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Underworld, the little-loved but bizarrely successful franchise, explained

Blood Wars is the latest entry in the venerable just-good-enough-to-be-profitable film series.

Kate Beckinsale and a bunch of guns in Underworld: Blood Wars
Kate Beckinsale returns to the Underworld franchise once more in the new Blood Wars.

Underworld: Blood Wars, the latest installment in the now-venerable vampires-with-guns-versus-werewolves-with-guns franchise, has everything you want from an Underworld movie — namely a lot of vampires with guns fighting a lot of werewolves with guns. To pad things out, there’s also the requisite vampire politics and pageantry: forbidden vampire-werewolf romance, growly werewolf rebellion, and inter-coven squabbling about how best to maintain an ancient bloodline. (The answer tends to involve making war on werewolves, by shooting them with guns.)

Also, velour and black leather. So, so, so much black leather. Although Blood Wars is ostensibly an action movie, it often comes across more as an occult fashion show, a guide to the ways in which black clothing can be mixed and matched with other black clothing.

In the middle of all of this, as usual, is Kate Beckinsale, the Oxford-trained actress who has now starred in four of the five films in the Underworld franchise. Her steely eyed performance as a vampire warrior whose shiny black pants never lose their perfect polish is the foundation of the franchise, the blood from which it draws its life force.

Wait, you may ask, there are five of these movies? Yes, the Underworld franchise, too, appears to be immortal, or at least more difficult to kill than you might expect. Although the series is liked in some quarters, it tends to receive low marks from critics, and it’s unusual to find anyone who is passionate about its characters and lore outside of a small circle of devotees. That this low-budget, low-concept franchise has lasted so long (the first film was released in 2003) without the sort of rabid fandom that tends to power other long-lived series is perhaps its greatest triumph. It is the rarest of creatures in Hollywood: a profitable franchise that no one really loves.

Which raises the question: What, exactly, has kept Underworld alive for 14 years and five movies?

How Underworld has evolved — or not — since 2003

To understand what the Underworld series is about, and why it has survived for so long, it’s worth reviewing the separate entries — if for no other reason than to sort out the finer points of the series’ mythology, much of which was first established in...

Underworld (2003): Director Len Wiseman’s debut film is best understood as a cheap, gothic knockoff of The Matrix, which more or less defined the R-rated action movie in the early ’00s.

Made for just $22 million and released in the gap between the two Matrix sequels (both of which also came out in 2003), the movie borrows a number of surface attributes from the Wachowskis’ flick, including the superpowered gunplay and stylish black fetish-wear costuming. Like The Matrix, it features gun-toting characters in long, dark coats blasting their way through grimy corridors. A movie-opening shootout on a subway platform is just a rehash of the lobby sequence from The Matrix but without the impeccable wirework choreography.

Underworld’s plot, meanwhile, is basically The Matrix, but from Trinity’s perspective instead of Neo’s. Beckinsale plays Selene, an elite vampire warrior known as a “death dealer.” She spends her days hunting down werewolves, and ends up tracking down a special human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), who turns out to be the last of an ancient bloodline that gives him the unique ability to survive being turned into both a werewolf and a vampire. This allows him to become the world’s first hybrid, which means he turns into a powerful black-eyed creature who looks a little like a professional wrestler coated in gray body paint.

The film also features Michael Sheen as the leader of a werewolf faction, and Bill Nighy — yes, that Bill Nighy — as an ancient vampire lord named Viktor who is unexpectedly woken from a centuries-long nap, much to his frustration. When he arises from the dead, he wears a massive gold chain and an elaborately embroidered black … something that is either a skirt or Hammer pants. The wrinkly vampire makeup he wears makes him look like a failed experiment to genetically cross a human with a rotting prune.

Bill Nighy as Viktor in Underworld.

It’s a violent, gory movie, a remnant of the R-rated horror films the Fangoria set obsessed over in the ’80s; at the end, Nighy’s head is sliced clean in half in a climactic bit of bloodletting that cuts a path for more spectacular kills in the rest of the series.

But it’s also a movie that revolves around social and cultural conflicts: The vampires are the wealthy, well-dressed elite, prohibited from intermarrying with the werewolves (or lycans, in Underworld parlance). The lycans, in contrast, are low-born and rougher in nature, and they resent the vampires not only as a species but as a class. Much of the movie’s conflict is driven by the outlawed love between Selene and Michael, which goes against the family’s rules; there are times when it plays a little like a Jane Austen story, but with vampires and werewolves.

Underworld is by no means a great movie. The whole thing comes across a little too much like a grungy nu-metal video extended to feature length — which is not really that surprising, given that Wiseman previously directed grungy nu-metal videos. Speedman has a hunky bro vibe that tends to drag the movie down whenever he’s onscreen. The dialogue, which often dwells on matters of bloodlines and family lineage, would be embarrassing in a video game.

Still, the movie has a certain charm. It never pretends to be something it’s not, and it delivers semi-competently on its modest promises. Beckinsale holds everything together with her icy presence and lethal physicality. The whole thing might be worth watching just to watch Bill Nighy curl his lips and spit out lines like, “Ah, yes. The lycans.”

Underworld: Evolution (2006): The follow-up, also directed by Wiseman, follows Selene and Michael, in the throes of a forbidden interspecies love, as they battle against the werewolf William and the vampire lord Markus, two ancient brothers who spawned the vampire and werewolf bloodlines.

Wiseman, who would go on to direct the fourth Die Hard film, constructs a handful of decent action sequences in Evolution, and the effects are marginally better too, thanks to a budget of about $45 million. Beckinsale is still an imposing presence, but too many of her scenes are dragged down by Speedman, who sucks everything interesting around him into his dark and boring void.

Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman in Underworld: Evolution.

As a more conventional action film, Evolution also lacks the soapy, costume-drama-goes-Hot-Topic appeal of the first Underworld — there are fewer discussions of parties and dresses — and for most of the running time, there’s no presence as strong as Nighy, who is confined to a prologue that takes place in 1202, which sets up…

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009): This is the one for the Nighy superfans. Seeming to recognize that his snarling, sneering turn in the first film was one of the best things about the Underworld series, the entire third film is devoted to filling out Viktor’s medieval backstory. Beckinsale frames the film in voiceover but is otherwise absent, meaning this is Nighy’s show.

This story takes place hundreds of years in the past and expands much of the series’ mythology, focusing on the origins of the werewolves, who were initially more wild and beast-like. Michael Sheen returns to do tolerable work as a werewolf freedom fighter with decent abs and extremely good hair. Director Patrick Tatopoulos stages a handful of competent action sequences, including a rousing werewolf attack on a vampire fortress armed with massive mounted crossbows. (There are no guns in this movie, but it’s made up for with a lot of swords and crossbows, because vampires love conventional weapons.)

But there are also scenes set in a gloomy gothic council chamber, as vampire elders discuss the various finer points of vampire politics and policy, which feels a little too much like watching vampire C-SPAN.

Nighy is excellent, though, strutting through his scenes in a gloriously elaborate black, floor-length coat that glitters in the castle moonlight. He fully commits to the movie’s brooding absurdities, rendering its costume-party grimness tolerable, even entertaining at times. It is not a good performance, exactly, but it consistently enlivens the screen, for Nighy seems to accept the movie on its own terms without casting judgment, as if inviting viewers to do the same.

Underworld: Awakening (2012): Directed by series newcomers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, this fourth film is an attempt to modernize the Underworld franchise and jettison some of its clunkier elements.

The story is set more than a decade after vampires and werewolves were discovered and the two species were violently purged. Beckinsale returns as Selene, and so does Speedman as Michael — but only for a moment, as he and Selene are blown apart in the movie’s opening minutes. Selene then encounters a new coven run by Thomas, a vampire patriarch played by Charles Dance.

Speedman never returns, thank goodness, but Beckinsale is one again forced to share much of her screen time with a boring male companion. This time it’s Thomas’s son David, played by Theo James, a rather handsome fellow with all the charisma of a medium-size rock.

Theo James in Underworld: Awakening
Vampires? Check. Guns? Check. Boring male companion (Theo James)? Check. Yup, it’s an Underworld movie.

As in every Underworld movie, tracking lineage and bloodlines plays an important role. Early on, Selene discovers Eve, another vampire-werewolf hybrid who turns out to be her daughter. Meanwhile, there’s a giant corporation called Antigen that pretends to be researching how to protect humans from vampires and werewolves, but is actually — surprise! — a werewolf den that wants to use Eve to make themselves more powerful. At some point, actor Michael Ealy shows up as a detective whose wife was a vampire, and shoots a machine gun at some werewolves.

With a $70 million production budget, this is the franchise’s most expensive entry, though the extra money does not seem to have made much of an improvement. Yes, the action scenes are a bit more crisp, and the finale, a parking garage brawl between Selene, David, and an oversize werewolf, is among the series’ best action set pieces. But there’s little else to recommend Awakening beyond Beckinsale’s typically strong anchoring performance. Even Dance, normally an intense and effective presence, seems wasted in a role that is mostly designed to evoke his turn as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones.

Underworld: Blood Wars (2017): The most recent addition to the franchise brings another coven, another conspiracy among the vampire elite, and another hairy werewolf rebel scheming to destroy his vampire enemies. The father-son pair of Thomas and David returns, and one of them dies. So, for a little while, does Selene. Don’t worry; she comes back. She is the franchise, and the franchise is unkillable.

The story tracks a plan by the vampire Semira (Lara Pulver), a council member with the Eastern Coven, to eliminate her rivals and consolidate control. That plan is foiled when all the council members drink the blood of a long-dead vampire elder, which allows them to read the elder’s memories. (In the Underworld movies, vampires often read memories by drinking blood, which results in a series of scattered images that are sometimes hard to follow, but the vampires always seem to know exactly what they mean.)

Five movies in, the lore, never especially interesting or coherent to begin with, has grown dense and unwieldy, its relationship to the franchise trajectory unclear. If one were so inclined to follow the various ins and outs of vampire history and mythology, the bloodlines and family trees, it would probably be possible to do so — but there’s no reason to bother, because ultimately the mythology is not the point of Underworld. The point is to watch vampires and werewolves fire endless rounds of ammunition at each other while wearing stylish black clothing.

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Blood Wars
Well, everything appears to be in order here.

The Blood Wars finale takes place inside an old mansion and involves a horde of werewolves with guns shooting a coven of vampires with guns, which seems like the logical apex for this vampires-and-werewolves-shooting-each-other-obsessed series. The werewolves — while still in human form — use imposing metal riot shields, because these movies are nothing if not obsessed with cool-looking tactical gear.

In fact, many of this franchise's mysteries can be explained with the words, "Because it looks cool." At one point, Selene runs through an armory that looks sort of like a hospital operating room except covered in assault rifles, grabbing weapons off the walls and firing each one until it’s out of bullets. There’s a climactic cage match — in an actual cage — between Selene and a transformed werewolf (who keeps his human face), and at the end she rips out his spine. Why? Because, at least to a certain sensibility, it looks cool.

Blood Wars is certainly not a good movie, but it’s less certainly a truly bad one. Instead, it is functional, a dutiful franchise placeholder, a fix when you want it, the cinematic equivalent of Hot Pockets. At just 91 minutes, it delivers the vampires-fighting-werewolves action Underworld audiences crave in easy, compact form. Whether it is “good,” in the two-thumbs-up, Rotten-Tomatoes-score sense, is almost beside the point.

That’s all great, but you never answered the original question: Why does Hollywood keep making Underworld movies?

The simple answer is they are consistently profitable, in part because they don’t cost very much to produce. Only Awakening was budgeted at more than $45 million, and its budget was still just $70 million. That’s an awful lot of money, yes, but it still counts as a middle-budget movie in an era where effects-driven blockbusters can easily cost $150 million or more to film. In contrast, all five Underworld movies combined have cost a little more than $200 million to make, and have brought in about $513 million in total global box office.

The Underworld movies may not be considered huge hits in an environment where a single movie like Batman v Superman, which was considered a bit of an underperformer, can bring in $873 million in global box office. But they make money, every time, and because the budgets are small, each new installment is relatively low-risk.

Why does Kate Beckinsale keep doing these movies? She’s a good actress! Isn’t this all kind of embarrassing?

You should ask her, but I’ll speculate: For one thing, performers tend not to turn down steady work in profitable franchises. For another, it’s probably the role for which she is best known. For yet another, the movie business isn’t exactly known for its wealth of great roles for women older than 40 (she’s 43). And it’s not like starring in the franchise means she can’t do other work; she was excellent in the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship last summer.

She’s also rather good in these movies, at least as much as anyone can be good in an Underworld movie. She certainly elevates the material. It’s worth comparing her performance with the one given by Rhona Mitra in Rise of the Lycans, the only Underworld movie in which Beckinsale does not appear.

Mitra, who plays the daughter of vampire lord Viktor, is effectively a Beckinsale stand-in; that the two look somewhat alike is actually a plot point. But Mitra, while not bad, doesn’t have the onscreen gravity that Beckinsale does, or the sense of seriousness about the material. There’s a directness of purpose and clarity of intention to Beckinsale’s performances that makes the movies work, even when they shouldn’t.

These movies seem kind of forgettable

That’s not wrong. These are movies that may be best experienced on late-night cable, viewed in distracted fragments rather than binged all at once, as I did last weekend. The individual stories aren’t much to speak of, but the franchise has a strong vibe that is easy to pick up on if you’re tired and don’t want to think too hard.

At the same time, there are ways in which the Underworld franchise stands out. It’s a relatively early example of a successful and long-running action series featuring a woman in the lead role. It’s also the sort of modestly budgeted genre film franchise that has gotten somewhat lost in an era of hugely expensive mega-blockbusters.

Just give it to me straight: Should I go see Blood Wars in the theater?

If you’ve seen and enjoyed the previous Underworld movies, then yes.

What if I haven’t seen the previous Underworld films? Will I understand what’s going on in Blood Wars?

That’s not easy to answer. On the one hand, Blood Wars flows directly out of the events of Awakening, which takes the series in a new direction but still leans heavily on the events of the first three films. The mythology is fairly dense at this point, and you probably won’t understand everything if you dive into the fifth entry in the series.

On the other hand, you may not understand everything even if you have seen the previous films, because the tangled family/occult backstory is basically nonsense. But I’m not sure any of that matters, because low-budget werewolf-versus-vampire action doesn’t really require a lot of context to appreciate it.

If I haven’t seen any of them, why should I watch an Underworld movie?

I don’t know if should is the right word here, but here are some of the reasons you could watch these movies:

  • The surprisingly engaging and ferocious performances from Beckinsale
  • The elaborate gothic sets and costume design, which toe the line between occult seriousness and grimdark camp
  • The gore spectacle, if you’re into that sort of thing
  • The shadowy, moonlit, black-and-gray veneer of the series’ cinematography, which establishes an all-encompassing atmosphere of gloom and foreboding that is rarely pierced by color or light
  • The consistently excellent shine of the men’s hair
  • The small and inexplicable clicking sound that Bill Nighy makes after his vampire lord arises from his centuries-long slumber

Overall, are these movies good or bad?

They’re not great. But they’re not really awful, either. And good and bad aren’t the best way to think about them, anyway. What they are is consistent. Consistency is an underrated virtue in franchise filmmaking, especially with a series that switches directors so often. The competent consistency of the Underworld movies over five movies and 14 years is likely one of the reasons the franchise has lasted as long as it has.

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