Leading up to the release of The Mummy, Universal Pictures could not possibly have spent more time talking about their intention to launch the Dark Universe, a series of interconnected monster movies that would be the horror genre’s answer to Marvel Studios. They utterly failed with their first outing, as The Mummy was a cringeworthy mess that also inexplicably presumes that we are already interested in seeing a sequel before the first scene even begins. But while Universal was making a public display of their Dark Universe planning, Warner Bros. was quietly preparing to launch their own Conjuring Universe, and this series’ fourth entry, Annabelle: Creation, just performed better in its opening weekend than The Mummy did while costing $110 million less. The success of Creation, a highly enjoyable summer horror film, only highlights the utter failure of The Mummy and teaches a valuable lesson about launching a new film franchise in the modern era.
From the start, James Wan and Warner Bros. made the wise decision of presenting The Conjuring as a singular story with no additional baggage. In promoting the 2013 film, which came out the summer after Marvel’s wild success with the groundbreaking cinematic meetup The Avengers, the studio gave no indication that this might be part of a broader universe. Wan tells a satisfying tale that completes itself within its run time, with the Perron family’s struggles being introduced and resolved within those 112 minutes. Wan suggests that there are more stories out there with the Warrens’ collection of haunted items, but this and the cold open with Annabelle serve primarily to establish Ed and Lorraine’s day-to-day lives, not to sell the audience on a dozen more Conjuring movies yet to come.
But that’s not because it was always the intention to just make one Conjuring. James Wan recently told The Hollywood Reporter that he had a whole world in mind from the beginning and that he even wanted to call the first movie The Warren Files instead of The Conjuring, with the former title setting itself up for sequels a bit better. Wisely, though, Wan kept all the franchise-building off screen until long after The Conjuring was released and hailed as one of the finest American horror films of the decade.
With a cinematic universe, especially one not based on a medium like comic books that already thrives on crossovers, it seems to work best when viewers are slowly eased into the idea, not being told about the larger world until they’re already invested in the smaller one. This is a principle that the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the D.C. Extended Universe, and Legendary’s MonsterVerse all relied upon with Iron Man, Man of Steel and Godzilla, all films that would still make perfect sense had no sequels or spinoffs followed.
In 2014, Warner Bros. released Annabelle, a spinoff of The Conjuring that barely tied into the first movie at all outside of a tacked-on framing device. The Warrens themselves never appear, and there are few references to anything existing outside of the movie’s narrative. Instead, it follows a new couple, John and Mia, and like in The Conjuring, we leave with the sense that all was resolved and that we don’t necessarily need any more in order to feel fulfilled. Last year, The Conjuring 2 told another effective individual horror story, one that would resonate even with those who never saw the original.
It was only in promoting the fourth Conjuring movie, Annabelle: Creation, that Warner Bros. finally began to lean into the cinematic universe concept. The trailers for this sequel, and all of its posters, refer to it as the “next chapter in the Conjuring universe.” By this point, some consistency across Conjuring films had been established. Although the plots are unique, the first three Conjuring movies feel like they’re coming from the same place. They’re old school horror stories that are intentional throwbacks to movies of the 1970s. They also rely less on gore and more on suspense, and they emphasize characters and their relationships with one another. Therefore, calling this a “universe” didn’t feel like a sudden jump; after four years, Warner Bros’ had proven to us why the cinematic world should exist.
Compare this to the lead up to The Mummy. Three full years before the movie came out, Universal announced that it was rebooting its shared franchise of monster movies, which would start with The Mummy. As the June 2017 release date rolled closer and closer, the hype revolved largely around the cinematic universe plans, with the movie we were actually about to see seeming less important. Before The Mummy opened in theaters, Universal had announced plans for at least seven more installments in what it was now suddenly referring to as the Dark Universe. In interviews, director Alex Kurtzman talked mainly about what was to come for the franchise and seemed less interested in the movie he was actually releasing in June. So confident was Universal in this branding that they even kicked off The Mummy with the Dark Universe logo, a logo that was created literally two weeks earlier.
How are audiences expected to get excited about seeing more of something when they haven’t even seen the initial thing yet? Putting the cart before the horse in this case actually has an adverse effect. Ideally, crowds should turn out in droves to see a great individual film that tells a complete story, and as a result, they’re dying to see more, at which point the studio begins setting up more for them to see. But laying out a seven-plus movie plan all at once and presuming audiences will automatically get on board just feels desperate; it’s like discussing marriage plans on a first date.
With Annabelle: Creation, the pivot to the broader universe wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, as there’s also a noticeable shift in the movie itself. Creation, after all, features a scene that was clearly inserted to set up a future film and a post-credits stinger that serves the same purpose. But those two scenes total about 30 seconds of screen time, and you could easily take out both with no real impact on the story. There’s one beat where a character looks at a photo of a nun, and that nun appears at the end of the credits, something that is intended to set up 2018’s The Nun. Otherwise, there are no references to anything existing beyond the movie we’re in, not counting the tie-ins to the original Annabelle that are to be expected in a sequel. That’s exactly how it should be, and Creation is never bogged down by pointless world building.
Again compare this to The Mummy, a movie that spends a very significant chunk of its screen time having a character essentially pitch the audience on the Dark Universe. Dr. Henry Jekyll gives Nick Morton an extended explanation about an organization called Prodigium, which is responsible for finding and destroying evil everywhere. In a line that is clearly intended to be read on a meta level, Jekyll actually says, “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.” The Dark Universe table setting absolutely affects the storytelling, grinding the entire movie to a halt and utterly destroying the pace. Can’t we just enjoy a Friday night at the movies without spending half the time being told about much better Friday nights to come in a few years? In the process of trying to better position the next few movies, Alex Kurtzman has ruined this one, therefore killing any enthusiasm for what’s to come. And although you could take the nun scenes out of Annabelle: Creation without having to change a word, lifting Prodigium out of The Mummy would call for extensive rewrites.
Imagine how differently things might have gone had Alex Kurtzman and Universal Studios taken The Conjuring’s approach. Had they done so, Dr. Henry Jekyll would be excised from The Mummy entirely. The film would instead be a standalone adventure about Nick Morton, who must learn about and defeat Princess Ahmanet without a walking, talking exposition machine there to help him and tell him about Universal Studio’s ten-year plan. At most, there could be one oblique reference to Prodigium, but otherwise, viewers would be given a complete experience, which would hopefully leave them interested in similar monster movies. Granted, assuming no changes to the rest of the film were made, they’d still be disappointed in the cringeworthy dialogue, uninteresting action scenes and lack of memorable scares, but that’s a whole separate issue.
Let’s not forget that in Iron Man, Nick Fury did not show up until after the credits, and Godzilla, the retroactive first chapter in the Legendary MonsterVerse, stood completely on its own. This is how it should be, as even if the hope is for a movie to launch a new franchise, it’s best not to make that clear on screen immediately. Otherwise, you end up with something like The Mummy, which feels like the first episode of a CBS show you’d turn off halfway through. Part of the appeal of a cinematic universe is that it establishes a stamp of quality and a level of consistency between a series of films that won’t necessarily be related at first but that will feel connected due to their tone and style. Though Universal Studios was the master of the interconnected horror universe decades ago, with Annabelle: Creation, Warner Bros. has beaten them at their own game.