So What Makes An Icon An Icon?

BSSP chief creative officer John Butler on Universal's monster challenge

If you ask him, BSSP co-founder and chief creative officer John Butler thinks that the Universal monsters’ greatest “shared universe” moment was Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s 1987 collaboration Monster Squad.

In other words, he’s a true fan. And he knows of what he speaks.

As someone who grew up forging a lifelong love affair with Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster and who now works to give his clients creative and innovative brand identities , Butler is like the center portion of a Venn Diagram when it comes to the right person to discuss the pitfalls and possibilities of Universal Studios’ “Dark Universe"--an interconnected movie landscape beginning with The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise.

The Mummy - Official Trailer #3 [HD]

“The Universal movies came out in the 30s and 40s mostly, and they kind of lay dormant during the 50s,” Butler tells us. “Then in the 60s, they came back on television. And we all watched them – there were monster clubs, there was a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland...so a lot of my friends who are about my age, you find a lot of them are monster fanatics.”

As you likely already know, when Cruise disturbs an ancient Egyptian tomb this Friday, he’s going to unleash something a lot bigger than a 3,000 year-old spirit of vengeance. Universal has announced plans to use The Mummy as a springboard to launch a shared cinematic world they are dubbing the “Dark Universe.” Yes, sequels are old hat, prequels are too problematic, and the term "reboot" has become passé. As Marvel continues to prove again and again that you can take comic book-style continuity to the big screen, it seems that every new film is equipped with subtle Easter eggs and intriguing side characters just in case the public shows a thirst for further exploration.

In a press release, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley described the project in terms that both reveal the intended direction for the series and introduce some questions, saying the studio takes “enormous pride in the creativity and passion that has inspired the reimagining of Universal’s iconic monsters and promise audiences we will expand this series strategically.” She goes on to say that The Mummy introduces “a very modern woman in a very classic tale.”

It’s this last notion that both intrigues and concerns someone like Butler. His office is filled with shelves stuffed to capacity with the instantly recognizable faces of Universal’s greatest grotesques (purely as a personal hobby, as BSSP is not involved in the promotion of Universal films). These characters are so overwhelmingly familiar and have been repurposed and parodied and reimagined so many times from Halloween costumes to breakfast cereals that he wonders if there’s any fresh new ground the tread. “I think Apple did a really good job with that Frankenstein monster Christmas spot from year,” says Butler. “But you actually see so little that actually works well when ad people go and try and leverage a property.”

Apple — Frankie’s Holiday

The excitement of doing new versions of these characters, Butler suggests, could potentially obscure their iconic status—when you have a brand built on a specific look, it’s hard to change the public perception. “Every director and every special effects and make-up guy is going to want to put their stamp on these characters. But then, are they the Universal monsters anymore? Or are they something else? Is it THE Mummy, or is it just a mummy movie?”

One thing in Universal’s favor is the fact that they aren’t slavishly following “the Marvel model” of trying to connect every character in a larger world spread out over countless years and films. The studio has already well established that their stable of iconic monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man, Elsa Lanchester’s The Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Claude Rains’ The Invisible Man, and others—have all breathed the same air (or water) and have already crossed paths on the big screen. But how do you sell people on this new twist on this old idea, especially when the company has false-started the revamp a couple of times beginning with 2004’s Van Helsing, and including 2010’s The Wolf Man starring Benicio Del Toro and 2014’s Dracula Untold with Luke Evans. Have they been "reimagined" a step too far already? 

“It wasn’t until the mid-40s that Universal started to do that interconnected thing,” says Butler. “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and things like that starting coming out…but when they did the original, core films, they weren’t really interconnected. I think, in the end, for this to work it has to come down to story.”

So if the Creature From the Black Lagoon doesn’t look like the Creature From the Black Lagoon, is Universal starting over or are they missing a chance to reintroduce an icon in a fresh way without losing what makes it an icon? Time will certainly tell, and Butler’s experience at BSSP servicing fans as well as brands from Mini Cooper enthusiasts to the Marvel faithful has him approaching this new “monster squad” with a healthy mix of skepticism and excitement.

“They need to just start somewhere and come up with a couple of great films first, right? I can say, I’m cautiously optimistic about it.”