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.