As we walked out of The Mummy, my friend Bob shrugged. “Everybody needs a universe now.”
It’s true: “cinematic universes” like the competing Marvel and DC franchises are now the standard for big-budget fantasy movies and TV shows, with interconnected storylines drawing fans from one episode to another — just like it works with the comic books that gave birth to those characters. Without any remaining major comic brands to draw on, Universal is now plumbing its cinematic archives for a “Dark Universe” that encompasses a monster mash of rebooted baddies like the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Wolf Man.
Pulling it off, though, is going to take some creativity: not just in devising showcase scenarios for the villains to wreak CGI havoc, but in reimagining these stories at a deeper level. It’s one thing to wear a Halloween costume, it’s another to create a new world that you can ask 21st-century filmgoers to visit again and again — and these characters date from an era full of highly problematic assumptions.
Take The Mummy. From its genesis, the idea of a scary story about a reanimated Egyptian traded on the demonization of ancient African traditions, with white Westerners crusading to save civilization from an ancient pagan scourge. The silly Brendan Fraser version that surfaced in 1999 wasn’t any better, and the ensuing years haven’t been kind to its throwback treatment of gender roles. (There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to that Mummy in the current one.)
Alex Kurtzman’s new Mummy doubles down on the trope’s Eurocentrism. Our would-be heroes are Nick (Tom Cruise) and Chris (Jake Johnson, which is confusing since he’s best-known for playing a character named Nick on New Girl). They’re U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, shamelessly plundering ancient artifacts for personal gain as they fight faceless insurgents. The intent seems to be to play Cruise as a raffish antihero in the Harrison Ford mold, but the ’80s films most evoked by The Mummy‘s early scenes aren’t the Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies — they’re clunky buddy comedies like Ishtar. Even Spies Like Us seems a marvel of comic invention in comparison to the mirthless Mummy.
There’s a real archeologist on the scene, and of course she’s a drop-dead gorgeous white lady named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) who immediately cops to having hooked up with Nick. All the orgasms in the world, though (and naturally Nick unsubtly intimates that congress with him has inspired many), won’t entice her to allow Nick to disrespect an Egyptian tomb the trio discover, incongruously, in the Middle East. She’ll be the one looting that sarcophagus, thank you very much.
The coffin turns out to belong to Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was buried alive after killing her father and brother in a rage — she was heir to the throne until a boy came along, and if some supernatural meddling was what it took to reign over Egypt, that was what she’d do. After the military plane out of Iraq crashes in England, she’s back to finally get what’s hers, selecting Cruise’s admittedly swole body as the receptacle for the earthly incarnation of the God of Death. All she has to do is find a stolen gem, embed it into the hilt of a ceremonial knife, and stab the fuck out of Nick.
So what we’re dealing with is a woman of color fighting the patriarchy, up against a jackass white guy and the European academic establishment. Deal with the devil or not, who are we supposed to root for here? The Mummy could have done so much with Boutella, a hip-hop dance icon from Algeria who effortlessly owns the screen — but instead it falls back on tired evil-woman tropes, with Boutella seducing Cruise to the Dark Side and giving the kiss of death to one man after another. (She keeps threatening to do the same to Wallis, but it never happens, because what would they say in Dubuque?)
Nick and Jenny get reinforcements from a sort of league of unexceptional gentlemen led by Russell Crowe — who needs to constantly impale himself with an outsize syringe to keep his monstrous impulses in check. Oh, did I mention his name is Dr. Jekyll? It is, though the film only lets Crowe have a few seconds of fun as the Cockney-accented Mr. Hyde. (It’s just as well, really, since the last thing this movie needs is to demonize the working class on top of everything else.)
I haven’t even mentioned the scene where central London gets blown up: just one more way for The Mummy to stomp on every nerve this year has, without doing anything constructive. I won’t do you the mercy of spoiling the ending, but suffice it to say it’s hugely frustrating and only accentuates everything there is to hate about this movie. Get me out of this universe.