In a good mummy movie, you should more than half be rooting for the mummy. In the basic mummy storyline, callow, hubristic imperialists pillage colonial treasure, and then are hideously and righteously punished. The British or American heroes are tomb robbers and thieves; the mummies are clearly on the side of right and justice, even if they’re gruesome and evil. The standard is the classic 1932 Mummy, in which Boris Karloff as the risen Imhotep stands in magnetic, craggy contrast to the bland, coiffed British bozos who desecrate his tomb. In the 1999 remake, Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep cheerfully slaughters his way through a quartet of clumsy, caddish Americans with such insousciant cheer that it almost feels like a tragic ending when heroic Brendan Fraser finally puts an end to his depredations.
Some eighty years after the original Mummy, you’d think we’d have become more enlightened, more distanced from an imperial past, and more able and willing to sympathize with the colonized. In a new century, maybe we could even have a story where the mummy is the outright tragic hero?
Alas, it’s not to be. Post-9/11, it seems like the West has become less, rather than more, able to grant interiority to the East than ever. The new Mummy, as the first entry in the MCU-copycat Universal Dark World franchise, has abandoned the ambiguous sympathies of horror for the more comforting certainties of the superhero genre.
The 2017 The Mummy does start out with a critique of imperialism in line with the earlier versions of the story. Tom Cruise plays daredevil explorer Nick Morton with maximum Tom Cruise smarm and oleaginous raffishness. He is insufferable, and you want to cheer every time he gets punched in the face (which is quite frequently, to the film’s credit.) The female lead, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) is irritatingly unmemorable; a female archeologist with de rigeur spunk and earnestness. You can see why Nick prefers the undead Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Yes, she’s genocidal and fleshless, but at least that’s a personality of some sort.
The Mummy, 2017, is also clever about tailoring its narrative to our particular imperial moment. Ahmanet’s tomb is not in Egypt, but in Iraq. Nick and his inevitable sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) are robbing Iraqi treasures under the guise of working with America’s “liberators.” The American military is shown bombing Iraqi insurgents with casual brutality, while carefully extracting Iraqi cultural artifacts.
The Curse of the Mummy, in this context, is a clear metaphor for terrorism. Nick and Jenny and the military crash around Iraq killing people and stealing stuff. The supersecret quasi-military organization the Prodigium even evokes Abu Ghraib by chaining Ahmanet—played by an Algerian woman— in a painful stress position and torturing her until she screams. As a direct result of these imperial iniquities, woe and misery are visited upon London, as Ahmanet’s corpse rises, destroys airplanes, murders police, and blows up that repository of imperial treasure, the British museum.
In an especially nice bit, Ahmanet reanimates the remains of Crusader knights buried beneath London. The corpses of imperialism past rise up to haunt the present. The British history of ravaging and plundering the Middle East is still very much alive, a zombie legacy that shambles underground, erupting from the earth to perpetuate its endless gruesome cycle of violence, revenge, and death. Ahmanet’s invasion of London is a guilty fever dream, in the longstanding reverse imperial sf tradition of Wells’ War of the Worlds. We have invaded, pillaged and destroyed distant nations at will. What happens if those we crushed rise from their graves and do unto us what we did to them?
Where this Mummy fails, though, is–well, in its mummy. The past movie incarnations of Imhotep were monstrous, but sympathetic. The 1935 and 1999 Imhoteps were priests who dared to love Egyptian princesses. They were buried and cursed for the crime of having a heart. Imhotep is a romantic figure, and in the 1935 version, at least, the woman who he chooses to reincarnate as his lost princess is pretty into the idea, at least initially. Tragic love; that’s something even imperialists can understand.
In the 2017 Mummy, Princess Ahmanet also chooses a vessel (Tom Cruise) to incarnate her lover. But that lover isn’t an actual individual for whom she has pined for centuries. Instead, the object of Ahmanet’s affections is Set, the God of Death. Ahmanet doesn’t want to be with the one she’s lost; she’s just power hungry. She was cursed and buried not because she loved in despite of taboo, but because she murdered her father and her infant brother and tried to bring down Set to initiate the apocalypse. Imhotep was at least to some extent a guy trapped by fate and arbitrary rules. Ahmanet is a bog-standard hypersexual evil supervillainness.
Removing the mummy’s complexity makes her a lot less interesting than her predecessors. It’s fun to watch her beat the snot out of Tom Cruise, but beyond that she’s not especially compelling. And so the film towards its end gives up on her, abandoning the nascent anti-imperial themes in favor of a more tedious white guy superhero origin story. Her narrative is usurped by Nick, who performs an almost literal rape, which the audience is supposed to cheer, and then (again literally) rides off into the sunset with his raffish grin.
The Mummy lacks memorable characters, and after a few surreal set pieces, it devolves into an incoherent scramble to set up future films in the franchise. But while it’s not in any way a good movie, it is revealing. To update the mummy for our superhero moment, the 2017 movie erases the ambiguity of its predecessors. The mummy, today, has to be evil through and through; the righteousness of conquest cannot be questioned. In 1935, Imhotep was defeated, but you were supposed to shed a tear; crushing the colonies was a necessary, but regrettable pastime. Now, though, you forget the mummy as soon as she’s killed. Instead, at the end of the movie, you’re supposed to contemplate the awesome power, resilience, and moral complexity of America in the person of Tom Cruise as he stands upon the dunes. In 2017, The Mummy says, we will steal your stuff, leave your corpse to rot, and we won’t feel even a little bit sorry.