How will the Universal Monster cinematic universe work?

Following on from the announcement of Tom Cruise’s involvement with the upcoming The Mummy film, Universal Studios this week further strengthened the box office draw of their attempts at creating a multi movie cinematic universe by casting Johnny Depp as the lead in the as yet undated The Invisible Man. Adding this to the longstanding rumours that Angelina Jolie has been courted for the role of the Bride of Frankenstein it is clear that the studio is swinging for the fences with their casting. Cruise may not feature in the big mash up but he, Depp and, if cast, Jolie are the sort of box office draws that will pull in the more casual film goer. However for all the big name casting announcements, we are no closer to discerning how these classic monster will co-exist with one another on the big screen.

Ever since Marvel started us down the path of multi-instalment cinema universes, the connecting film franchise has become the holy grail for studio executives; DC has been so keen to grab some of those Marvel billions for themselves that they have foregone any attempt at a slow build by jamming every DC hero except Booster Gold into the upcoming Batman V Superman, while it was only the catastrophically bad performance of this summer’s Fantastic Four that seems to have deterred Fox’s plans to create their own mini Marvel universe. Even Hasbro and Paramount wants in on the act, with plans afoot for multi film franchises for Transformers and GI Joe. But ignoring the blatant cash grab, it almost makes sense for these properties to inhabit the same world (yes, even the Hasbro characters). These franchises are all built around heroes and crime fighters, the sort of people used to banding together to overcome a seemingly impossible foe. It is harder to imagine building a whole world around an assortment of demons, monsters and scientific creations gone horribly wrong.

Alex Kurtzman, who along with Chris Morgan has been charged by Universal with building this universe, was recently questioned about the current state of pre-production for the franchise, and stated that ‘the monster universe is coming together very, very quickly, we’re very excited. There will be announcements soon. We have actually started doing a lot of design work, we’re getting scripts in, everything is feeling really, really good, so I don’t want to curse it by saying too much to you, but it’s going well‘. So far so positive, but details about the films are still frustratingly elusive. It’s true that a number of the Universal monsters are often portrayed as misunderstood or sympathetic characters but there’s no getting around the fact that the majority of their collective cinematic adventures have seen them cast as the antagonists. As such it’s tough to imagine how a film featuring all of them will work. Will they come together as a group of heroes to fight a bigger, badder antagonist or will they team up as villains, ala Monster Squad, with someone like Cruise leading a human resistance effort?

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Unfortunately we’re not even blessed with a great deal of previous stories from which to draw inspiration, especially when looking exclusively at the Universal version of these monsters. With the exception of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the only real ‘cross over’ featuring these characters has been with comedic duo Abbott and Costello, and it seems the modern reboot is unlikely any inspiration will be taken from this film. Some details as to the direction the films may take, however, could be inferred from the current slate of films currently listed on the Universal monsters cinematic universe Wikipedia page. In addition to The Mummy (currently scheduled for June 2017), The Wolfman (March 2018) and The Invisible Man, there are also listings for Bride of Frankenstein, Van Helsing and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Meanwhile, conspicuous by their absence, are the two biggest hitters in the Universal arsenal; the recent Luke Evans led origin story Dracula Untold has been rumoured as part of the continuity but the current slate of films does not include another solo outing for the vampire, and there is no mention at all of Frankenstein’s monster.

Could this mean that the antagonist for the eventual team up is the Count himself? After all, he has traditionally been portrayed as the most powerful of these monsters, and his lack of main film means Kurtzman and Morgan could be holding him in reserve, intending using him as a tool to connect the other films. Another option could be that Dracula will be the central villain for the Van Helsing film, with his next appearance coming later down the line in the same way that Marvel used Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor and The Avengers. A similar path could also be in store for Frankenstein’s monster, although it seems more likely that his first appearance would be in the Bride of Frankenstein reboot. It’s also possible that he will be held back until the team up, possibly used as a unwilling pawn by Dracula or as a peripheral character sitting on the fence between the good and bad.

Despite the question marks around this series of films, however, they remain a genuinely exciting proposition. The Universal interpretations of these characters are arguably the most iconic in cinema history. The chance to see them back on the big screen, and especially interacting together, is one that any horror fan should want to see. Fingers crossed that the story is strong enough to do these monsters justice.

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