So there’s talk about Universal doing a reboot of 2004’s Van Helsing, in the hopes of starting off a shared universe along the same lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Apparently Bob Orci is starting off with a Mummy film (which could be a great place to start). Now, I might argue that Universal already did such a thing back in the 1930’s and 40’s, with their crossover films that connected classic monsters like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, and Dracula into a very loose and ad-hoc continuity. (Egads, does that put Abbott and Costello in the place of Agent Coulson as “the glue”???)
Two of the weaknesses in the 2004 Van Helsing, I thought, were the secret monster-hunting society and the attempt to cram a ton of monsters into the single film right off the bat. In fairness, the Marvel model hadn’t yet been established, where a film focuses tightly on one character, which then leads into another, and another, with minor shared characters darting in and out of the continuity, and then you see the big team-up film that raises the stakes for the whole shared universe, which then leads into the next batch of single-character movies, etc., etc., etc.
I think it’s a great model, but it takes time to lay the groundwork, and it can’t be rushed into. That’s exactly what I think Sony is doing with their Spider-man franchise (a Sinister Six movie next, but no Black Cat? Really?) and Warner Brothers is doing with the DC Universe (straight from a stand-alone Superman film to a huge mix-up with at least Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aqua Man). If Universal has the confidence to play the long game, they could come out with a really well-established shared universe around their monster properties.
Let’s take an inventory of what, exactly, we’re talking about, in terms of “A List” monsters:
- Frankenstein’s Monster
- The Wolfman
- The Invisible Man
- The Phantom of the Opera
- Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- The Gill Man (aka the Creature from the Black Lagoon)
More than enough to sustain a whole slew of films, if they’re plotted together properly. There are also a ton of “B List” monsters and characters that could be woven in and amongst them, like the Mole People, Maleva the gypsy from the Wolfman, Van Helsing, Doctor Frankenstein, Ygor, Else Frankenstein, the Cult of the Cobra, the Creeper, etc.
One issue that would have to be addressed is the question of what time-period the movies would take place. Dracula and the Monster are immortal, but the other characters certainly aren’t. Dracula originally takes place in the early 19th century, while the Creature from the Black Lagoon was set in the 1950’s. Some sort of compression of time-frame would be needed, and some sort of “glue” the way S.H.I.E.L.D. binds the MCU together.
I picture this without a single overarching “glue”, but rather more direct movie-to-movie connections. So there would be van Helsing as protagonist in a couple of Dracula movies, and a Frankenstein origin film followed by a Bride of Frankenstein-inspired story with Dr. Praetorius as protagonist, then Dracula would move over to Frankenstein, trying to force Frankenstein’s son to repeat the experiment, introducing Maleva, then a Wolfman origin story set in the same town as Frankenstein, with a lot of the same secondary characters, and then a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film with a lab assistant who will later become the Invisible Man, and so forth.
I think if they don’t try to rush things, Universal has the potential to really put together an effective shared universe, treating the material seriously and still recalling the heyday of Universal monster movies where mash-ups between monsters were commonplace. Today we call that a shared universe, and if it’s done deliberately, setting things up in one film that payoff in another, it can really work.