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The Mummy would have been so much better if Tom Cruise were the villain

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Come to the Dark Side, Tom. They have cookies — and better story arcs

The Mummy official photo Image: Universal Pictures

Spoilers ahead for the 2017 version of The Mummy — including end spoilers.

You learn a lot about movie protagonists from the first choice they make in a story. Films have to convey most of their characterization through dialogue and action, and the early choices are the ones that define a character’s identity. Consider the first decisions made by Nick Morton, Tom Cruise’s hapless antihero character in the misbegotten Universal Studios franchise-launcher The Mummy. The movie starts with him going AWOL from the Army to loot an ancient tomb. He nearly gets himself and a buddy killed with his lack of planning and basic observational skills. Out of sheer impatience, he deliberately vandalizes the protections around an ancient sarcophagus. And in the process, he unleashes the monstrous undead princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), kicking the plot into motion. Before the first act is over, he’s established himself as a reckless, greedy, amoral ass.

Nick has a redemption arc coming, so this setup gives him plenty of room for character improvement. But the script doesn’t do much to justify or underline that arc, beyond throwing in one line about the good man inside him, “fighting to get out.” His ultimate act of altruism is muddled by sloppy storytelling, and the lead-up is vague and lazy. His character is only really convincing — and entertaining — in the early going, when he’s an unalloyed bastard. And the story so clearly leads in a direction where that bastardry could have been fully realized, in a way that would have given the film some real narrative power. Both as a standalone film and as a platform for Universal Studios’ planned Dark Universe series of monster movies, The Mummy would have been more effective if it had fully embraced that introductory scene, and let Nick Morton become the story’s villain.

Nick certainly has the opportunity to choose Team Evil. When he awakens Ahmanet, she identifies him as her “chosen one,” and sets out to sacrifice him with a magical dagger to incarnate the Egyptian god Set into his body. She tells Nick this will make him immortal and all-powerful, so they can be together forever. He isn’t down for this plan, with good reason — Ahmanet initially doesn’t offer him a choice, and he justifiably doesn’t trust an angry mummy trying to slice him open. He also doesn’t believe in the supernatural, until Ahmanet takes up psychic residence in his skull. It takes him some time to come to terms with what’s happening to him, and that time is mostly spent running from reanimated corpses and learning about the secret monster-fighting organization Prodigium.

But over time, Ahmanet’s offer starts to look better. She’s seductive, powerful, and entirely focused on elevating Nick to godhood. Prodigium, on the other hand, is a cold and merciless organization that plans to execute Nick because they can’t break his magical ties to Ahmanet. Prodigium representative Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) is utterly unsympathetic about Nick’s situation — as he should be, since Nick brought it on himself through careless, selfish greed. But given the choice between ignominious death at Jekyll’s hands in a souvenir-packed warehouse somewhere, and a symbolic death that gives him ultimate power, Nick’s choice should be fairly clear.

Nick’s lust for wealth, his well-established tendency to charge wildly forward instead of thinking things through, and his blatant amorality all amount to a perfect setup for a twist where he does embrace Ahmanet’s plan, and chooses to become a god. His sympathy for Ahmanet is well-established in the movie, and so is his distrust for Prodigium, which tortures her and plans to vivisect her. His only emotional tie to the organization is through member Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who’s set up as his love interest. And yet ultimately, he selflessly stabs himself with the magic dagger in order to get Set’s power — solely so he can save Jenny’s life.

Image: Universal Pictures

None of this action is particularly well foreshadowed or choreographed. Nick’s relationship with Jenny mostly consists of her scolding him, including informing his Army buddies that he’s a lousy lay and a premature ejaculator. Before the film even starts, Nick hooks up with Jenny, apparently so he can steal her map to Ahmanet’s tomb while she sleeps. (Again, he’s a bastard.) But the writers take it for granted that his abrupt third-act feelings for her will read as sincere and life-affirming, and his sudden choice to die for her sake will come across as an honest moment of redemption. It doesn’t, both because their on-screen relationship is so thin, and because his selfish aspects are so much better established than his altruistic ones.

And it doesn’t help that the film ends with a fuzzy, hand-waving monologue about Nick’s status. Nick clearly ended up with at least some of Set’s power, but isn’t fully a god — maybe because Ahmanet didn’t do her full sacrificial ritual? Or because he chose selflessly? Or because he shrugs off the will of an immortal god by thinking good-guy thoughts? It’s manifestly unclear, and so are his future intentions. An ending voiceover from Jekyll and Jenny suggests he’s become some kind of wandering hero who might show up to save their bacon later in the franchise, but the writers leave it all undefined and unsatisfying. Presumably it’s a dangling hook for later films in the series, but with no idea what Nick can do or who he’s become, the promise of his return isn’t particularly exciting.

But consider how the story could have gone if the avaricious, rash, self-absorbed rogue of the opening scenes actually chose to throw in with the beautiful immortal who’s offering him godhood. Impulsively choosing eternal life and boundless power would be more in keeping with Nick’s established character. It’d be more in keeping with what he’s seen of his available options. And it’d be more appropriate to the film’s themes, which suggest that power corrupts, and that the world is defined by the eternal struggle between humanity and the monsters lurking around its edges. It’d even fit with the plot of the 1932 version of The Mummy, the one Universal is drawing on here — in that film, the mummy’s chosen consort does voluntarily join him for power, immortality, and love, and only reneges on the deal when she gets frightened by the grotesque mechanics of the death she’ll have to endure to claim her godhood.

Besides, if Nick consciously chose to embrace evil, and become The Mummy’s ultimate villain, that would be a stronger, sharper ending for a film that goes soft and sentimental in its final act. Any time Cruise steps away from his squeaky-clean screen image, it comes as a surprise, and has a significant impact on longtime moviegoers. His creepiest characters (as a contract killer in Collateral, say, or a screaming blowhard boss in Tropic Thunder, or the creepy motivational speaker in Magnolia) always draw significant attention and interest. A full-blown Cruise villain would have established the Dark Universe as a series to watch for daring, unpredictable choices.

Heroic sacrifices of the type seen here, on the other hand, are so common in films that The Mummy’s screenwriters apparently didn’t feel they needed to justify this one. It’s taken as a matter of course that Nick’s noble side will beat his greedy side, so the script barely bothers to set up any sense of internal conflict for him, or to build a compelling relationship between him and Jenny. Given that she’s hardly even a character, the film never feels like it has emotional or personal stakes on the level necessary to build emotional impact around her survival.

Image: Universal Pictures

But if she and Prodigium had to face a reincarnated god together — especially a reincarnated god they had multiple opportunities to stop earlier — those stakes would suddenly seem intense and personal. And the ensuing battle might give Prodigium time to redeem and recenter itself, which it desperately needs if the Dark Universe is meant to draw on the group again. Since The Mummy is more about Nick than Prodigium, the organization doesn’t come across as a compelling element that can wind through many films. It looks incompetent and disorganized, a sloppy containment system led by a part-time madman who can’t even reliably contain himself. The group has one job in this film — restraining a dangerous mummy — and it fails badly. Rallying the group to fight Set / Nick at the end of the film would have put the focus back on what the group does well, and show why its adventures through other Dark Universe films might be worth watching.

A climactic face-off between Set / Nick and Jenny would also be a fitting conclusion for the fights she’s been having with him through the entire film, where she represents research, knowledge, and attention to detail, and he represents the forces of self-serving chaos. If she and Jekyll had been given the chance to step up in the final battle, they might have been able to establish themselves as ongoing heroes, worth a franchise’s attention. Instead, Jekyll largely disappears and Jenny becomes a damsel in distress, gasping for rescue again and again. The film ends with only one real hero left — Nick, sort of, since it’s now so unclear what he is or what he wants — and without any statement of purpose for Prodigium or the franchise to come.

And finally, if Jekyll, Jenny, and the forces of Prodigium weren’t initially able to destroy Nick — if they faced down Ahmanet, but couldn’t contain her more powerful consort — Universal Studios’ Dark Universe franchise might have the ongoing villain it needs more than anything. One of the greatest flaws of modern superhero movies is their tendency to kill off their villains at the end of the story, robbing franchises of the chance to build ongoing rivalries between heroes and their nemeses. Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a fan-favorite character for a number of reasons: Tom Hiddleston and the writers behind him have made the character funny, scary, and sexy, with a compelling arrogance and impressive powers. But he also draws fans because he’s lasted long enough to become a complicated character, with his own redemption arc, and his own well-established internal struggles. That kind of longevity and depth are incredibly, frustratingly rare for villains in franchise films. The Mummy had the chance to embrace it, and instead discarded it.

Image: Universal Pictures

The good news is, it’s not necessarily too late for any of this. Nick’s link with Set is so poorly explained at the end of The Mummy that his character could potentially go anywhere. Prodigium still needs redemption. The Dark Universe still needs a meaningful throughline, assuming The Mummy’s dramatic box office failure doesn’t torpedo the entire series. There’s certainly the question of whether Cruise would want to return to a franchise that’s been heavily critically panned and rejected by audiences in its maiden voyage. And Cruise’s preference for playing rakish, overmatched, but enduring good guys is well-established; he might veto any plot that takes him in a dark direction. So it’s possible the Dark Universe might not get him back at all, let alone for an out-of-character villain turn. But if Cruise declines a second Dark Universe outing, a monstrous god-Nick would certainly be easier to create with special effects than a heroic human Nick.

But the bad news is, it’s too late for The Mummy itself. A story that might have been about different ways of approaching the darkness is instead a half-hearted story about an antihero more or less accidentally finding his better nature. An attempt to set up a world-spanning fight against evil is instead a story about an organization so badly managed that one mind-controlling spider can take it apart. And what was meant as a triumphant reclamation of a film studio’s history has turned into a giant question mark about whether the whole endeavor is worth the effort. As a hero, Cruise can’t save the day in this case. As the villain, he might have managed it.