The future doesn’t look bright for “The Dark Tower”. After ten years in development, a film adapted from Stephen King’s epic eight-volume cycle of fantasy novels has finally made it into cinemas, but it’s going to be heading out of them a lot more quickly. Its pummelling by critics has garnered it an unenviable score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while its global box office takings haven’t been totted up yet – it was released in Britain last week – its American total isn’t exactly towering. So what went wrong?
One of the film’s problems is that its director and co-writer, Nicolaj Arcel, has reduced King’s ambitious, genre-hopping, postmodern narrative to a basic “Star Wars”-type yarn about a youngster learning that he is destined to overcome the forces of evil. But a bigger factor is that “The Dark Tower” doesn’t for a moment seem to be telling a complete story. When it lurches to its abrupt “to be continued” ending, most of its loopy Wild West mythology is left unexplained, and most of its key characters are left in limbo. It’s clear that it isn’t intended to be a stand-alone film. As its producers have acknowledged, it’s the opening chapter in a saga which will unfold not just across a number of big-screen sequels, but across a television series, too. The insulting message is: don’t worry if none of this makes sense now, it’ll all come together in a few years’ time.
It’s a message which is all very well if delivered by the first episode in a television drama: we don’t have to pay for every individual episode that follows and on streaming services like Netflix we don’t have to wait to watch the next one. But when that message comes from a film, the viewer may feel as if they’ve bought a jigsaw with most of the pieces missing, and a note in the box saying that they can always buy the remaining pieces later.
In the past few months, two other would-be franchise-starters have crashed and burnt, largely because they, too, were so brazen about being would-be franchise-starters. The first was Guy Ritchie’s shambolic “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”, which came out in May, and couldn’t recoup its eye-watering $175m budget. One reason it failed was that, whatever the regal title may have promised, Charlie Hunnam’s geezer-ish Arthur isn’t crowned king until the final scene. Warner Bros. assumed that “Legend of the Sword” would initiate a six-film series, and so instead of serving up a medieval banquet, the studio fobbed off viewers with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
“The Mummy”, released in June, was meant to usher us into Universal’s “Dark Universe” of interlinked films about the various classic monsters it has under copyright. The population of that universe was to include Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster, Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Russell Crowe as Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. You might question the wisdom of building so many films around a group of actors whose ages range from late-forties to mid-fifties, unless Universal was planning a crossover with “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, but that probably won’t be an issue. Even though it starred Tom Cruise, “The Mummy” was such a resounding flop that a long-running Dark Universe franchise is now as unlikely as a “Dark Tower” one.
Again, the film’s central problem was that it didn’t even attempt to sate our appetites on its own. As muddled as “The Mummy” was in general, it didn’t become truly bonkers until it reached a wildly incongruous interlude involving Dr Jekyll and his monster-hunting task force. This sequence had nothing to do with the rest of the plot, but was there solely to pique our interest in the Dark Universe. It was an insulting new form of product placement: audiences had to watch a trailer for another film slap-bang in the middle of the film they’d just paid to see.
It’s obvious what Universal’s executives had in mind. Ever since “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” were released in 2008, Marvel has made a point of peppering its superhero blockbusters with allusions to the others it has in the pipeline, and its lucrative “shared universe” of connected films is what every other studio has been hoping to emulate. But, most of the time, Marvel’s cross-referencing is subtle enough that each instalment of “The Avengers” or “Captain America” is reasonably satisfying in its own right. You wouldn’t think that would be too much to ask of a $100m movie. But it was too much to ask of “The Dark Tower”, “The Mummy” and “King Arthur”.
Meanwhile, in the decade since “Iron Man” came out, it is television that has established itself as the natural home for sprawling, spectacular, multi-part science-fiction and fantasy sagas. Any film franchise which aims to be as episodic as a TV show is bound to fall short of the standards set by “Game of Thrones”, “American Gods” and Marvel’s own “The Defenders”. After this year’s trio of expensive duds, it might be wise if film-makers were content to let television be television, and to let summer blockbusters be monumental, one-off events instead. Who knows? If they’re really good, some of those blockbusters may even be successful enough to merit sequels.