It’s nearly impossible to remember a world in which The Avengers seemed like anything other than a sure bet, but that was very much the case before its release in 2012. The culmination of an intended cinematic universe was unprecedented from a creative and financial perspective at the time and there was no guarantee it would pay off.
It did, and from the moment the Avengers assembled in the now-iconic group shot in the center of New York City, the writing was on the wall: get a cinematic universe or perish. Since then the phenomenon has become the driving force behind blockbuster filmmaking, for better (TheConjuring Universe) or worse (we’ll get to that).
But while the narrative has been dominated by successes like the MCU and Star Wars, a number of bodies have been left in the wake of a decade dominated by the need for movies to be something larger than the sum of their parts before the cameras even begin to roll.
In the last ten years, we have seen more cinematic universes fail than succeed. At their best, they allow for engaging interconnected long-form storytelling that moviegoers haven’t had the chance to experience until the last few years. At their worst, they’re hollow cash-grabs built on faulty foundations, doomed to bore audiences and lose money.
As the 2010s come to a close, we’re going to take a look at three cinematic universes that failed to take off, one good, one bad, and one…weird (all of which came out in the now-pivotal year of 2017). In them, there are lessons to learn about building a franchise, but also about how to make a good movie that people want more of to begin with. May the 2020s learn from their failures and successes in equal measure.
THE GOOD: Power Rangers (2017)
A big-screen blockbuster adaptation of the Power Rangers franchise has seemed like a no-brainer for a while now. It finally came to fruition when series mastermind/executive producer Haim Saban announced in 2016 that not only would a film be hitting the silver screen soon, but that it’d be a part of an intended six-film arc. Unfortunately, the impossible came true. Power Rangers proved a (mild) box office bomb and the planned sequels have effectively been scrapped.
The twist here is that Power Rangers is good. Very good, even. The film was met with middling reviews, but its reputation has improved since its original release. It’s not a perfect movie by any means (Kimberly’s whole revenge plot still reads as pretty off and the Krispy Kreme product placement is legendarily distracting) but many of the complaints originally lobbed at it now read as some of its strongest attributes.
When IP that comes with heavy nostalgia is rebooted or redeveloped, fan service is an inevitability. But when the nostalgia is more for iconography than character or story, that fan service can dominate the film to a distracting extent and take away from potential emotional resonance. The nostalgia generations hold for the Power Rangers franchise is largely rooted in its iconography, for morphing sequences and the Megazord assembling and a handful of memorable quotes.
Power Rangers has very little of those things (we never actually see the Megazord assemble!). Instead, director Dean Israelite and his team took a hard look at what Power Rangers at large is about – the idea that friendship is a redeeming force and that you’re always better for letting yourself experience it – and structured the film around those ideas instead of fan service.
The result is a film in which the Power Rangers don’t actually morph until the final act, but the two acts we spend with them beforehand are so full of team and character building that when Jason finally utters the iconic, “It’s Morphin’ Time,” it feels earned and cathartic in a way it never did on the TV show.
More crucially, while the movie is clearly at times supposed to be a part of a larger story, there’s nothing about its efforts to set up sequels that impede on the story it’s trying to tell in its run time – a vital feat to any movie that aspires to ascend to the list of successful cinematic universes.
While record-breaking toy sales seem to have indicated that the movie was a success with younger audiences, it never quite broke through to older ones. There’s no telling where the six-film arc would have gone and we may never know for sure. Oftentimes the failure of a cinematic universe is nothing to lose sleep over, but Power Rangers remains the rare exception.
THE BAD: The Mummy (2017)
Cinematic universes function under anticipation. The reason we want to see them is that they introduce characters and concepts that audiences clamor to see collide one day. In the case of the MCU and DCEU, that anticipation spans decades. As such, these franchises often hinge on an eventual meeting of worlds, a movie in which characters from different films finally collide. Every studio wants their Avengers moment these days. Universal Studios perhaps wanted theirs a bit too much.
Enter the Dark Universe. After the middling Dracula Untold in 2014, Universal began planning for a cinematic universe focusing on their stable of Universal Monsters, which includes characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and Jekyll/Hyde. The cinematic universe was, in a move that played a part in dooming the franchise, announced before a single film had hit screens. Tom Cruise was announced as playing the lead in 2017’s The Mummy, while Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem were slated for The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein, respectively. Tying it all together was Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll (and, implicitly, Mr. Hyde eventually).
The problem? Nobody actually knew what the so-called Dark Universe was due to not having seen a single film in the franchise yet. The reason the MCU and TheConjuring Universe worked is because plans for the future of the franchises were only set in place after the success of the launch films. From there producers were able to gauge what it is people liked about the movies and how they could go about establishing a tone for what they were setting out to accomplish.
To the surprise of many, when The Mummy finally came out it was more Fast & Furious than a horror movie, not exactly the tone the studio seemed to have promised when they announced the development of this world. More importantly, it was bad, notoriously so. The film went on to bomb at the box office and, within the next couple of years, the Dark Universe was scrapped entirely. Universal has since rebooted a number of their classic horror properties as low-budget modern horror flicks with the help of Blumhouse Productions, the first being The Invisible Man which hits screens in 2020.
There’s a world in which the raw star power of the Dark Universe could have propelled it to great success, but it was so terribly mismanaged from day one that in hindsight it was dead long before arrival. The Mummy was only its reanimated corpse coming back from the dead to terrorize us one last time.
THE WEIRD: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
There’s no reason a King Arthur epic directed by Guy Ritchie shouldn’t be a success, but 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword ended up one of the more egregious box office bombs of the decade. It’s a shame as there’s actually quite a bit to like in the movie. The scenes in which Ritchie is allowed to do his hyper-kinetic street action, snappy overlapping dialogue, and non-linear cross-cutting work like a charm. Charlie Hunnam is the perfect Arthur Pendragon and Jude Law is doing the absolute most (in the best way) as the evil Vortigern.
The problem? This never should have been a cinematic universe to begin with. Warner Bros. saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as the launchpad for a world of myth and magic, swords, and sorcery. Had the film been successful it would have been followed by installments featuring Merlin and Lancelot (both of whom are notably absent from this movie) as well as other cast members of the Knights of the Round Table lore. It would have culminated in a team-up movie in which all of the forces joined, finally forming an Arthurian dream team.
This is, all things considered, a pretty asinine concept to begin with. With the exception of perhaps Merlin, none of the characters of Arthurian legend outside of the titular Arthur are notable enough to carry their own films. Furthermore, removing them from the narrative of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword while forcing the film to set up their future stories works to the detriment of all parties.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is at its worst when wrapped up in franchise myth-making and blockbuster studio mandates. From the action scenes filmed like a video game to the bizarre attempt to set up a series-long conflict between mages and humans, the burden of being a cinematic universe drags down an otherwise interesting action movie.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has so much going for it, but often feels at war with itself. It knows what it wants to be, but is hindered by the burden of expectations. It’s a shame as the moments in the movie that work do so quite well. Daniel Pemberton’s score is also one of the best of the decade and due to the film’s failure remains criminally underrated.
When the book is written on cinematic universes, the failed King Arthur franchise will go down as one of the strangest entities. It’s truly bizarre to think that a bunch of studio suits thought they could shoehorn in a spinoff for Gawain the Green Knight and use it as a building block to a massive crossover event. The tragedy of it all is that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword likely would have been a much greater financial success, a much better movie, and a much more viable long-term investment for the studio had it simply been given the space to be one movie rather than a part of a whole.
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