How The Mummy Sets Up a Massive New Monster Movie Franchise

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

In a cinematic world chock full of superheroes, Universal is taking the scarier route. To compete with Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony’s ever-expanding and ridiculously lucrative superhero franchises, Universal is mining its cache of classic characters to create an interconnected universe filled with monsters. Dubbed the “Dark Universe,” the series kicked off this summer with a reboot of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise.

Universal made its name as a studio 1930s, 40s and 50s with delightfully schlocky films like Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Wolf Man, Dracula and Creature From the Black Lagoon. The studio now plans to reboot many of these movies with overlapping characters to create an Avengers-like franchise. Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll (and, presumably, Mr. Hyde) appears to be the glue: He drops into The Mummy for a cameo and his overture at the beginning of the film promises he will introduce a “new world of gods and monsters” in future movies.

The universe has been long in the works, though it’s still unclear whether The Invisible Man and Frankenstein’s Monster can battle Superman and Iron Man at the box office. Here’s what you need to know.

This Mummy has nothing to do with Brendan Fraser’s Mummy

In 1999, Fraser and Rachel Weisz starred in a movie also called The Mummy about a group of 1920s explorers who accidentally unearth a very angry undead priest. Reviews were mixed. (The late, great Roger Ebert wrote: “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.”) But it was a hit at the box office and spawned two sequels and a spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson, then billed as The Rock.

Fraser’s Rick O’Connell does not appear in the Tom Cruise film, nor do any other characters from the original movies. The new movie takes place in present day, and the Mummy is female instead of male. Some original Mummy fans are upset that Fraser was replaced as the franchise’s star, but he seems to be okay with it.

The Mummy will set up the universe…again

Technically, the “Dark Universe” already exists. Originally the 2014 film Dracula Untold starring Luke Evans was supposed to set up the franchise. But the movie flailed at the box office, so Universal is betting on Tom Cruise to launch the extended universe instead. (Their faith may be misplaced: Wonder Woman, in its second weekend, is set to bury The Mummy at the box office.)

In Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, Tom Cruise plays a new character named Nick Morton. The titular mummy (Sofia Boutella) was mummified and buried alive after trying to incite a coup when her pharaoh father gave her birthright to her baby brother 5,000 years ago. She was interrupted mid-casting of an evil curse that would have imbued her mortal boyfriend with the powers of the god of death.

When a bumbling Nick wakes her up in the present day, she decides that he would be the perfect new vessel for these deadly powers and pursues him across the world in hopes of stabbing him with a magic dagger that will turn him into a monster (and give him two pupils, apparently). It’s safe to assume that Cruise will make it out of this movie alive — if not unscathed — so he can wreak havoc in a sequel that unites him with the monsters from other films.

There will be at least seven other films

Universal has revealed plans to make Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame and Invisible Man. It’s unclear whether Cruise’s character will somehow become one of these monsters or be a separate monster without his own film beyond The Mummy.

dark universe
(l-r) Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Sofia BoutellaUniversal Pictures

Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp are onboard

Javier Bardem has signed on to play Frankenstein’s monster and Johnny Depp the Invisible Man. No word yet on who might play the other characters.

Kurtzman recently rattled off a number of other A-listers he would like to see in the films. “I’d love to bring Michael Fassbender in. I’d love to bring Jennifer Lawrence in. I’d love to see Charlize Theron in there, Angelina Jolie,” he told Fandom.

Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is the glue

Think of Dr. Jekyll as the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe. Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury ties together the Marvel movies as the head of SHIELD, the government organization that deals with superhuman threats.

Crowe appears in The Mummy to introduce the SHIELD-like organization Prodigium, which has been charged with tracking the world’s monsters. Dr. Jekyll’s has a complicated relationship with the eradication of monsters, considering his alter-ego. Here’s Universal’s description of Prodigium:

“Dark Universe films are connected by a mysterious multinational organization known as Prodigium. Led by the enigmatic and brilliant Dr. Henry Jekyll, Prodigium’s mission is to track, study, and — when necessary — destroy evil embodied in the form of monsters in our world. Working outside the aegis of any government, and with practices concealed by millennia of secrecy, Prodigium protects the public from knowledge of the evil that exists just beyond the thin membrane of civilized society… and will go to any length to contain it.”

Bride of Frankenstein will be the second film

After The Mummy, audiences will have to wait another year and a half for a second monster flick. Bride of Frankenstein, directed by Beauty and the Beast’s Bill Condon, hits theaters on Feb. 19, 2019 — just in time for a very spooky Valentine’s Day. The movie will presumably star Bardem as the monster and a yet-uncast actor as the bride.

While The Mummy is a traditional action movie, Bride of Frankenstein will likely be more of a drama, which means the Dark Universe will vary genre depending on the monster. Universal will also skip the traditional Frankenstein story, at least for now. Over the years Frankenstein has been featured in a whopping 52 films, so perhaps the studio thinks that audiences are as sick of watching the bolt-necked monster come to life as they are of watching Uncle Ben die.

“Extended universes” are the future of cinema

For better or worse, studios have learned that audiences will pay not only to see sequels but prequels, spinoffs and crossovers. Marvel (owned by Disney) was the first studio to prove how fruitful the relationships among its characters could be. Iron Man left his solo movies to join forces with the rest of the Avengers, and soon that cohort of heroes will join up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to save the universe in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The upshot: Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is the most lucrative franchise of all time.

Warner Bros. is putting together a Justice League movie after last year’s Batman v. Superman and this year’s Wonder Woman. They’ll also build their world with bad guy spinoffs: After last summer’s Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn will headline a female villain movie. Meanwhile, Sony recently announced plans to launch its first movie in the Spider-Man universe that won’t focus on Spidey himself but rather the villain Venom. More Spider-Man spinoffs are in the pipeline.

And studios aren’t just capitalizing on superheroes. The Star Wars universe (Disney) grows ever larger with a new movie premiering every year, including sequels (The Force Awakens) and spinoffs (Rogue One). Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham may get a Fast and Furious spinoff (Universal). And Harry Potter is getting a related series in Fantastic Beasts (Universal).

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at