Reigniting the Light of the "Dark Universe"
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
Franchises have been a feature of storytelling as long as stories have been told, and we haven't come far from the days when ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (no relation to John Cleese) decided that his literal motherf**King Oedipus needed two more stories to really round out the canon. We accept this as part of the deal with pop culture because folks like familiarity. Who wants to meet a bunch of strangers when we can hang out with old friends again?
However, when it comes to the larger franchise-on-steroids that is a "Cinematic Universe," it feels like an innovation of the 21st Century. The way some fans tell it, it's a revolutionary concept first envisioned by His Excellency, Lord Supreme Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, Man of 10,000 Masks, Breaker of Licensing Chains, Ruler of the Nerd Galaxy, and Mother of Dragons. But while this may come as a surprise to the younger folks who think movie making began with the birth of Keanu Reeves, there have been several other Cinematic Universes (Universi?) dating back to the advent of film itself.
Godzilla and Toho's cadre of kaiju; James Bond and his simple drink requests. These and others have their legions of fans. For me though, none has the staying power and sheer cultural impact potential in this reboot-crazy industry is the OG of the CU, Universal's Monsters—or what they now call "The Dark Universe."
When I was a kid these flicks were my jam. I grew up on Bela Lugosi's signature widow's peak as Dracula, Lon Cheney's frame-by-frame Wolfman transition, and the dozen or so Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, among others. Had I even a small amount of willingness for open self-expression in high school, I might have gone goth (also, if I could have afforded Doc Martens).
So when I first heard a few years ago that Universal was jumping on the billion-dollar bandwagon and flushing out their incredibly robust slate of monsters, villains, and Eldritch horrors to craft a Cinematic Universe of their very own, I was giddy as a banshee on a desolate Scottish moor. They're pretty giddy, right?
Sadly, a little too much flushing happened, and the desiccated creature that was cobbled together in a rush to make "easy" money gave us a rather abynormal result. Here we sit five years later with two-ish films in the can, several others shuttered, and a studio still looking for the cash cow they could have had.
Still, as the dude from another dark-ish CU likes to say, it's always darkest just before the dawn. Universal may have given up but, like a zombie shuffling through the darkness, I have not. Here's how I would resurrect the darkness.
Dracula: Dead and Loving You
Part of the problem with what Universal originally tried to do was starting with a project that was never intended to prop up an entire universe. That's what happened in 2014 with Dracula: Untold, a movie you forgot existed until just now. I don't know that I blame Universal for rushing their first shot at this—the MCU was just beginning to generate the obscene revenue they routinely make now and Warner had big plans for DC as well, and this film was in the midst of production at the time. However, they took a movie written as a stand-alone picture, made it a flagship for others that hadn't yet been conceived, and then adjusted the story to make darkness incarnate something of a sexy badass anti-hero.
I'm going to be real direct here: if you're going to make a monster into a hero, even the anti-kind, the absolute last one you should consider is Dracula. He's is your Thanos, your Darkseid, your Palpatine, your Voldemort. Don't make him f***ing Batman.
(Although if the WB wants to make a Batman: Vampire adaptation I'm here for it.)
Let Monsters Be Monsters
Simple concept, really. Dracula drinks human blood. The Wolfman eats people. The Mummy mums you to death. What about any of this sounds like fodder for a redemption story? Once you've impaled thousands of peasants for the crime of being poor, I'm not sure you deserve a shot at "making it right." Even Tony Stark needed a degree of separation from the military weapons he sold to the holy crap I just realized Iron Man has killed a lot of people.
More to the point, why would you want to make these villains into good guys? Play to your strengths. That's why Marvel often gets a pass on their baddies; their catalogue is overflowing with charismatic superheroes, but their often equally charismatic antagonists are harder to bottle, especially when they only get a couple hours for their entire character arc while the heroes get at least a few films to cope with their feelings and learn something new in the process.
The Dark Universe has the exact opposite problem, so I think the solution lies within embracing the dark side rather than running from it like a teenager in a B-Movie slasher flick.
Who's On First? A Duo We Can Relate To
Here there be monsters, and the best way to let monsters stay monsters is to hire skilled professionals to hunt them down and take them out. The plucky granddaughter of Van Helsing and the intelligent yet bashful descendant of Victor Frankenstein would go a long way to giving the audience an entry point into a series that is mostly about killer monsters from the perspective of monster killers. #symmetry
There's also no real need to go too dark with them either. This is something that makes sense in the canon as well: while the occasional monster mashup of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman happened in such films as House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and House Party 4, the studio found a great deal of success by throwing their stable of supernatural sociopaths against the most formidable team of the 40s and 50s.
I'm talking, of course, about the legendary comedy duo Abbot & Costello, who Millennials and Genzers will know as those confused baseball dudes from that old-timey SNL sketch.
I'm not asking for shtick or wordplay but I do think a little human depth would help make these films more accessible for the massive audiences necessary for success, at least more than brooding Tom Cruise and broodinger Russell Crowe. Give us just a little light in the darkness, and suddenly the potential box office won't seem so grim.
Build Out Your Roster
That said, you can't make every film about the bad guy, because eventually that just makes their point of view yours. If you really want to make some heroic monsters, it's a lot easier if they're already relatable. Great news—you've already got a bunch, and you don't even have to rely on your star players to do the heavy lifting!
There are a number of backbenchers available to take a trilogy-friendly heroic turn, including:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Why not start in the same place Universal began 90 years ago? Quasimodo is a character with almost univer-uh, very wide name recognition, and would make for a great parallel to Universal's own film history. The lack of a recent grown-up version means the chance for a fresh perspective is there. It also provides the opportunity for an entry with some heart, which is part of what made Iron Man so successful. Plus, white people are really into Notre Dame right now so I'm sure we'll come out in droves to support it; just don't set anything in the Amazon (sorry Curusu).
The caveat here is this one probably has to get made before Disney remakes theirs as a live action with talking gargoyles. So there's probably time.
The Phantom of the Opera – Universal's historic second monster would also be a fine choice for the first phase of the franchise. Technically he's one of the headliners, in the same way Ant-Man is an Avenger, but he doesn't have the intense baggage of the bigger names. If you want to put him in a cadre of heroes, it's a little easier to redeem him (he only kills a couple people which in this universe is basically nothing), but he's also got the potential for more "super" heroics, with a supernatural ability on the organ and a secret lair in the basement.
(Then again, he's a murderous agoraphobic psychopath who uses seduction technique to brainwash young women so maybe he should stay a villain instead.)
The Invisible Woman – Sorry incels and proud boys; while your granddad was out being a real man and defeating the Nazis you maybe don't hate as much as you should, Universal was making monster movies starring women (the horror!). This one was a comedy from the Invisible Man franchise, but there's no reason to stick to that genre choice. Personally, I'd like to see this as an Asian-American woman whose invisibility comes from how she is constantly ignored by society—you know, subtext (the horror!). Again, you probably want to do this before Disney gets their shit together on The Fantastic Four. Man, that Disney boy is going places.
Of course, you probably need at least one of the Avengers to show up eventually, which brings me to:
The Monster – Everyone knows that (spoiler alert) Frankenstein is the monster. So if you're going to make anyone team leader, it's gotta be ol' Bolt Neck himself. Trouble is we've seen that before, so it's probably not a great place to start. If you're going to do it, I'd wait until Phase 2 and maybe make it a Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok type deal.
You know…now that I've laid this out, the idea of a team of "monsters" that overcomes their personal physical and emotional trauma and the social injustice they face is pretty neat. Personally though, I'm not sure a "team" dynamic is the way to go. The key lies not in working together as a band of loveable emo monstrosities, but how the singular universe binds the films as they stand on their own accord.
And the best way to do that is to unleash the beasts. All of them.
Untether the Universe
Much like Marvel and DC, the Dark Universe has enough content to branch out and take greater artistic risks without necessarily inflating the costs (whether they'll take those risks is a different question). We live in a post-Shape of Water world people, anything is possible.
The material is incredibly diverse; there are psychological thrillers, giant bug horror flicks, a couple adventure films, and noir around several corners. While they won't all fit into the main story, several of these could develop out from the main focus and give Universal a number of avenues to explore their properties.
For instance, why not a Poe-verse? (Poe-iverse? Po-e-verse? Edgarverse? Edgarverse.) While Drac & Co. get all the praise, my first entry into this dark and classic night was actually through Universal's Edgar Allen Poe trilogy of The Raven, The Black Cat, and Murders in the Rue Morgue. It would be really interesting to see a John Constantine-type noir detective thriller threaded ever so gently into the overall Dark Universe and the extended works of Poe is a great way to do it.
For a more horrific property, why not reclaim House of Horrors as more than just a theme park attraction? This film features the disfigured "madman" The Creeper, a pitiable strongman who actually does not want to kill anyone but is compelled through loyalty to do so. Universal once attempted to set up an entire franchise around this character shortly after the horrors of World War II; perhaps now is the right time for another look. Tie it into other one-shot horror films like Night Monster, The Strange Door, and The Thing That Couldn't Die and let the horrors run wild.
Think the Dark Universe and its roster of Gothic ghouls has no room for a Guardians of the Galaxy style romp through the…outer…sphere? Think again! It Came from Outer Space, The Invisible Ray, and This Island Earth tell stories of alien beings from distant locales coming to Earth in various forms. I don't know what James Gunn can do with any of it, but I feel we're obligated to at least let him try.
All this is to say that a second chance means a fresh start, and with the right focus I really think they can clear out or at least cover the stench of death lingering in the room. Whatever they do, I just hope that they chart their own course rather than glomming onto someone else's. No one needs an army of brainless zombies (except the Romeroverse).
Concerned with your own script's universe? Kyle's can help!