Before movie theaters shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the year started off fairly strong. One of the biggest success stories, of course, was The Invisible Man. Even with its theatrical run cut short, the movie — which cost just $7 million — earned $123 million worldwide.
Director Leigh Whannell’s previous movie, 2018’s Upgrade, only brought in $16 million during its release. Of course, The Invisible Man has the benefit of a recognizable brand name. But even with that on its side, the film almost never materialized at all.
Universal Monsters was the first cinematic shared universe
Today’s moviegoers may be all about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it was Universal Monsters who first kicked off the notion of a big-screen shared universe. Movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and yes, The Invisible Man introduced moviegoers to these unforgettable creations. And for decades, the films largely thrived.
Over the years, audiences lost interest in the classic Universal monsters. The characters began to appear sporadically on the big screen. But given the fact that many of them are in the public domain, most of these subsequent productions were made outside of Universal. The studio did try intermittently to adapt the Universal Monsters, however.
1999’s The Mummy was a smash which led to two sequels. Yet, 2004’s Van Helsing and 2010’s The Wolfman — which starred Hugh Jackman and Benicio del Toro, respectively — failed to make the kind of impact necessary for a full-fledged reboot. Likewise, 2014’s Dracula Untold underwhelmed and underperformed financially.
The Dark Universe fell apart before it could really begin
By the time 2017 rolled around, Universal believed they had cracked the code. A new version of The Mummy led by Tom Cruise appeared to slam the doors wide open for the “Dark Universe.” The film even features a fancy logo for the franchise and a supporting turn by Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll (and, you guessed it, Mr. Hyde).
Audiences, it seems, were not ready for “a new world of gods and monsters.” The Mummy bombed at the box office and went down as one of the year’s most embarrassing misfires. And plans for an ambitious slate of movies — including a Bride of Frankenstein remake starring Javier Bardem — were dashed. Universal even canceled a Johnny Depp-led The Invisible Man.
After such a costly, time-consuming endeavor, no wonder Universal was hesitant to dip into its classic monsters again. In fact, it wasn’t until Whannell pitched the opposite approach the studio seemed interested. Rather than a $125 million production like The Mummy, Whannell’s grim, very R-rated The Invisible Man would reveal the story’s grimy underbelly.
‘The Invisible Man’ leads a monstrous resurgence
Instead of taking the perspective of the title character, Whannell’s The Invisible Man flips the focus onto his ex (Elisabeth Moss). The entire film serves as a metaphor for dealing with the trauma of an abusive relationship. In doing so, Whannell creates something less about spectacle than harrowing emotional grounding. And, this time, audiences loved it.
Perhaps part of what makes The Invisible Man work so well is that it doesn’t aim to set the stage for a larger cinematic universe. Universal is very much tapping into the archives of its classic monsters, including a new Dracula. But at this point, there are no plans for The Invisible Man to kickstart any expected cross-overs. For now, that’s probably for the best.
If the studio is able to successfully apply the same approach to other Universal Monsters, then perhaps some of these characters will cross paths again. Still, Whannell’s movie defied the odds by resurrecting a dead franchise in the most unexpected of ways. The last thing Universal — and fans — want is for the studio to start seeing dollar signs and kill it again.
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