Universal has released the first trailer for The Mummy, the big-budget reboot of not only the classic horror film starring Boris Karloff but also the Brendan Fraser-starring action comedy version. This time out Tom Cruise stars in a story that’s not completely conveyed in this initial trailer.
Here’s what is shown: Morton and Jenny Halsey (co-star Annabelle Wallis) are shown in a military transport plane, surrounded by soldiers who are presumably there to protect them and their cargo, which we eventually see is a sarcophagus. The plane experiences problems - a group of bats fly into the windshield and engines at 30,000 feet, which is meant to make it clear these are supernatural events - and goes down. Morton sends Halsey to safety via parachute but he seems to die in the crash, only to suddenly come back to life after being sent to the morgue.
That, we find out via narration from Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), brings him into a bigger world “of gods and monsters.” It’s now up to him to stop the unleashed power of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an ancient priestess who was apparently the one in the sarcophagus and who is relishing her second chance at life and at…destroying the world?
There’s a startling lack of exposition in this first trailer. We’re not told why Morton and Halsey are on the plane or what their role in finding or otherwise dealing with the sarcophagus might have been. Nor are we given any backstory for Ahmenet, just that her power won’t be denied.
Instead the focus of the trailer seems to be on Crowe’s Jekyll. Yes, *that* Jekyll. His explanation to Morton that he’s entered a wider world of unknowns seems to parallel a similar speech from the famous post-credits scene in Iron Man where Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury told Tony Stark - and the audience - that there was a lot more out there to explore. That setup the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this is trying to do the same thing, promising audiences that there’s a whole universe of monster stories to tell.
It’s an interesting tactic that speaks to how audience expectations - or at least studio perceptions of audience expectations - have changed since 2008’s Iron Man.
Remember that when Iron Man was released, there didn’t seem to be a grand plan for five different phases of Avengers movies. No one, it seems, was planning how Doctor Strange would tie into The Infinity War storyline eight years later. The movie was kind of a surprise hit and the Nick Fury scene was shot not so much to tease future stories but as a fun and largely meaningless little nod to fans. It only gained importance in retrospect.
Now, though, cinematic universes seem to be the default for any new intellectual property. The appearance of Jekyll in this trailer means Universal is trying to make the promise from the outset. The studio wants the audience to know that they’re in for the long-haul. They’re not just signing up for one movie, they’re signing up for several, with each movie setting up something new for the next one and the one after that. The clues will only be decipherable in retrospect as we look back and say “Oh, that stone in that scene of The Mummy *was* super-important because it’s now the Macguffin in this new movie.” Nothing ends and everything can be spun off.
That’s similar to the mindset that led Warner Bros. to promise before the first movie ever came out that there would be five films in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. So a short, toss-off novelty of a book (not even a story or novel) has spawned at minimum 10 hours of screen time. The studio wanted audiences to know that the Harry Potter universe won’t end anytime soon, so they can take comfort in never leaving the familiar nest. Of course this isn’t just about selling movie tickets for the next several years, it’s also about selling novelty wand replicas and theme park tickets and countless other consumer products reliably as the movies become pop-culture reminders to also check out the online store and find something new for the collection you started back in 2001.
It’s a strange new twist on nostalgia. There are countless examples of movie studios and other entertainment companies reviving franchises from the 70s and 80s to not only appeal to 30-40 year olds but also their young kids who had grown up hearing their dads talking about how great the old Transformers cartoon was back in the day. Now the promise has shifted from promising that everything old can be new again to that you’ll never have to go without. Love Harry Potter? It will always be with you. Love super heroes? You’ll never go more than three months without a new movie.
Unfortunately that approach of making promises that are dependent on sustaining audience interest over the course of several movies and years has inherent risks. Lionsgate scored with the successful Hunger Games movie adaptations but couldn’t pull off the same trick with the Divergent series, recently announcing the fourth film, Ascendant, would be moving to TV after diminishing critical and box-office returns over the course of three movies.
There’s a lot of great potential in a cinematic universe featuring The Mummy, Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and other creatures. But studios wade into potentially dangerous waters when it promises that scale before the first movie has proven audiences are actually interested. That danger is secondary, though, to the fear that audiences will choose someone else’s franchise over the course of the next decade.
Chris Thilk is a freelance marketing writer specializing in movie marketing. Read more from The Drum's Movie Marketing Blog here.