Brendan Fraiser in The Mummy (Photo: Getty Images), posters (Universal). Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

The fifth Pirates Of The Caribbean film highlighted the unusual paradox of B movies successful enough to get the franchise treatment. Sequels have to top the previous entries in scope, so once-fleet action sequences grow to the point of bloat; they’re too big to care about and too unrealistic to quicken the pulse. If audiences liked the quirks of the lead characters, their eccentricities are exaggerated into shtick. Is comic relief a big part of the formula’s appeal? Too bad, because nothing kills humor like a joke that’s been forced. Promoting B movies to A-movie status can kill their appeal. Dead Men Tell No Tales is what happens when something that shouldn’t be taken seriously as a story has to be taken very seriously indeed because of its importance as a tentpole release and major financial investment.

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Nearly 20 years ago, another throwback picture launched another unexpected franchise, and while its first sequels suffered from the same missteps that plague the Pirates franchise, it eventually found a path better suited to its casual ambitions. It isn’t a series of masterpieces, but an example of how a B-movie universe can have its decent-tasting cake and eat it, too.

To a certain type of audience, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy taps into a sense of adventure so pure that reasonable criticisms are overwhelmed by affection. It embodies what Mark Cousins, in his 15-hour documentary The Story Of Film, dubs “the bauble,” or the part of cinema dedicated to escapism. (Cousins’ example is The Thief Of Baghdad, which is essentially The Mummy in embryo.) The movie has a lovable rogue for a hero, glamorous women, scheming and dastardly villains, and deeds of derring-do, all in 1920s Cairo, a time and place with a particular hold on the romantic imagination. It plays like Sommers started with a checklist of every classic adventure trope—treasure maps, ancient curses, breathless escapes—and built his screenplay around them, but in ecstatic inspiration, not mercenary calculation. (That’s where the sequels come in.)

The Mummy (Photo: Frank Trapper/Corbis/Getty)

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There was precedent for this, of course. The Princess Bride was both a sincere fantasy story and a knowing, meta parody of the same, while Raiders Of The Lost Ark also crammed every hallmark of adventure serials into one tidy package. There are times when The Mummy series crosses the line from paying homage to Indiana Jones to outright stealing from him. (It’s one thing for both to feature giant spider-webs and walls that lower from the ceiling and threaten to smush those trapped inside; it’s another for a character to navigate past booby traps to steal an idol, only to fail when he guesses the wrong weight for the decoy replacement.) But while the vastly superior Raiders radiates with the joy of its making, The Mummy features arguably even more joyful storytelling.

A brief prologue sets the scene: An ancient Egyptian priest is cursed and mummified alive for betraying the Pharaoh. His punishment comes with a twist, however. If he’s brought back to life, he will control the dark magic used to torture him, giving him the power of the biblical plagues. The rest of the plot—and this goes for all three Mummy films, though not the whole series—involves such a villain getting raised from the dead and the heroes banding together to stop him.

The heroes here are Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), an American French legionnaire who agrees to guide a team to a purported site of buried treasure (and ominous sarcophagi), and Evie Carnahan, a librarian who starts the series with Indiana Jones’ love of history and ends with his ability to kick ass. There’s also Jonathan (John Hannah), Evie’s brother, the kind of character inevitably described as a ne’er-do-well.

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Such roles are deceptively hard to play, since the actors need to maintain a certain aloofness while not looking down on the material. Fraser thrives at this intersection, and while he’s given strong performances in serious films, he seems most at home winking in front of a green screen. He’s appropriately handsome and broad-chested to work as a dashing hero, but in The Mummy his abilities to smolder or glower are less important than how convincingly he can go bug-eyed. He’s Nic Cage in a matinee idol’s body. Rachel Weisz, a more traditionally serious actor, also knows the right tone to strike as Evie. She’s infectiously enthusiastic, and someone who credibly slides from standing her ground to being out of her depth. Maria Bello, who subbed in after Weisz declined to return for part three, made the character too rigidly steely.

From a modern perspective, the first thing that stands out about The Mummy is how bright it is. It’s filled with color, taking full advantage of the visual possibilities of its exotic locale and period setting. (This summer’s Mummy starring Tom Cruise, in contrast, looks very much a product of the gritty blockbuster era. Not only does its present-day urban setting offer less from a production value standpoint, it looks like it was filmed through a grimy rag.). There’s a certain classicism at play here: Sommers favors widescreen compositions and old-fashioned tricks like implying action with shadows, and is less manic with editing than most modern-day action films.

This extends to the characters, who aren’t complex but have plenty of personality, especially when you get further down the cast list. Kevin O’Connor’s weasley supporting villain Beni is driven by a sense of self-preservation that’s far more interesting than a standard-issue henchman, and that makes the poetic justice of his final scene all the more satisfying. On the heroic side, a washed-up pilot played by Bernard Fox is written with the kind of broad strokes that make such characters memorable. (Told he won’t survive a rescue mission, he excitedly responds, “By jove, do you really think so?”) Fox’s character gets at what makes The Mummy so appealing. He seems like a nod to Michael Powell’s Colonel Blimp. Both explicitly and implicitly, the film taps into the great tradition of adventure stories, and in doing so extends it.

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The Mummy Returns (Photo: Keith Hamshere/Universal Studios)

As the title implies, The Mummy Returns is largely a retread of the first film, with new characters and details subbed into the formula like Mad Libs answers. Instead of scarab beetles, there are pygmy mummies. Rather than Fox’s cocky pilot, Shaun Parkes plays a hotshot hot air balloonist. Rick has to use a special sword to kill mummies in the first one, a particular spear in the second. Because they outran a malevolent dust storm before, they do the same with a bewitched wall of water here. The tension between delivering what worked before, only bigger, and creating something new is palpable. Some of the additions work, like the expanded presence of Oded Fehr, who plays one of the few Middle Eastern heroes in a Hollywood film, but most changes are for the worse. The romantic chemistry of the first film is gone, replaced by family life. Like the Zorro sequel, Returns bets big and loses on the supposed charm of the heroes’ annoying kid, who tags along for the ride.

Sommers’ need to up the spectacle—culminating in a notorious scene where Rick outruns the sun—also suffered from poor timing. CGI hadn’t quite advanced enough to pull off what The Mummy Returns calls on it to do; as a result, the movie has some of the lamest effects of any blockbuster of its era, something that dates it painfully. Every so often a line or gag will recall the charm of the first movie, but the biggest elements here are almost uniformly the worst.

Put a pin in Returns for a moment, because that’s where the Mummy family tree branches out. Instead, a quick word about the third and final entry in the namesake series, Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, directed by The Fast And The Furious’ Rob Cohen instead of Sommers. The film plays like a low-stakes test to see whether the series should be raised from the dead amid a dozen other ongoing franchises. Because it doesn’t have the same pressure to out-deliver that Returns did, it captures more of the original film’s B-movie-on-an-A-budget charms than expected.

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To be sure, it’s plenty dumb. The wit of the first script has devolved into immaturity (when Jonathan’s rear is lit on fire, he begs Rick to “spank my ass!”), and Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor wastes too much time on tiresome family antics. (One exchange is essentially, “He doesn’t just need someone to save his life, he needs a father!”) But it has real pleasures—in the images, in the production design, and in the location change from Egypt to Asia. More importantly, there’s a relationship between Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong that approaches complexity. Where Fehr’s character in Returns didn’t have much of a life outside the story, Yeoh and Leong both get fairly effective arcs. It’s rare to see an action film that cribs this much from Lost Horizon, but adding that kind of spirituality gives it a unique flavor, if nothing else.

Circling back to Returns, that film’s biggest legacy is that it features Dwayne Johnson’s first notable role, back when he was still going by The Rock and best known for wrestling. He plays the Scorpion King, the film’s big villain, though he only gets a few lines that aren’t battle cries or grunts. He was clearly cast for his absurdly toned physique rather than his absurdly charismatic personality. Still, some producer clearly recognized what they had, because his character was soon given a spin-off that somehow became an even longer-running series than the one it sprang from. The sub-series has little to do with the Mummy overall (the only direct connection is easy to miss; the Book Of The Dead that raises the first mummy makes a cameo in The Scorpion King 3), but it more frequently captures what works about the first film than its proper sequels do.

None of the Scorpion King films are masterpieces, and they blur together by failing to advance the lead character, who never becomes the evil, power-hungry man he is in Returns. Like the Mummy sequels, the King movies rarely stray from their own cycle, which usually involves the title character getting a girl and a goofy sidekick and going off to fight some evil leader. (The exception is the second one, a prequel, which makes King 3 the sequel to a prequel of a remake’s sequel’s spin-off.)

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It’s a formula, but one that allows for a lot more personality than most blockbusters dare to risk. Because they don’t have the budget for huge action sequences, the King movies rely instead on stunt work, which is often more exciting than digital armies. Because they don’t have huge budgets in general, there’s a greater reliance on dialogue and humor, rather than endless action, which tends to be more engaging. They’re B movies, but that’s all they thrive to be. Nothing feels forced.

Thank the lowered expectations of DTV. Three of the four Scorpion King films were released only on DVD (the only one that opened in theaters is also the only one with Johnson), which seems the closest thing in modern filmmaking to what used to be called B movies. The A.V. Club has previously argued that direct-to-video is where the most exciting work in action filmmaking is being done, but that can apply more broadly to any kind of film that isn’t necessarily going for art but still benefits from less studio interference. Would the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels have a higher batting average if they weren’t so fundamentally important to the studio’s bottom line? It could only help. The inspiration that birthed the first Mummy can’t be forced without being overwhelmed.

Final Ranking:
1. The Mummy (1999)
2. The Scorpion King (2002)
3. The Scorpion King 3: Battle For Redemption (2012)
4. The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008)
5. The Scorpion King 2: Rise Of A Warrior (2008)
6. The Scorpion King 4: Quest For Power (2015)
7. The Mummy Returns (2001)

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