Ode to the Dark Universe

Mourning the cinematic universe we surely deserved: an absolutely bonkers one.

Ode to the Dark Universe

Mourning the cinematic universe we surely deserved: an absolutely bonkers one.

“Witness the beginning of a #DarkUniverse,” the Dark Universe Twitter account tweeted two years ago, officially inaugurating the Dark Universe.

What is the Dark Universe, exactly? It is both everything and nothing. It is a bard's song passed down through centuries. It is hidden knowledge whispered between the Hollywood elite. It is a universal, unspeakable truth in the far recesses of our subconscious. It is a hastily Photoshopped group shot of several one-time A-list actors where it's plainly obvious none of them were actually in the same room at any point.

The latest Marvel brand equity Powerpoint slideshow, Avengers: Endgame, made more money in a single weekend than the entire gross domestic product of Grenada. This stunning fact is less of a news story at this point and more of a helpful reminder of the continuing passage of time. We are born, we live, we die, and in the interim we are compelled by various social forces to watch dozens of superhero movies. Yes, you will have to watch at least the tentpole entries in order to feel connected to anything greater than yourself. That is unfortunately the only thing our spiritually degraded society can offer you now in terms of collective experience.

What’s remarkable about Disney and Marvel’s success in building a vastly profitable interlinked cinematic universe is that, despite numerous attempts, no one else seems to be able to achieve the same thing. This isn’t for lack of trying. The 2010s has seen the almost total hollowing-out of the mid-tier blockbuster, with a few big hitters doing their best to challenge Disney’s perch at the high-end; auguring a dark, blighted future where everything is either Doctor Strange or Lady Bird. This is why you can’t just watch a movie without having to fester in your cinema seat for fifteen extra minutes to watch a brief vignette promising another entry in an ill-advised universe.

Few will remember the majority of the doomed attempts to hack together cinematic franchises from whatever tired intellectual property was at hand. (A notable exception is the nascent John Wick universe, which is building a rich, intricate world from a simple but brilliant pitch: It's Keanu Reeves and he has both a gun and a knife.)

If you squinted, or had suffered a serious brain injury in a terrible accident, they kinda looked like superheroes.

But I will remember the Dark Universe. Universal Pictures’ bonkers effort to get a slice of the pie represents an effort so harebrained and obviously stupid that it collapsed almost instantly, leaving in its wake a bizarrely extensive trail of ephemera and legions of committed acolytes operating on varying levels of irony.

The central pitch was simple. Universal had a series of creaky franchises in their back pocket from the halcyon days of monster movies — everyone from Dracula to Dr. Jekyll to the Wolfman. If you squinted, or had suffered a serious brain injury in a terrible accident, they kinda looked like superheroes. These dilapidated cinematic properties presented intoxicating crossover possibilities. What if... the Invisible Man... was friends with... the Mummy... and they fought... the Phantom of the Opera? Substitute whatever classic Universal monster (or public domain literary character) you can recall into this stupefying mad-lib, and you’ve got a guaranteed multi-billion dollar franchise. Marvel’s strategy of making movies based on characters people actually enjoy seeing would surely crumble, or so the no doubt coke-addled thinking went.

The longterm problems with the idea were already familiar. The inevitable Avengers-like team-up movie was literally already done in 2003 — it was called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and it was so bad it made Sean Connery quit acting forever. Still, the promise of the Wolfman fighting Dracula activates some deep and primal region of our juvenile cultural mind, so the idea persisted well beyond its station.

Where did the Dark Universe end up, given such an auspicious start? We got exactly two movies. One of them, 2014’s Dracula Untold, was critically panned, and instantly excised from the Dark Universe continuity, which at that point literally only consisted of Dracula Untold. Then we got The Mummy, which replaced the swashbuckling spirit of the noughties Brendan Fraser incarnation with an incomprehensible jumble of CGI and Tom Cruise scowling which made no sense as either part of a universe or its own discrete product. It's sole enduring legacy will be that its trailer was accidentally posted with no audio save for the sound of Cruise being sucked out of a plane.

Then the Dark Universe was canceled. We didn’t even get to see Russell Crowe’s Mr. Hyde making a snarky quip to camera before kicking Dracula off a bridge, confirming once and for all that we live in a failed timeline which has strayed spectacularly from God’s design. Universal has abandoned the shared universe model; it will now pursue a series of individual films helmed by “a number of prominent directors.” In today’s Hollywood, this is somehow a radical pivot. Let’s put aside the obviously dumb-assed energy of trying to assemble the cast of 19th-century penny dreadfuls into a slick contemporary entertainment product for a moment here. The Avengers were tired, old anachronisms when Marvel decided to dust them off — so why can’t we do the same with the now 122-year-old Dracula? It could very well be that our cultural memory no longer extends back to the Victorian era (no matter how many explosions you add to it) but that doesn’t abnegate our continuing, debasing fixation on British period pieces.

The failure of anyone to get within a stone’s throw of Disney’s success despite numerous efforts might in fact prove something more harrowing: this shit might only work with superheroes. Even the Star Wars juggernaut — surely the one property built to be milked into oblivion — buckled under the weight of just five years of the cinematic universe model. Iron Man might just be, by whim of design, the most perfect, frictionless cultural product we’ve ever managed to churn out. It’s possible we’re now trapped in an endless loop of Marvel reboots until the climate apocalypse takes us.

Regardless, in some blackened recess of my soul I still pine for the Dark Universe. It felt like the culmination of a long, arduous journey. We deserved a Creature from the Black Lagoon/Frankenstein’s Bride crossover movie which inexplicably made a billion dollars at the box office and dominated pop culture for a decade. It was our punishment, and to lose it feels like justice denied.

J.R. Hennessy is a writer in Sydney. He writes about culture, technology and politics.