Jun 10, 2017

Why "The Mummy" is a Failure in Starting The Dark Universe

Russell Crowe in The Mummythere's a rich
In 2008, something revolutionary happened that few people noticed at the time. Many who had seen the movie didn't stick around to see the tail end of Iron Man, which featured a small and unceremonious scene between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). It was to discuss something called "The Avengers Initiative" and would come to define Marvel for the foreseeable future as they introduced comic book characters into a shared universe. What wasn't known is that it was a gambit that ended up influencing all of Hollywood, who begun hopping on the cinematic universe while pairing names as logical as D.C.'s Justice League to the Godzilla/King Kong "Monsterverse." Hopping on that wagon is Universal, who has just launched their cinematic universe by rebooting their own Universal Horror icons. The only issue is that, unlike most of what's come before, There's something calculated and cynical about the way that The Dark Universe has been set up. It isn't so much its own thing, but a hodgepodge of what others have done better.
To understand why The Mummy fails as a cinematic universe, it is important to understand why Marvel's Cinematic Universe (MCU) does. The one benefit of the franchise that is now 15 movies deep and has had six TV shows (with more on the way) and various other tie-ins, is that there is a rich well of characters to pull from, spanning decades. The Avengers as a construct is nothing new. However, bringing it to the big screen would be difficult, as it has to manage to introduce characters ranging from cocky scientists to dimensional wizards without losing an audience that's used to conventional stories. What made The Avengers a triumph in 2012 is that it combined all of these forces and told an accessible summer blockbuster. But how did it work exactly? It had a few bumps along the way (many consider Iron Man 2 to be a series low point), but it had a format that was plausible to the comic book construct. People bought into The Avengers because heroes teaming up is something that sounds like it would happen. To an extent, it's why D.C.'s Extended Universe (DCEU) has been able to do almost the exact same thing, albeit tonally different.
But a shared universe doesn't technically need to have a group of heroes fighting evil. It can merely be a world where characters coexist. This has been done predominantly on TV as various series featured crossover episodes. The Simpsons alone has paired up with The X-Files, The Critic, Dragnet, and even The Prisoner. Most of those stories are merely the central family interacting with the guest stars. It is likely what the Monsterverse will be, as neither Godzilla (2014) nor Kong: Skull Island are particularly overtly creating a shared universe in ways detrimental to the story (save for one post-credits scene). They exist to tell a story about their antagonist: an iconic monster of yesteryear fighting humanity. Considering that it's all building to a fight between the two icons, it doesn't need to worry about a Nick Fury type announcing their own Avengers Initiative. They merely need to cross paths eventually.

Ironically, The Dark Universe should've had the easiest time assembling their shared universe. In most cases, Universal created the first construct of a cinematic universe with Universal Horror/Monsters in the 1930's. Much like The Monsterverse, these movies largely existed in a shared universe. Frankenstein met The Wolf Man without having to worry about their encounter fitting into a bigger story. Maybe it's MCU's fault for creating the sense that a shared universe should be building to an end game, but Universal Horror showed that there is an audience for characters merely existing in the same frame. Their only downfall is that most of these films were arguably made for cheap and were a tad inferior to the franchise's glory days. Even its saving grace, the Abbott and Costello era, felt like part of its charm was that it was making fun of Universal Horror's fading charm.
So in a sense, The Dark Universe was always doomed because of its roots. However, it manages to break a few cardinal rules. While it's acceptable to think that a new world of gods and monsters could be fun, trying to fit it into a world where every film and every crossover builds to a finale six films later (even then, it is only an interlude to another story) doesn't make as much sense. Considering that Universal Horror didn't involve a team-up that would even compare to The Avengers, it already seems problematic. These monsters don't exactly have something to fight for, as a team anyways. Their struggles are best explored on an intimate and small level. To believe that they'll fight crime is itself a cinematic crime. Thus, The Mummy manages to reflect just how bad of an idea the cinematic universe (at least so far) is when it's not even an authentic one.

The best way to start a cinematic universe can best be answered in "The Avengers Initiative" scene from Iron Man. It didn't draw attention upon itself, and didn't impact the story in any significant way. Meanwhile, The Mummy insecurely establishes itself upfront as The Dark Universe. This is evident in the new production logo as well as who the first central character that is seen actually is. While Tom Cruise's Nick would more traditionally be considered the lead character, he comes later in the film. Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyll is first seen to share the story of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) and how she comes to matter in the plot. Ideally, it is not the worst idea for a first draft. Later scripts would make the exposition flow better and later into the story. However, it suggests literally what comes first in this franchise: the universe itself.
By introducing Dr. Jekyll first (who doesn't appear again until an hour into the film), the audience is first exposed to the "idea" of the shared universe. Instead of being shown something crucial to their "Avengers Initiative," The Mummy wants the viewer to look at the contract first. While content crucial to the future films aren't explained until later in the film, there's a knowing reality that Dr. Jekyll is now The Dark Universe's Nick Fury, and he will assemble everyone to do some mysterious deed. It's a concept that gets explored fleetingly throughout the film, but always does so in favor of dragging the story to a grinding halt. What could've been a pulpy reboot with a fun antagonist quickly turns into a quest for the viewer to either be completely confused, or knowingly look for clues as to how this world will expand.
There's plenty to critique about the cinematic universe on a quality level. Nick isn't a particularly interesting character and isn't given enough motivation. Dr. Jekyll's plans for finding all of the monsters doesn't make much sense. It also doesn't help that the writing is often unsure as to whether it's intentionally campy or just poorly written. Had there been more focus on Nick's conflict with Ahmanet, odds are that this would be a decent start to the franchise. Instead, the scenes with Dr. Jekyll are a tad frustrating because he feels shoehorned in, and doesn't have a charismatic performance to back it up. Had he simply appeared at the end to resolve Nick's issue and give incentive to continue his journey, maybe it would easier to tolerate the idea of this shared universe. It could've been subtle about its "Avengers Initiative."
The one unfortunate reality is that few films are allowed to be surprising anymore. No franchise film can exist without speculation as to whether it gets a sequel, spin-off, or even a shared universe. What made the films between Iron Man and The Avengers an incredible feat is because they expanded on the MCU without losing impact of individual stories. Each one had clues that connected disparagingly different films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor without losing each one's tonal credibility. Later films in the MCU would be more expository in how they dealt with shared universes, but that happened gradually. Even DCEU, for as critically divisive as it is, knew to provide an example of what the universe would offer with Man of Steel before diving head first into the contractual obligation with Batman v. Superman.
So, why does The Mummy fail as a way to start The Dark Universe? It isn't that it said that it was a universe during the marketing, but said that it was before it had a chance to prove itself. By having Dr. Jekyll provide the back story to Ahmanet in the first 10 minutes, it revealed how insecure it was in letting the franchise unfold on its own terms. Whereas "The Avengers Initiative" came at the end of Iron Man and with little fanfare, it was almost built into The Mummy's very existence. While there's still a chance for The Dark Universe to rebound, it already is in a deep hole. If it keeps telling people that it is a cinematic universe instead of being one, it will be the epitome of how not to make a cinematic universe. The Mummy doesn't try to be the start of its own franchise, but instead chooses to be Iron Man - and that may be the biggest problem of them all.

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