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How many cinematic universes can Universal cinematically universe after Dark Universe?

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Mining the back catalog for hidden gems

Image: Universal Studios

The Mummy hits theaters this weekend, and it’s clear that it’s more than just a movie: it’s Universal Studios’ attempt to jumpstart a Marvel-style cinematic franchise that will bring together its various classic monster properties under the Dark Universe banner. It’s an ambitious goal, but there are already signs that it’s coming out of the gate on shaky feet. On the off chance that this effort flops, Universal has plenty of options to try again.

The cinematic-universe framework sounds really good on paper. Done right, it theoretically creates a massive, interconnected, immersive universe that in turn creates a built-in fanbase and revenue. Marvel and DC have scored financial successes with their respective comic-book universes, Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise is chugging along at full speed, and Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are embarking on their own Monsterverse project with its Godzilla and King Kong films. But in practice, it’s an increasingly difficult sell as audiences get fatigued and as lackluster individual entries threaten to upset a studio’s plotted out roadmap. The Mummy is actually Universal’s second attempt to get this particular world up and running: 2014’s Dracula Untold was originally intended to launch the Dark Universe, but those particular plans were shelved when the movie flopped.

It’s clear that Universal is dumping considerable resources into this new universe, bringing in hefty budgets and big names like Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, and Sofia Boutella. That said, The Mummy is projected to only take in around $35-40 million in its debut weekend, earning less than Wonder Woman will in its second week of release. That could prompt Universal to scale back its ambitious plans.

But that doesn’t mean the studio should quit trying to put together an immersive story playing out over several huge films. Universal has other stories in its back catalog that it could conceivably merge into a coherent shared universe. Films like Serenity or Warcraft have plenty of room for more stories within their established worlds. There are even some existing franchises that could tolerate more development, like Vin Diesel’s Chronicles of Riddick space-horror franchise, which never lived up to its full potential. Universal was also already working on a companion TV show for the franchise.

The most likely candidate for the franchise treatment is Universal and Legendary Entertainment’s joint, upcoming adaptation of Dune, set to be directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049). As we noted back in February, Dune is a solid opportunity for a huge space-opera universe, because a ton of ancillary works have been published, spanning centuries around Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel. Universal has plenty of options to work with. Back in September, Herbert’s son Brian, who continued to expand the series along with Kevin J. Anderson, said there has been considerable interest in expanding the series in films, television shows, and games.

Browsing through a list of Universal’s catalog of films, there are other options that could certainly be fun to see. Three ideas leap out:

World War II

War films are a staple of cinematic history, and in the years following World War II, movies set during the action became big business. While most cinematic universes use invented worlds, there’s nothing to stop Universal from using fictional takes on real event to build a shared continuity. Universal has plenty of rebootable WWII films in its catalog, like Red Ball Express or Target Unknown. And there’s no shortage of historical events that could inspire their own films. It would be relatively easy to construct such a shared universe: characters from one story could cross into another, giving the sense of a real, organic space with immense events taking place.

Manly Man Barbarian Universe

Universal could always go back to the pulp era of author Robert E. Howard with a shared universe that revives sword-and-sandals action. The studio released a well-loved pair of Conan the Barbarian films in the 1980s, as well as a less-beloved one in 2011. Universal could wipe the slate clean and include other heroes, like Kull the Conqueror (last seen in the 1997 Kevin Sorbo film). For kicks, it could snap up the rights to C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories, featuring a tough female warrior who fights supernatural beings. Wonder Woman shows that studios have good reasons to pursue more female-driven action films.

Pulp Action in Space

Want to stick with space? Put together a rebooted universe that brings together Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, two iconic science-fiction heroes who helped inspire a ton of other works. Plus, the characters have met up at least once:

And if the studio wanted to add in another likeminded property, Disney would probably be happy to let Universal take John Carter of Mars off its hands.

At the end of the day, the cinematic-universe model is probably going to be around for years to come, whether or not The Mummy succeeds in launching the Dark Universe this weekend. It’s no secret that sequels and reboots are big business, and while the above suggestions are a bit tongue-in-cheek, many of these big studios have huge back catalogs that they can easily mine for years to come — provided audiences continue to tolerate that. When everything about a cinematic universe works, the result is a spectacular, long-form story that does things a single film can’t do. Franchises with their own continuity can create enormously immersive worlds with a huge cast of characters, and give audiences material to enjoy for years. But everything has to work together: the stories have to be entertaining for audiences, the acting has to be good, and the studios have to put the work in beforehand to make sure every entry works together. If any one of those elements fall short, the entire house of cards comes crashing down on itself. But I remain an eternal optimist, and I’ll keep watching, hoping I’ll find another world to delve into.