for being played by Cruise. He’s incredibly unlikable and his love story — which, remember, begins by him stealing from the love interest — tepid.
Maybe, maybe, this could have worked if the movie had ended with Cruise becoming the classic mummy we know so well. But, no, he just vanishes. He’ll return when the story calls for it, I guess.
The Mummy‘s also got a bad case of shared universitis. Universal wants a shared universe so badly that it’s added a secret society of monster hunters headed up by Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll.
No one is willing to be patient. The original monster movies were just good movies first. The crossovers came more than a decade after the first film and were, quite frankly, not nearly as good as the standalone movies. The Mummy has split its focus and everything is worse as a result. What purpose does Jekyll Hydeing out in a Mummy movie serve?
As cliched as the Marvel post-credits sequences are, the reason they worked so well — especially in the beginning — was because the most explicit call forward was done after the film. The story of the standalone film was untouched.
This movie completely misses why mummies became a classic monster in the first place. Which is a shame because there is a lot of good material to be resurrected. Just not by this mummy.