Can Universal Still Build A Monster Universe?

Patrick Jackson is featured on my site today to talk about the immersive world-building of Universal Studios. Take it away, Patrick!

Can Universal Still Build A Monster Universe?

For those interested in expanded worlds and connected universes in fiction, Universal’s Dark Universe has been something to keep an eye on the last few years. The idea was for the studio to use its valuable monster properties to establish a darker version of the Marvel or DC superhero universes (especially after the recent success of Black Panther, and the upcoming Avengers:Infinity War movie). But after The Mummy failed as the first planned installment, the Monsterverse is in peril. Top producers have abandoned the project, and at this point it’s uncertain whether or not the so-called “Dark Universe” will ever come to fruition.


Answering that uncertainty is difficult. But at least on the Universal side of things it seems prudent to start with the simple question of what went wrong. In this regard we have a few theories.

The first is that there was no real foundation for the Dark Universe, despite the studio’s rights to fiction’s most famous monsters. While there are connections and similarities here and there, it’s not as if there are decades’ worth of comic books, or years’ worth of literature placing these characters on teams or in scenarios together. The closest we can come to placing them all together is the library of slot arcade games produced by NetEnt. Showcased by SlotSource, this collection includes nods to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and even lesser characters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This at least places many of the Dark Universe monsters on the same platform. But it’s merely a result of Universal and NetEnt striking a licensing deal, as opposed to any kind of connected storyline.


The second issue is that the Dark Universe was too openly planned. SyFy Wire did a long write-up on the apparent failure of the universe and made the very interesting observation that audiences might just not have cared about The Mummy (which came out in 2017). This, in theory, was because viewers were keenly aware that everything happening was just to set up a bunch of sequels. That is to say, when Iron Man came out in 2008, we knew that Marvel had more plans in the works, but we didn’t know the full scope of the MCU, or how connected everything would be; we were just watching an Iron Man movie, the way we’d watched Batman Begins in 2005 or Spider-Man in 2002. It was its own movie, and we got a chance to dive into it and embrace its character. The Mummy felt like a steppingstone before we even sat down in theaters.


And the third problem, as we see it, is that The Mummy simply wasn’t compelling. From the moment Tom Cruise’s character fell out of an airplane in the trailer it was clear that this was a more modern spring action flick. The Mummy of the late-‘90s with Brendan Fraser was no masterpiece, but it was at the very least a fun experience, caught somewhere between Indiana Jones and National Treasure – undeniably silly, but self-aware and engaging. The modern version of this kind of film is one lost in over-the-top action sequences and special effects. And unfortunately, Universal doesn’t seem to have been aware that this style – more in the Transformers vein – is growing tired for audiences.

These are three very serious problems: lack of foundation, the assumption of sequels, and a poor start. But if we forget about The Mummy entirely, the concept of a “Dark Universe” actually sounds like one that ought to work. The way we can imagine it doing so is if Universal has the courage to scrap existing plans, hire new producers, writers, and directors, and start all over.

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9.5/10 stars for Marvel’s Black Panther


Wakanda is a beautiful and vibrant example of exquisite world-building. It looks incredible – as a stunning fantasy landscape, a technological wonder, but also as a country buzzing with tradition and culture. The costumes, weapons, architecture and even the people’s gestures (the crossing of the arms, the dancing before the duels, etc) all contribute to a stunning world more developed than anything we have seen in the Marvel universe to date.

Part of this is achieved through the outstanding cinematography. There are numerous shots that render the viewer speechless, the beauty and raw power of certain scenes is mesmerising. The music contributes to the overall feel of the movie perfectly, a blend of the modern and traditional – mixing the familiar epic sound of Marvel’s soundtracks with more primitive tribal music.

The real strength of Black Panther is the cast and the outstanding characters they play. Every actor on the screen is exceptional. Chadwick Boseman, of course, is the quintessential Marvel superhero. He is honourable, just and righteous, a perfect king for the nation of Wakanda. Boseman’s acting is both profound and charming, achieving a great balance between the intensity of the fight scenes, and the playful banter he shares with his sister.


Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, though bitter and disillusioned with the world, is charismatic and sympathetic. It is difficult not to relate to him. Danai Gurira as General Okoye is strong and determined, fiercely loyal to Wakanda (and would make an excellent partner to Captain America – just imagine the honour the two of them would ooze on screen together!)

Letitia Wright’s Shuri almost steals the show in her own right. A wonderfully developed character, she is funny and has some of the best moments in the film. Her intelligence, reflected in her ingenious inventions, rivals Tony Stark’s and, as a team, they would be formidable (she would also be more than capable of keeping up with his witticisms). But the best thing about Shuri is the joy she radiates when explaining her creations. This is a woman who shows pride in what she accomplishes and isn’t ashamed to show excitement at her own achievements. She is a science geek, without falling into the typical geek stereotype (she can even seriously kick ass when she needs to).


But all of these things apply to numerous Marvel films. Excellent acting can be said of The Winter Soldier or Civil War. Humour is wonderfully represented in Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. Black Panther has these things, but what makes it truly shine is the maturity of the storyline. This is no simple origin tale of a superhero. Really, T’Challa becoming the Black Panther is only a minor plot point. The true theme at the heart of this film is the plight of African nations.

Black people all across the world, and throughout history, have suffered at the hands of colonialism and prejudice. Relegated to third world status, many of Africa’s countries struggle with poverty, but Wakanda is wealthy, accomplished and more technologically advanced than any place on Earth. If it were to reveal its true self to the world, Wakanda would undoubtedly be ruined and so the rulers of the country have kept it hidden from prying eyes. But doesn’t Wakanda have an obligation to share its resources and knowledge with those suffering around them? This is the true question at the heart of the film – embodied by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia. As a moral philanthropist, Nakia wishes to see the nation of Wakanda spread its wealth to those who need it most, even if it means piercing the blissful bubble that has protected them for centuries.

Ever since the film’s conception, it has been heralded as groundbreaking for its depiction of black characters. In this it is truly admirable and revolutionary. But the representation of black people isn’t its only triumph. Black Panther also excels in its portrayal of female characters. Instead of a single ‘strong’ woman as a token gesture (as Black Widow can sometimes appear), the female characters in this film are integral to the plot and indeed drive much of the narrative. Female warriors, commanders, scientists, inventors, diplomats are all woven into the plot and, most crucially of all, without the need for explanation. Okoye isn’t the ‘first ever’ female general, or the leader of the ‘all-women unit’ of the army. She’s just the general, because she is. And that is a huge step forwards.

There are very few negative aspects of the film. It is easily a top tier Marvel movie and one that won’t be easy to top (although Infinity War will give it a good try). There are only a few areas in which it loses points. Firstly, there isn’t really a need for armoured rhinos! They look good, but they don’t add anything and seem to be thrown in for visual spectacle and nothing more. The film is already stunning enough without war rhinos!

Secondly, the love story between T’Challa and Nakia seems a little weak and unnecessary. It doesn’t really add anything to the movie (though they do make a gorgeous couple!).

Finally, though Black Panther is a fantastic film in its own right, it doesn’t really feel like a Marvel movie. The recent films in the MCU have all linked together very well, with characters and artefacts crossing paths and interlinking, ready for Infinity War. Aside from a few minor things, this film doesn’t link with the others at all – making it an unusual choice of movie as the last before Infinity War. Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok would have been much better for warming up the fans before the main event.

But, these points aside, there is very little that can be criticized in this outstanding movie. Overall, Black Panther easily achieves a 9.5/10.