The box office success story of last weekend was Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’s well-received take on the superhero, the first DC Comics movie in Warner Bros.’ extended franchise to get good reviews, made $58.5 million to climb to a total of $206 million in nine days. After years of bad buzz for her fellow superheroes Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman is clearly the benefit of strong word of mouth: The movie made only 43 percent less than it did on opening weekend, an incredibly small decline for a blockbuster of that size—Batman vs. Superman, for example, dropped 70 percent over the same period.
Finally, it seems that Warner Bros. can breathe easy about its faltering superhero universe, which has mostly muddled through critical mockery for four years now. That is the only comforting note its major studio rival Universal can take from last weekend—because last weekend was supposed to belong to The Mummy. The Tom Cruise-starring action/horror film was launched with all the pomp and circumstance of a new superhero movie, trumpeted as the beginning of the “Dark Universe,” a new ongoing franchise to feature classic movie monsters like The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and The Invisible Man.
The only problem: Nobody seems that interested. Cruise is one of the few genuine movie stars left in Hollywood, but even his wattage has diminished beyond the reliable Mission: Impossible films. Having him face off against a vengeful female mummy (played by Sofia Boutella) was a marquee pairing no one asked for, and generally terrible reviews helped tank the film at the box office, opening to only $31.6 million against a reported $125 million budget. No matter: Universal has already announced some seven sequels are in the works; even B-list monsters like the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are supposedly on the docket.
It’s the latest in an ongoing, dispiriting Hollywood trend of studios putting the cart before the horse. Sony once claimed it was creating a series of films centered around the superhero Spider-Man, but that fizzled after the underperformance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2; those plans are now being revived ahead of the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming. TriStar is working on resurrecting the Narnia movies, James Cameron is supposedly making four Avatar sequels, and Fox is releasing another Maze Runner soon despite dwindling interest.
At least most of those planned sequels are harkening back to some kind of success. The “Dark Universe” is based on name recognition only—the idea that since people have gone to see Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies for decades, it’d be easy to get them invested again. But the big mistake the studio seems to have made is assuming that franchises need to be mega-budgeted action films. The Mummy’s marketing campaign was muddled from the start. Was this a scary monster movie, as the portentous posters seemed to suggest? A high-octane thriller, as seen in the trailer (homed in on a plane crash set-piece)? Was it a Tom Cruise movie, and if so, why wasn’t he playing the title character?
The appeal of Universal’s monster movies always lay with the monsters, after all; nobody really goes into Dracula rooting for Van Helsing to kill the titular character. By focusing so strongly on Cruise’s “Nick Morton” character, The Mummy makes its monster little more than a background prop, a mistake future movies probably won’t make (bigger stars, like Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, are confirmed to be playing Frankenstein’s monster and the Invisible Man respectively).
As usual, the answer to every criticism of Hollywood franchise overreach is tied to global sales: These films tend to do well internationally, where movie-star appeal is more important and bigger-scale movies make more of an impact. The Mummy has already grossed $172 million worldwide in its first four days; though Universal might have hoped for more, it’ll probably at least end up breaking even on its massive budget. That’ll be justification enough for another Dark Universe attempt, though maybe not a Mummy 2.
Studios will not be able to point to their international grosses forever, though. The days when only U.S. production companies could mount giant-scale productions with sophisticated special effects are rapidly receding. Major markets like China, Japan, and India have their own thriving film industries churning out big hits, and Hollywood is sorely lacking in younger stars with the kind of generational pull that Cruise or Depp still possess with viewers worldwide. Hollywood’s new stars are franchise characters—Captain America, Wonder Woman, Minions—and that’s why it’s trying to make more of them.
But The Mummy has proven the act of creation is harder than simply announcing that it’s happened. Actors who hit it big as a superhero often struggle to thrive outside of the genre, and the franchise game feels precarious, with movies either proving themselves as saga-worthy hits or long-lasting financial calamities. Studios used to underwrite these bigger gambles with mid-budgeted films—rom-coms, horror films, true-story dramas—from which movie stars could spring, where the chances of disastrous budget losses were miniscule. Universal has had two such surprise hits this year: Split and Get Out, both major profit-makers from small budgets. There’s perhaps more money, and certainly more acclaim, to be found making films like that.