Werewolf By Night is mostly an homage to classic monster movies, but it opens the door to a fun new corner of Marvel while telling an engaging mini-story of its own.
This week on Disney+ brings Marvel’s first ever “Special.” Not quite a TV show, but also not nearly as long as a feature length film, Werewolf By Night is paving new ground for Marvel in more ways than one. It’s an interesting experiment, and fortunately, one that’s incredibly successful.
Werewolf by Night
Directed By: Michael Giacchino
Written By: Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris
Release Date: October 7, 2022 only on Disney+
The story puts the focus on Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal) and Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly) as they attend a secret meeting among a cabal of monster hunters. Elsa’s father, Ulysses Bloodstone, a notorious monster hunter and leader of the group has passed away and is looking for a successor to inherit the powerful Bloodstone gem.
To that end, the gathered hunters are thrust into a deadly competition as they must outwit (or even kill) each other while seeking out a powerful monster in order to claim the prize. While everyone else is out for the glory, Jack and Elsa have their own reasons for attending the ceremonial hunt.
Things don’t go according to plan, however, and Jack’s monstrous secret is revealed (if it’s in the trailer I’m not counting it as a spoiler). Up against the monster hunters, Jack and Elsa need to figure out how to trust one another in order to escape and survive the night…
I’m not going into too many details here to keep things spoiler-free, but that’s the basics of this Special. Without getting too hyberbolic, it was pretty damn great.
Due to its shorter nature (coming in at a little under an hour long), Werewolf By Night hits the ground running, thrusting fans directly into the story. Even so, nothing about it feels rushed. Despite having to move the story along at a fairly quick pace, it still manages to include smaller character moments. The pacing of the story is impressive, maintaining a balance between key character moments, necessary exposition, and action.
Honestly, it shows a deft touch for storytelling; an understanding of what needs to be cut and what’s essential to craft an engaging story in a short amount of time, while still endearing us to the characters. Considering this is Michael Giacchino’s first major directorial effort, I’m all the more impressed at the level of storytelling craft on display here.
Gael García Bernal does a wonderful job as Jack/Werewolf By Night, and brings a vulnerability to the character that makes him instantly likeable. He brings that sense of someone you would immediately be friends with, while still retaining that air of mystery/power. Laura Donnelly’s turn as Elsa Bloodstone is similarly well done, establishing a heroine (of sorts) with depth and plenty of badass-ness.
Despite a decent sized cast of characters, the Special keeps the focus very centered on those primary characters. While not every character feels fully fleshed out, none of them feel one-dimensional either. You get hints of personalities and past history thanks to interactions and general behavior of the eclectic hunters we see. It does a lot with what little time it has and manages to make this corner of the Marvel universe feel distinctly “alive.”
And that’s not to mention the overall style of Werewolf By Night! It’s built, pretty much from the ground up, as an homage to the monster movies of the 40s. Everything from the shot composition, character reactions, musical score, and even a recreation of the old “cue dot” in blipping in the corner, is crafted to evoke those older horror films.
And yet…none of it comes off as hokey. As we’ve seen with other such attempts to recreate that old-school vibe (*cough* Munsters *cough*), it’s difficult to do so without getting cheesy to the point of obnoxious. There’s an earnestness to how Werewolf by Night approaches these things which makes it work. It’s hard to explain, but it’s very clearly harkening back to these aesthetics while looking through it all with a modern eye. The result is something that feels like those classics, while still ensuring it translates well for current audiences.
Along these same lines, Werewolf by Night, keeps the themes of those old monster movies intact. Those Universal classics were poignant tales that went beyond mere “creature features,” offering social commentary on the nature of man’s own hubris and monstrous desires. We see much the same here, as Jack is surrounded by monster hunters who genuinely believe all monsters are inherently evil and must be wiped from the Earth (a bias even Elsa is not immune to).
How they play with this dynamic in such a short time is pretty impressive, but still hammers the point home in grand fashion. People can be “monsters” while still being good. While the “good guys” are equally as capable as doing evil things.
As far as the Marvel elements go, Werewolf by Night does a pretty great job of standing alone. While there are clearly some references to the greater MCU, the Special manages to carve out its own unique niche within this universe.
Personally speaking, I have no real knowledge of this corner of the Marvel universe. I mean, for the most part, I’m a DC guy when it comes to comics, so there are plenty of Marvel stories I’m not familiar with. Even so, Werewolf by Night manages to expertly introduce a lot of brand new lore and characters in a way that feels natural. Yes, for the most part, the Special can sit aside from the main MCU, but at the same time, nothing feels like these characters/ideas couldn’t fit it nicely with everything else we’ve seen so far.
I’m sure long-time Marvel fans will have much more to ooh and ahh over in terms of references/Easter eggs. Even so, I was impressed with how it managed to introduce all new elements and character without making me (who knows nothing) feel lost. Again, it’s a credit to the storytelling and pacing.
One final thing I want to touch on—that I know others have already spoken about—is the level of violence we see and the “horror” nature of the Special. It easily exceeds the normal amount of blood and violence we’re accustomed to seeing in a Marvel movie/show, but I think it still fits well within the boundaries of what people would expect.
It’s another aspect where I was impressed with Giacchino’s storytelling touch as he brought an impressive balance to the violence. Werewolf by Night features some brutal moments, but it doesn’t necessarily lavish in them either. It knows when to pull back, or cutaway, thus making the moments where it doesn’t hold back all the more impactful and eye-popping. Seriously, there’s a couple, “holy shit” moments with the action and much of that reaction boils down to how the Special paces it all out.
All in all, Werewolf by Night is a bonafide HOOT. It nails the noir/retro horror vibes while still offering a modern touch to keep audiences engaged (and allowing these characters to move forward as well). The acting is impressive, managing to instantly endear them to audiences even in a short period of time.
The smaller scale format allows for some fun experimentation, offering up something new and fresh for Marvel. Fans and non-fans alike can find plenty of fun in Werewolf by Night, making it an solid addition to your normal Halloween viewing rotation.