Werewolf by Night — out Friday on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar — pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a new dimension. On paper at least. It’s the first TV special that Marvel Studios has produced. (TV special is basically a fancy term for an hour-long movie.) The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special — coming in December, also to Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar — was set to be the first, but Werewolf by Night emerged out of nowhere last month at Disney’s D23 Expo 2022. More importantly, Werewolf by Night is also the first full-on MCU horror flick, though we sort of went there with the Sam Raimi-directed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen, earlier this year.
Intriguingly, Werewolf by Night comes from an unexpected source too. It’s directed by Michael Giacchino, the guy otherwise known for composing indistinguishable background scores for several Marvel movies, including the Cumberbatch-led Doctor Strange, Thor: Love and Thunder with Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man trilogy. That guy is doing a horror creature feature about monster hunters now? Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige was taken aback by Giacchino’s choice of the character too. But as Feige heard more, he became more enthusiastic — and suggested Giacchino incorporate the swamp creature Man-Thing.
Giacchino said he was inspired by American horror films from the 1930 and 40s. To his credit, Werewolf by Night mimics the style of these decades well. For one, the Marvel TV special is entirely presented in black-and-white — this isn’t a first for the MCU, given we had an episode or two of WandaVision do that — with “cigarette burns” appearing in places to complete the look. What gives away the modernness though is the depth of field and the use of distortion lenses. Giacchino, who is also naturally the composer here, even brings in songs from the late 30s, with one by Vera Lynn and another from The Wizard of Oz.
What works best for Werewolf by Night is that it all feels tangible. Unlike the prevalent overuse of CGI and virtual backgrounds in the MCU, the first Marvel TV special relies largely on practical effects, be it with the creatures, the action, or the surroundings. Werewolf by Night does well to balance violence and humour — the screenplay comes from Heather Quinn (Hawkeye) and Peter Cameron (WandaVision) — and even packages a bit of heart. Within all the hunting and running around, it finds moments of quiet with the lead characters, as they delve into family and generational trauma.
But even though it might be the first proper MCU horror tale, I don’t think it’s effective in that regard. Sure, there are moments when blood streams down your screen — Werewolf by Night escaped with a less punishing rating, because the blood isn’t red thanks to the whole thing being in black-and-white — but I can’t recall any genuine scares. An even bigger problem is that it’s too short. Wrapping up at 48 minutes — the length of one Loki episode or thereabouts — Werewolf by Night doesn’t have enough time to flesh out its characters. It gets over before it really even begins.
An animated lore dump at the start of Werewolf by Night tells us that famous monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone (voiced by Richard Dixon) has died, leaving behind the Bloodstone relic, a powerful stone that’s very useful for monster hunters. As per Ulysses’ wishes, a “ceremonial hunt” has been organised. Whosoever kills the beast and grabs the Bloodstone relic will be designated the “new leader of their fight against monsters”, as Ulysses’s widow Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris) says early in Werewolf by Night to the gathered group of monster hunters.
Said group includes a bunch of faces that really don’t matter. Save for Ulysses’s estranged daughter Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly) who left her father’s side many years ago — Verussa calls her a “disappointment”, while Elsa makes a face when Verussa calls herself Ulysses’s lover. And our protagonist, Jack Russell/ Werewolf by Night (Gael García Bernal). Werewolf by Night tries to make a meal out of its lead’s alter ego, but that only works if you haven’t seen the poster, the trailer, or literally any piece of marketing. (And now, this review. Sorry?)
Mild spoilers ahead for Werewolf by Night.
The first half of the first Marvel TV special plays out as part setup and part Hunger Games, with the second half devoted to examining Jack’s other side. Everyone, including the monster, is fair game. And given that the monster hunters have 200 kills between them, they don’t pull punches.
Thanks to the expanded content rating, Werewolf by Night is able to showcase a bunch of brutal kills. The best ones are reserved for a climactic third-act sequence, in which Giacchino truly taps into the menacing and unforgiving side of his title character. But the rest of it can be a bit humdrum — for instance, after being set up for several minutes, the whole monster hunt business is resolved very quickly and easily.
Most of that is partly down to the concise time frame allotted to Werewolf by Night. Though it’s commendable that Marvel Studios is open to experimentation, I’m not sure it’s committing to the right projects. The last one was the shorts series I Am Groot, and there was little of value there as well. But while Vin Diesel’s talking tree has a big enough place in the ever-expanding MCU, it’s entirely unclear how Werewolf by Night connects to any of it. For now, it feels as though Jack and Co. exist in a parallel world.
Even Marvel Studios itself seems noncommittal on the whole enterprise. Co-executive producer Brian Gay refused to provide a straight answer when asked about the future of Werewolf by Night. On the other hand, Gay hinted that he wants more monsters to appear in upcoming projects – but will that happen with mainline MCU films and series, or on the side like this?
Werewolf by Night begins by revealing a new “Marvel Studios Special Presentation” animated intro before the usual Marvel Studios sequence. The fact they went to the effort of making one could suggest that we can expect more of them in the future.
The issue is that Marvel has so many (weird) characters now — many of them introduced in The Multiverse Saga, which began post-Endgame — that you wonder how many will be forgotten when we get to the next Avengers movies. Werewolf by Night seems like a prime candidate.
Werewolf by Night is released Friday, October 7 at 12am PT/ 12:30pm IST on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar wherever available.