How Penny Dreadful Created a Shared Monsters Universe - VRGyani News and Media


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

How Penny Dreadful Created a Shared Monsters Universe

When Penny Dreadful abruptly ended in 2016, creator John Logan and producer Sam Mendes — who had previously worked on Skyfall — brought a satisfying yet heartbreaking conclusion to the story of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and her supporting cast of monsters, hunters, and predators such as Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his Creature (Rory Kinnear), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). With the critical and popular acclaim for the show’s skillful plotting and the way it brought together great literary and pop culture horror characters, its ending created an absence for a similar connected monster universe. Because these characters fall under public domain, there was an opportunity to capitalize on Penny Dreadful’s success.

Enter Universal Studios, who sought out to follow in Marvel and Disney’s success by mapping out their own shared universe based on their classic horror icons of the past. Beginning with 2017’s The Mummy, the Dark Universe would be led by Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton, Sofia Boutella’s Ahmanet, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, and the potential for Angelina Jolie’s Bride of Frankenstein. But apart from The Mummy, none of these came to fruition (outside of the infamous cast photo). The Mummy failed at the box office and cost the studio losses, and the Dark Universe petered out (Leigh Whannel’s The Invisible Man in 2020 was a reworking of the character separate from the previous label, which was for the best).

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The problem with Universal Studios’ vision for a shared monster universe was precisely that — a shared universe. Even within 2017’s The Mummy, a large portion of the movie sets up Dr. Henry Jeckyll’s in the "Nick Fury" role who would eventually bring together these monsters through his secret organization, Prodigium. The studio lost sight of story, direction, and vision because of their overt concern with mimicking the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even with stars like Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, audiences and critics couldn’t latch onto a narrative that would sustain their investment in an entire universe.

Penny Dreadful had a star-studded team of its own, led by Eva Green just a few years removed from Casino Royale and 300: Rise of an Empire. The mere presence of veteran James Bond actor Timothy Dalton made Penny Dreadful a more premium, cinematic foray into the literary Gothic — especially compared to other shows that incorporate lore and legend, like The CW’s Supernatural and NBC’s Grimm. With Logan and Mendes working together behind the scenes, of course the cinematic quality of the show would be expected. Even the recruitment of a visionary director like J. A. Bayona — who helmed The Impossible, A Monster Calls, and later Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom — gave Penny Dreadful the perfect aesthetic and production qualities to bring to life late 19th century London and its supernatural underworld of vampires, witches, and ghouls. The practical make-up, special effects, and set pieces lent more to the show’s scares than the kind of CGI action-horror that Cruise and director Alex Kurtzman brought to The Mummy.

But apart from meeting the expectations of bringing together such monsters and horror icons, Penny Dreadful succeeds in setting up these characters with stories that justify long-term, interconnected storytelling. Unlike a theatrical feature, the show’s roughly ten episodes per season allowed these plotlines to take their time to introduce characters and bring them together, instead of rushing to their culmination in a haphazard Avengers-style tease. For example, not only do we find out that the young doctor enlisted to help Vanessa Ives and Malcolm Murray (Dalton) is actually Dr. Victor Frankenstein at the end of the first episode of Season One, we later find out that his newest creature Proteus was not the first. The original Frankenstein’s Monster doesn’t appear until episode two and his story is further fleshed out across the series. Though they are supporting characters — the main protagonist being Vanessa Ives and her eventual fate as the prophesied bride to Satan — Victor and the Monster are given enough time and dedication to develop as characters that audiences could invest in.

Even as the supporting cast and characters were given significant storylines and development, Penny Dreadful was always about Vanessa Ives. Since a child, Vanessa was approached and even possessed by the Devil, leading to her time in an asylum and her eventual fallout with her family and loved ones. She is the heroine and protagonist of Penny Dreadful, even as she is constantly tested by the evils around her, like season 2's "nightcomer" and big-bad Evelyn Poole (Helen McCory) and season 3's Dracula (Christian Camargo). Her history and dynamic with Malcolm and her daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) is complex, becoming especially complicated as Vanessa and Malcolm reconnect and Malcolm becomes a pseudo father figure to her. Her training in her supernatural powers adds another layer to her character, as in season 2 we learn that she was, in fact, trained by a witch, Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone). Even as Vanessa shares intimacy with Dorian Gray, seeks Dr. Victor Frankenstein as an ally, befriends the Monster, and falls in love with wolfman Ethan Chandler, Penny Dreadful never loses sight of its primary protagonist and throughline.

John Logan, as the creator, had a singular vision and foresight into the series’ three seasons and made good on the story’s promise. “For me the character of Vanessa Ives is the heart of this series,” Logan stated, “From the beginning, I imagined [Vanessa’s] story would unfold over a three-season arc, ending with Vanessa finally – and triumphantly – finding peace as she returns to her faith.” In the show’s finale, Vanessa gives up her title as Mother of Darkness by accepting her love for Ethan and relinquishing her partnership with Dracula — though, in order to do so, Ethan inevitably kills her. It’s a star-crossed love story with a Gothic twist, and unique in that the main protagonist — whom we’ve seen grow throughout the series — is indeed killed off in the end. It’s a testament to Logan’s concern for what’s right for the characters and the show, rather than planting any intention in prolonging Penny Dreadful in subsequent seasons.

Logan did return to Penny Dreadful, if only by title, with Penny Dreadful: City of Angels in 2020 which takes an anthological approach with different characters and separate storylines entirely — though, that iteration was unfortunately canceled after one season. Still, the original series gave fans of these iconic characters something special in its limited time on air. Rather than developing a franchise-making machine, the universe established in Penny Dreadful is contained in both setting (London) and scope (Vanessa Ive’s story in three seasons). In knowing the kind of story it wanted to tell and in taking its time to do so, Penny Dreadful succeeded in bringing together such legendary monsters and creatures in a truly engaging run on television that earned every bit of investment from audiences.

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