Universal Studios’ ‘Dark Universe’ Adds ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

One of the consequences of living in a post-Avengers world is that any blockbuster hoping to make bank in the next decade has jumped on board the shared universe bandwagon.  And while this makes sense for Marvel and DC — companies whose business models for decades have been based on crossing over as many franchises as possible — not every series was meant to be more than the sum of its parts.

When it comes to Universal’s cinematic universe efforts — the so-called “Dark Universe” — there’s at least historical precedent for it.  The original Universal monster movies were a loosely connected series of horror franchises whose numerous sequels frequently crossed over into one another.

Frankenstein would meet the Wolf Man.  Generations of Draculas would square off against Van Helsing.  Everyone, eventually, ran into Abbot and Costello.

I’ve nervously watched Universal’s ambitions take shape over the last several years: excited by the prospect of a cinematic universe not based on a comic book, but concerned by how good such a thing could possibly be.  The most recent announcement down the pipeline is that the big-screen lineup is going to include more than the usual Invisible Men and Creatures from the Black Lagoon.  Digging through movies not as often associated with horror, Universal is planning to add the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame to their Dark Universe.

While neither of these really work with what studio executives have planned for the mega-franchise, the Phantom of the Opera at least makes a degree of sense.  While he predates the most iconic monsters and is a strictly Human adversary, the Phantom is considered to be one of the original Universal monsters.  While he’s become disturbingly romanticized in recent years, the original character is a psychopathic stalker who masquerades as an Opera House ghost to torment his hapless victims.

What really sticks in my craw, however, is the inclusion of Quasimodo, the title character of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  The concept of a poor, deformed and systematically abused man as a monster hasn’t aged well since his cinematic debut at the turn of the last century and flies completely in the face of the source material it purports to adapt.  It’s not a matter of “being PC” or not: it’s a conscious decision to depict the deformed and unprivileged as explicitly “monstrous.”

It’s actually downright disgusting of Universal to even consider the idea in the first place.  Exploiting Quasimodo’s real-life disfigurement as some kind of Clive Barker-esque superpower — like he’s a Cenobite or Nightbreed — is the most despicable kind of corporate cash-grab.

That’s not even trying find a way to narratively justify the presence of a strictly Human character from 1482.   It’s not like he’s an immortal vampire or the latest in an ancient line of vampire hunters.  He’s not just “some guy who got bitten by a werewolf” or a lumbering, ageless corpse or have powers derived from science: all of which make either as much or more sense in a contemporary setting than they did in their original one.

Quasimodo is just a guy: a regular, Human guy with no extraordinary, life-prolonging powers.  And it’s not like they can transplant him into the 21st century to make this work.  His story is inseparably tied to the socio-political and religious realities of late fifteenth-century Europe.  Sure, people still get persecuted by ignorant, cretinous zealots, but that fact alone is not enough to justify his modern-day existence.

I desperately hope that Universal Studios reconsider this ill-conceived idea.  It is an exploitative, damaging and entirely besides-the-point depiction of a tormented character that cannot possibly make any sense in their monster-driven blockbuster franchise.  No good can possibly come of it for them.



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