Marvel Studios’ Werewolf by Night is a 50-minute “special presentation,” a new format for a studio that has thus far woven an almost-15-year narrative across films, network television, streaming serials and DVD extra shorts. A welcome one, too.
Marvel’s Disney+ series have generally been fun, but most of them have had structural issues due to the clash between episodic and ongoing storytelling. They never seem to have the right amount of time to let their characters breathe amid the momentum of the ongoing story. It’s hard to argue Moon Knight or Ms. Marvel really needed six hours for the stories they ultimately told. This new short-film format, then, presents Marvel with a new opportunity to add bits and pieces to its tapestry without committing to larger formats that lack the story to film them.
If Werewolf is any indication, I hope we see a lot more of these.
Not to say Werewolf by Night is a standout entry in the overall canon. It’s pretty fun, with some exciting stylistic choices and some cool moments, but perhaps the fact that it does its job without overstaying its welcome is what makes it feel comparatively special. Marvel seems to be calibrating which stories are told in which format, and this one is just right.
Famed composer Michael Giacchino makes his directorial debut here, supposedly having chosen the character to the surprise of Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige. Jack Russell, aka the Werewolf by Night, is a fairly deep-cut character in the company catalog. Back in the 1970s, Marvel Comics published a broad line of horror books, thanks to the dissolution of the content-regulating Comics Code Authority — which had prevented sex, violence and other material supposedly inappropriate for the children who read funny books. Tomb of Dracula, Man-Thing and Werewolf by Night were some of the most notable titles from that era, but the characters have gotten relatively little play in the half-century since. They’re fun books to read, and occasionally brilliant, but take a certain taste to enjoy. Giacchino’s special love for this era of the canon shines through in this special.
The story here is a simple one: Ulysses Bloodstone, the world’s greatest monster hunter, has died. His widow, Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris), invites a group of skilled hunters to Bloodstone Manor to compete for the ultimate prize: the Bloodstone, an artifact that allows the holder incredible power. Their mission is to fight through a labyrinth on the mansion grounds and defeat a creature of unspeakable terror. One of the participants is Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), whose secret lycanthropic alter-ego could turn him into one of the hunted.
Bernal is great as Russell (whose incredible pun name is never mentioned in full in dialogue). His performance feels clearly inspired by Lon Chaney Jr.’s meek turn as Larry Talbot in Universal’s classic The Wolf Man. Russell was cursed at birth to become a werewolf when the full moon rises. He’s not a supremely confident badass; he’s just a guy with a problem who wants to be left alone. It’s a burden. He lives with it. I hope to see more of Bernal in the role, even if limited to once-a-year Disney+ specials such as this. If I had my ultimate wish? Throw him up against Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight – after all, Moon Knight debuted as a Werewolf by Night villain, and they continue to meet in the comics every so often.
Giacchino borrows heavily from the Universal Monsters aesthetic that has informed so much American horror in the near century since the original Dracula, which is a great choice for such a small production. Generally speaking, practical effects and large, multi-use physical sets make Werewolf look much better than, say, Thor: Love and Thunder. I was especially fond of how Russell’s werewolf form looks. The only problem, common to other throwback horror films, is that it’s still shot like a modern film. Characters and performances are depicted naturalistically while the world around them is clearly constructed. Sometimes it feels dissonant.
My main nitpick is the way the titular Werewolf moves. There’s a clear desire to make him more superhuman in his choreography (perhaps for future projects), but his acrobatic martial arts style is basically identical to that of Bloodstone family black sheep Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), and both feel extremely similar to that of Black Widow. Spins, slides, rolls, choking opponents with their legs. The lack of variety, particularly within this special itself, bothered me. The Werewolf need not be a Hulk, but I was hoping for something more animalistic once he finally starts going to town on goons.
At 50 minutes, Werewolf is given precisely the amount of time it needs to tell its story efficiently. There’s no sense that any stones are unturned or that anything is given more time than it needs. I do wish, however, that the dialogue had felt a little punchier in parts, particularly during the exposition at the start. Once it gets going, though, it’s full steam ahead.
I guess that seems pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things. I like most of it, love much of it and generally feel satisfied with the fact that the studio has at least attempted to break new ground throughout its nearly concluded Phase 4. In fact, Werewolf is a little bit of everything great and not-so-great about the last few years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in microcosm. It has a lot of style and throwback aesthetics to set it apart from the franchise. It introduces fun new characters and ideas without any clear idea of where we’ll ever see them again. Most of all, it feels like the clear vision of a debut filmmaker whose style meshes well with the Marvel house but still feels like the testing ground for someone playing with their passions rather than finding something unique.