The Mummy Returns Isn’t Afraid of Romance, and That’s What Makes It Great

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We just passed the 20th anniversary of the release of The Mummy Returns, the follow-up flick to the 1999 blockbuster classic, The Mummy. While the franchise sequel has understandably not developed the same level of legacy as its predecessor, it’s honestly still pretty great and has some lessons contemporary blockbusters could learn from—namely, that there can be great power in a good romance.

The Mummy Returns came out in 2001 and is set nine years after the original film when it picks back up with Rachel Weisz’ Egyptologist Evelyn “Evie” O’Connell (née Carnahan) and her husband, American adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser). Getting married and having a kid hasn’t slowed these two down. (You can have it all, ladies!) No doubt driven by Evie’s intense passion for ancient Egyptian culture, the two drag their precocious nine-year-old son Alex (Freddie Boath) from London to Egypt and back again in the pursuit of ancient treasures. (I believe some would rightfully call this imperialist grave-robbing, but I digress.)

Honestly, they’re not great parents—regularly leaving their kid to get kidnapped by humans and/or mummies—but they are fantastic romantic partners, regularly taking pause in the middle of a high-stakes scene in order to make out.

No doubt the movie’s willingness eagerness to lean into its lead characters’ romance, even after years of marriage and parenthood, played a role in the middling to negative reviews leveled at The Mummy Returns upon its release. (Though a horrifyingly CGI Dwayne Johnson as the Scorpion King didn’t help either.) Traditional film criticism has long been primarily composed of men, who are traditionally socialized to view “girly” subjects like kissing, married life, and childrearing as firmly belonging to the domestic sphere. In storytelling, this often translates into sequestering romance into the more “domestic” of genres, such as melodrama or rom-coms. Romance in the action genre, which is often touted as the manliest of genres, has its place, but often as a rote subplot more than an integral part of the story.

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While The Mummy tells a much more familiar blockbuster story of Rick and Evie’s burgeoning romance, and one that is less central to the plot, The Mummy Returns doubles down on romance, depicting Evie and Rick as happily married parents going on adventures together, a subject matter modern Hollywood blockbusters have much less experience or comfort with. In The Mummy Returns, Evie is not treated as a nagging wife or mother, as she might be in another Hollywood tentpole, but rather as Rick’s partner in all things.

In The Mummy, it’s not that Evie is never a damsel-in-distress; it’s that Rick sometimes is also a damsel-in-distress—Evie literally saves Rick from a Cairo prison upon their first meeting. In The Mummy Returns, their distress is focused around the active threat to their son. In this, they are both flawed parents and the movie doesn’t really care, by which I mean it doesn’t judge them for it. And there’s a great deal of fun in that, especially for Evie’s character, who would likely be figuratively massacred in another movie for failing as a mom. (She does die in this movie… but she gets better. )

Instead Alex’s abduction is treated neither as Rick’s failure as a “protector” nor as Evie’s failure as a “nurturer,” as traditional gender roles would dictate; they both fucked up because they are partners in this, and they let their kid get abducted by a mummy. Probably because they were too busy making out. (There is so much kissing in this movie.)

Later in The Mummy Return‘s climax, it is the steadfastness of Rick and Evie’s love for one another that sets them apart from our villains. When both Rick and Imhotep (aka the titular Mummy) hang above a pit that leads straight down to the underworld, unable to pull themselves up due to the hundreds of dead souls trying to drag them down, Evie risks her only-recently-restored life in order to pull her husband to safety.

Anck-su-namun does not, and a heartbroken Imhotep chooses to let go, succumbing to the eternal torture of the movie’s interpretation of the ancient Egyptian underworld, rather than fighting for a life in which the woman he loves does not love him back. Justly or not (sometimes, you don’t want to risk your life to save your mummy boyfriend, OK?), Anck-su-namun is soon after narratively punished for her failure to love desperately enough, falling into a pit of scorpions and dying as she tries to escape the crumbling tomb.

Unlike Evie, she doesn’t have a son or brother to use the Book of the Dead to bring her back. And, after abandoned Imhotep to his fate, she doesn’t have a supernatural boyfriend either. The Mummy Returns loves love, and it bets the emotional stakes of its climax on that theme. If you’re open to romance as a powerful narrative tool, then this third act probably works a lot better for you than it does for those who are not, and are therefore left to judge the story’s success on the plastic face of a CGI Rock. (Note: this is not a comment on Johnson’s performance, but rather the movie’s poor use of motion-capture/CGI technology of the time.)

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I’d like to say that mainstream culture’s stigma against romance, and other things created by and for women, is lessening, but I’m not sure that it is. The explosion of media, both in terms of access, quantity, and who gets the funding to make shit, has allowed for more audiences to be served. But in one of American pop culture’s biggest arenas—the Hollywood blockbuster, still driven almost exclusively by men—romance is still mostly an afterthought.

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe as much as the next nerd, but if there’s one narrative aspect the MCU has struggled with, especially in its first few phases, it’s romance. This might not have been a problem if they hadn’t half-heartedly tried to shoehorn romance into movies like Doctor Strange or Thor, despite seemingly being totally uninterested in telling any kind of charismatic love story. (I’m not looking at you, Iron Man. You’re perfect.) While the MCU is getting better at either committing to its love stories (see: Spider-Man: Far From Home) or eschewing them altogether in favor of alternate character dynamics (see: Thor: Ragnarok), we’ve yet to get a big screen MCU installment that goes hard for romance in the way The Mummy Returns does. And I, for one, would love to see it.

The Mummy franchise’s commitment to romance is both part of what makes the first two installments so great and refreshing and why the third film in the series, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, failed to narratively deliver. While the script and direction of course prioritizes the central romance in vital ways, much of the success of Evie/Rick romance is down to the charisma and chemistry of Fraser and Weisz. Because Weisz did not want to return for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the franchise recast the role of Evie, which is basically narrative self-sabotage for such a romance-centric story.

While Maria Bello does a fine job as Evie in the Mummy threequel, she is quite obviously not Rachel Weisz. Narratively, we’re told they are the same character. Emotionally, it feels like Rick has left Evie for another woman. I don’t know how hard the creative and executive team behind The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor tried to get Weisz back for this third film, but it wasn’t hard enough. (Kudos for casting the brilliant Michelle Yeoh, though.)

If The Mummy Returns has any legacy, let it be how hard it doubled down on the central romance of The Mummy. Also, let it be the dirigible.

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