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Is the Dark Universe the antidote to shiny, happy superheroes?

It promises to be a different set of special-effects movies, one based around villains, not heroes.

But is the Dark Universe series of movies really as bold as its marketing says it is?

Here is the line-up that film studio Universal Pictures has released thus far: Johnny Depp will be The Invisible Man (release date unknown); Russell Crowe is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (seen in The Mummy, feature film date unknown), Javier Bardem is Frankenstein's monster in Bride Of Frankenstein (2019) and Dwayne Johnson is said to be in talks to play The Wolfman.

The monster roster could also include The Creature From The Black Lagoon, vampire hunter Van Helsing, his nemesis Dracula and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

By looking at what Universal has already told the public, let's see how excited we should get.

First, let us check the claim that these monster films will be the dark antidotes to shiny, happy superheroes, as The Mummy director Alex Kurtzman and creative force behind the Dark Universe says.

The problem with that statement is that it comes in 2017, not 2005, when director Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins was released.

If The Mummy is any indication, how the Dark Universe will avoid the pitfalls is to make the movies less ‘monster-like’, with less horror, less character and more special effects.

With that film, Nolan remade the superhero as someone who straddles the good-evil line. He saw that superheroes are vigilantes - self-appointed cops and judges - and he played up the angle.

And even before Nolan's Batman, comic-book anti-heroes abounded, from the British Judge Dredd (the subject of an under-appreciated 2012 movie starring Karl Urban) to Marvel's The Punisher (also the subject of a few movies).

Next is the claim that the Dark Universe will bring back characters with superhero qualities, but who have flaws that make them more relatable.

For an example, let us take Marvel's The Hulk, who is really a version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The Hulk, and also the X-Men's Beast (played by Nicholas Hoult and Kelsey Grammer in the movie series), are man-monster shape-changers, as Dr Jekyll and The Wolfman are.

Acclaimed Taiwanese director Lee Ang tried to make a relatable, anguished Hulk in 2003, which failed at the box office - so unless the studio is trying to make an arthouse superhero movie, audiences are not that impressed by human weakness in a monster.

Dracula Untold (2014), another attempt at giving depth and humanity to a monster, also flopped, as did The Wolfman (2010) with Benecio del Toro in the title role.

The bottom line is that character-driven monster movies have been around, as have movies with heroes who have a streak of psychopathy in them.

If The Mummy is any indication, how the Dark Universe will avoid the pitfalls is to make the movies less "monster-like", with less horror, less character and more special effects.

So, in an ironic twist befitting a classic monster movie, the Dark Universe will morph into another superhero franchise - thus becoming the creature it was trying to not become.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Exploring the dark side? It's nothing new'. Print Edition | Subscribe