Some 80 years before we had the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a much different, much creepier and much more complex shared cinematic universe playing out on the silver screen.
While the multiplexes right now are dominated by comic book heroes, back in the thirties and forties it was all about antiheroes.
Monsters were the big moneymaker, as well as the vessels for some of the most fascinating studies of humanity. Audiences flocked to see how the plight of the outcast would play out, embodied in iconic roles by actors like Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein), Lon Chaney (The Wolf Man) and Bela Lugosi (Dracula).
Those traditional Universal monster movies pointed the lens inward, and in 2017, a reboot of one of those classics aims to do just the same, with the added allure of Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe.
Combining their star power for the first time, Cruise and Crowe are the leading men of The Mummy; with the former playing a new spin on a classic character and the latter taking on the iconic role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It’s an interesting move for Cruise, who was last seen playing a movie monster in 1994’s Interview With A Vampire. Back then, it was then a risky, against-type role for the world’s biggest movie star to take on, and twenty-three years later he’s eager to take on similar material.
“I love these movies,” he explains, with a simple shrug. “I love the classic Mummy monster movies, Dracula, The Wolf Man… but what could we do with the tone of something like this?”
“We needed to separate the difference between what horror is and what horror has become in [the] modern day."
As such, in a world of Donald Trump, offshore detention centers designed to torture those fleeing injustice, North Korea arming up, and bigots, sexists and racists seemingly more prevalent than ever, will the cinema-going public really want to spend time with movie monsters when there are already enough ghouls in the real world?
“I think that’s what the studio is thinking, yeah,” laughs Crowe, before snapping into a straight face as he seriously considers the question.
“It’s very difficult in this environment to work out where good begins and ends, and where bad begins and ends and what is truly the depth of evil.
“I think that is one of the exciting things about the movie, because it’s not so clear-cut.”
While contemporary tentpole blockbusters have become reliant on crisp goodie-versus-baddie templates, The Mummy is nothing if not bringing many shades of grey to a black and white market.
Even its eponymous monster – this time played by a woman in Sofia Boutella – isn’t as easy to root against as you’d expect an immortal, murderous mummy to be.
“She is complex,” says Boutella, whose Princess Ahmanet is a driven, devoted female leader with agency and ambition. While her tendency towards “visceral violence” may be a little less relatable to women than her other traits, she’s someone that – just like King Kong or Godzilla – audiences may find themselves secretly cheering for.
Given that he has spent a career crafting complicated women in characters such as Xena, Alias’ Sydney Bristow and Star Trek's Uhura, it’s not surprising that director and producer Alex Kurtzman wasn’t interested in doing The Mummy unless the iconic movie monster could be gender bent.
“I think it was the only reason to make the movie, honestly,” he says, just days after the announcement that Universal’s next big monster movie will be Bride Of Frankenstein in 2019.
“In the early drafts I had explored making the mummy a man and it just didn’t feel different enough. That’s not a reason to make the movie.
“There was a voice in my head saying ‘make it a woman, make it a woman’ and when I listened to that voice a whole avenue of story opened up.
“I felt that we were telling a different story that was extremely topical even though it took place 5000 years ago.”
As Boutella puts it: “there simply needs to be more female monsters out there”.
For Crowe, it’s more than just the fact that “traditionally people love getting the bejeezus scared out of them” – it’s a rare opportunity to say something new with very old characters.
He’s also on board with what Universal are dubbing their “Dark Universe”: a series of interconnected films based on those original monster movie classics, with Crowe and Cruise reprising their Mummy roles, Boutella as Princess Ahmanet, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Creature, and – rumour has it – Angelina Jolie as the Bride Of Frankenstein herself.
While the original Universal monster movies were first released in the aftermath of WW1 and continued being made through WWII, with the monsters themselves often being less monstrous than their human counterparts, it’s a legacy likely to continue in the 21st century. It’s somewhat of a dream (or nightmare, rather) for Kurtzman, who will act as the puppet master of this new run of movies.
In his own words: “I think all those movies acted as interesting metaphors and reflected things about the times during which they were made.”
The question is, are audiences ready to look into the abyss and have the abyss look back?
The Mummy opens in cinemas worldwide on June 8.