When it comes to film and television, history doesn’t so much repeat itself as give itself constant reboots. So while we might look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it’s such a big deal and might be changing the way movies are made, this sort of thing was happening since the early days of film, when people were only starting to realize that there was big money to be made there. Almost a century ago, Universal Pictures had a core group of monsters that had their own individual movies. There was Dracula, Frankenstein (MD and son), the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man. Eventually, the studio tied all its classic monsters together in a shared universe, the Universal Monsters, and we’re watching the superhero movies of today follow the same trajectory.
Instead of Thanos, they all banded together to fight color film.
But before these ghouls come back from the dead, let’s look at everything Marvel learned from them.
Step One: Shared Films Become A Cynical Money-Grab
Marvel fans now know that their moviegoing experience is far from over after the movie is, and they’ll sit through $100 million worth of credits just so that they can see Hawkeye’s bow show up in Robin Hood’s tree fort. Bringing their most famous stars together has been super lucrative for the franchise, but it’s nothing new. After all, Marvel expects us to believe that the Norse god of storms would be buddies with a mutated super-scientist, so is it really that much of a stretch that our grandparents enjoyed a once-dead pharaoh hanging out with a stitched-together corpse? Of course not. Except that for them, it started as a big joke.
During one long lunch in ’41, Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak, needing more money to buy a friend’s car, jokingly pitched to producer George Waggoner “Frankenstein Wolfs The Meat Man, I mean, Meets The Wolf Man” as the worst idea he could think of. A couple days later, Waggoner dropped by to let Curt know that he was going to be working on Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, and suddenly the writer found himself trying to make a serious script out of Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster teaming up to chase down Dr. Frankenstein for the secret of immortality. An important lesson to budding screenwriters: Never joke about your worst idea. It will make you rich.
Pictured: What Siodmak wanted to do to Waggoner while writing the screenplay.
Reviews for these kinds of buddy-monster films were remarkably cynical about their potential down the line, with one New York Times writer even calling the monster mashup “like a baseball team with nine Babe Ruths, only this grisly congress doesn’t hit hard; it merely has speed and a change of pace. As such, then, it is bound to garner as many chuckles as it does chills.” We, for one, look forward to Warner Bros’ upcoming Ruth v. Ruth: Dawn Of Justice.
But what about the post-credit scenes? They had their own, too! Here’s a teaser for The Invisible Man in a post-credits scene following Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein:
Step Two: Keep Using The Same Actors, Whether They Like It Or Not
Franchises breed familiarity, which in turn needs familiar faces. That’s why Marvel locks down all its key actors in impossibly strict (and lucrative) contracts. That way, they can make sure Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. are going to be making Marvel movies until they’re old and gray. Hell, they’ll probably strap Downey into an actual mechanical suit before they let him retire. That’s what happened to the old monster actors like Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi, who almost got worked to death.
When he made his magnificent monster debut as the titular bloodsucker in the 1931 Dracula, Lugosi became Universal’s go-to guy for many ghoulish roles — only he didn’t know it at the time. Coming back from a shoot in Hawaii, he found out that his agent had signed him up for a long-term contract with Universal. He was also “surprised” to learn that was also starring that same year in the next Frankenstein movie, which was being billed as “a medical melodrama” — like how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was billed as an expose on interior decorating. He begged to be let out of the role, claiming he couldn’t give the Frankenstein’s Monster character the strength and power necessary. Imagine Chris Evans begging to not be Captain America because he didn’t feel strong enough. You can’t imagine that, because Chris Evans is absolutely yoked.
Chaney never stood a chance, either. The son of the man who had played practically every public domain monster to ever grace the silver screen, Universal snapped Junior up mostly so they could put “Lon Chaney” on all the posters. Expected to live up to his legendary name, it didn’t take long before the inexperienced Chaney could no longer see the light at the end of the mummy’s tomb. By the time Universal’s Monstermatic Universe put together 1945’s House Of Dracula (that generation’s Age Of Ultron), Chaney had begun drinking heavily and was getting so difficult to work with that Universal finally released him from his contract. Which is still a better way than most of the monster actors got out of their contracts — by dying.
Step Three: Find New Life Making Parodies Of The Format
How many space monsters can the Avengers fight before the audience starts to yawn? How many cities are left for them to inadvertently destroy before we start to think about the reality of our country’s own crumbling infrastructure? Not to pile on DC, but this is basically already happening to them. Fortunately, Marvel still has a few steps to go before the superhero empire starts to crumble, and according to the Universal Monsters, the next step is slapstick.
By the late ’40s, all the movie monsters had exchanged pleasantries and made so many movies together that the writers simply began to run out of ideas. Even worse, having thrown all their ghoulish stars repeatedly at the screen, moviegoers weren’t that scared anymore about the same four guys who were rapidly approaching the age where they were just swapping out fake teeth for fake fangs. As a final Hail Mary, Universal threw Abbott and Costello into the mix with Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (And Just About Everyone Else), which would be like if we suddenly saw Michael Che and Pete Davidson from Saturday Night Live in every scene with Thor and Loki. But as hacky as Abbott and Costello might have been alongside Frankenstein’s monster, audiences loved it. By making fun of their own outdated franchise, Universal managed lumber its way into the ’50s, where sci-fi horror revitalized the genre.
It could be argued that Marvel is already there. That’s one theory that explains why Guardians Of The Galaxy, Deadpool, and even Ant-Man got their own movies, while a lot of comic book A-listers are still waiting for the phone to ring. And while we’re not yet at the point where Kate McKinnon will be the new Gwen Stacy or Katt Williams pops up as Nick Fury’s weird cousin, we’re already seeing wacky characters get wackier together. How excited are you going to be when Chris Pratt and Chris Hemsworth eventually star in the same ridiculous Marvel movie? Probably not nearly as excited as Thor will be to introduce Star-Lord to music from the ’90s.
For more ways Hollywood keeps recycling itself, check out 6 Movies That Inadvertently Remade Other Movies and 5 Movies That Ripped Off Films You’d Never Compare Them To.
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