Next week sees the release of Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a Universal Monster movie that is not part of the Dark Universe. Universal Pictures’ plans to craft an MCU-style cinematic universe featuring the company’s iconic monster characters failed to launch following The Mummy’s disappointing critical and commercial performance. Universal Chairwoman Donna Langley believes that the Dark Universe was ultimately a "failed" experiment, as she explained:
We had an attempt at interlocking our monsters and it was a failed attempt. What we realized is that these characters are indelible for a reason, but there’s no urgency behind them and certainly the world was not asking for a shared universe of classic monsters. But we have gone back and created an approach that’s filmmaker-first, any budget range.
Calling the Dark Universe a "failed attempt" is both stating the obvious and also a bit of an understatement for a would-be cinematic universe and blockbuster franchise that only managed to eke out one film before collapsing into nothingness (Dracula Untold was not created from the start as a Dark Universe flick). But Donna Langley’s comments during a Close Up with the Hollywood Reporter roundtable show that the studio head is aware of Universal’s missteps in this regard and is owning them.
Donna Langley admits that Universal Pictures tried to do something by creating an interconnected film universe with the monster characters, and that attempt failed to deliver. She doesn’t try to gaslight anyone by pretending the Dark Universe wasn’t a failure and she doesn’t pass blame or attempt to explain away why the plans didn’t work out.
It often seems like Hollywood learns the wrong lessons from both successes and failures, but Donna Langley seems to have a good assessment of things and what made the experiment that was the Dark Universe such a failure. Namely, while these characters are iconic, there was no urgency to see them onscreen in this fashion, and a shared universe populated with Universal’s monsters is not something audiences were clamoring for.
This would have been a great thing to realize beforehand, but she knows it now and that hard-learned lesson is informing Universal’s approach to the monster characters moving forward. According to Donna Langley, instead of that interlocking universe of blockbuster monster movies, the new approach is filmmaker first and not tied to any specific budget range.
We are seeing that new plan for these characters put into action with movies like The Invisible Man, Dark Army, The Invisible Woman and perhaps Bride of Frankenstein. That should allow filmmakers to come up with their own unique approaches to these iconic characters and not be tied to any existing narrative or tone in order to fit in with a host of other films.
It’s interesting because while the Dark Universe was surely a failure, it almost never really got a chance to succeed. It came together too quickly and The Mummy killed it before it we ever saw what it could have been. I think these monster characters can work together in a story, as we’ve seen in Showtime’s excellent Penny Dreadful, but whether or not they could support a whole connected franchise might be another matter.
The DCEU was struggling at first, but is now finding its footing, albeit as a connected universe where the connections are becoming increasingly tenuous. So maybe the decision to abandon any shared universe plans altogether is the right thing for Universal’s Monsters.