– Releases on Friday, October 7
– Exclusive to Disney Plus
– Directed by Michael Giacchino
– Written by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron
– Stars Gael García Bernal, Laura Donnelly, and Harriet Sansom Harris
– 52-minute runtime
Potential spoilers for Werewolf by Night follow.
Werewolf by Night is a fascinating beast (pun intended). The forthcoming Disney Plus special marks a series of firsts for Marvel, with its adult-oriented content, horror genre positioning – Doctor Strange 2 doesn’t fully count – and pioneering narrative structure, as a one-off TV special, combining to deliver a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) project we’ve not seen before.
That coalescence represents a gamble for Marvel Studios, though. Audiences have grown accustomed the company’s superpowered beings appearing in a movie or Disney Plus show format, not one-off special presentations. Additionally, Werewolf by Night’s borderline R-rated material isn’t the trademark family friendly style that Marvel is known for. So, does Marvel risk distancing or even alienating itself from parts of its global fanbase with a project like this?
Thankfully, no. Werewolf by Night isn’t as groundbreakingly gory or maliciously mature as audiences might believe, and a few procedural niggles make it a good watch rather than a great one. Even so, it’s a very satisfying, suspenseful, and spooky monster-filled romp that further explores the MCU’s supernatural side and offers a glimpse into what an R-rated Marvel world could look like.
A monster calls
Werewolf by Night stars Gael García Bernal as Jack Russell, an alleged monster hunter who joins a group of similarly styled mercenaries at Bloodstone Manor following the death of their leader Ulysses Bloodstone.
Assembled by Ulysses’ widow Ursula (Harriet Sansom Harris), each member – including Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the Bloodstone family’s estranged daughter – has been specifically chosen to partake in a deadly competition. The rules are simple: defeat the monster set loose in the manor grounds and they’ll be rewarded with the bloodstone, a powerful family heirloom that can vanquish any supernatural and otherworldly being. The relic was supposed to be handed down to Elsa but, given her dislike for her family’s monster hunting traditions, it’ll be bestowed to whoever wins the event, including Elsa.
It’s a quirky if self-explanatory story synopsis, but there are pleasing benefits to the special’s narrative direction.
For one, Werewolf by Night’s plot doesn’t need much set up, enabling the one-off episode to get into the meat of its tension-fuelled drama and action as soon as possible. It isn’t weighed down by expository moments, nor does it contain superfluous filler material. The lack of such content gives it a tighter structural feel and ensures its 52-minute runtime is made up of the material necessary for us to follow the plot as it plays out.
That said, Werewolf by Night’s plot isn’t entirely straightforward. There are a couple of compelling twists that change the tide of its narrative and character affiliations. One is more obvious than the other – Marvel comic book readers will see the clear-cut misdirect coming a mile off. It’s the second twist, however, that’s sure to delight diehard Marvel fans and have casual MCU viewers surprisingly aww-ing at the screen.
Despite its positioning as a horror-centric project, Werewolf by Night doesn’t overlook the humor that MCU productions are known for. It’s more nuanced, deadpan, and wry than most Marvel movies and shows, but it’s no less effective in the context of the TV special’s story.
The MCU Phase 4 project’s amusing moments wouldn’t work without a cast able to execute them. Bernal’s Russell is imbued with a bewitching warmth and a subtle funny side, while Donnelly’s Bloodstone – the real MVP of the TV special – is an unapologetic badass who’s rooted firmly in sardonic and cynical territory. The pair’s chemistry is pleasing on the eye, as is Russell’s dynamic with another character who shall remain nameless as they tie into one of the twists mentioned above.
In spite of multiple story and character-based positives, Werewolf by Night might have been better served with a couple of extra scenes to aid its narrative flow and provide extra context about its characters.
Unsurprisingly for a tale based around a life-threatening contest, most of the supporting cast are just cannon fodder for the show’s story – and that’s a shame. Many of Werewolf by Night’s eccentric individuals have been developed exclusively for the special, and it would have been interesting to learn about the backstories that Marvel created for Al Hamacher’s Billy Swan, Kirk Thatcher’s Jovan, or Eugenie Bondurant’s Linda. If nothing else, it might have teased the wider world of monster hunting in the MCU and how archaic the practice has become.
Thematically, Werewolf by Night doesn’t do anything novel either. Sure, the juxtaposition of humans being the real monsters, and the supernatural beings they hunt being more sympathetic and benevolent, complements the story. But it’s a thematic thread that’s been explored countless times before in many other instances, such as Universal’s iconic back catalog of monster movies or even Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. It’s a little on the nose and might have been best served if less obvious subject matter had been examined as part of its plot.
Honoring the past
Speaking of Universal Pictures’ monster movie slate, Werewolf by Night isn’t shy in its honoring of the studio’s classic horror movie franchise.
The most obvious of those homages is its monochromatic color palette. A visual departure from the technicolor aesthetic we’ve come to expect from MCU projects – and movies and TV shows generally – Werewolf by Night’s black and white tonality is strikingly vivid. Equally, it makes any speckle of color, such as the red hue used to scenically distinguish the bloodstone, all the more radiant. Marvel’s WandaVision TV series utilized a monochrome style to similarly pleasing effect in its early episodes. Werewolf by Night, then, isn’t the first Marvel production to wield this color gradient, it’s no less satisfying to see it used here.
That contrasting two-tone aesthetic isn’t the only visual flair on show. The special’s combination of classic monster movie cinematography and Hitchcockian sensibilities also make for delightful touches.
Werewolf by Night is film composer Michael Giacchino’s first real directorial role – although, he previously helmed an episode of Star Trek‘s Short Treks anthology series – but his obvious penchant for Universal’s classic monster films shines through. From close-up camerawork and jump scares, to B movie-style transition shots and monster suit practicality, Werewolf by Night is a tremendous tribute to Universal’s monster back catalog, with the most obvious of nods directed at Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man.
The TV special also channels characteristics of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock’s extensive works. Incompetent authority figures – is that the Time Variance Authority, as seen in Loki’s TV show, in Werewolf by Night? – as well as plot twists, use of shadows, and restricting the action to a single setting are just four odes to Hitchcock’s suspense-riddled thrillers.
There are elements of Werewolf by Night’s development that come across as a tad antiquated. Some of the special’s practical effects, such as an unexpected monster transformation and Ulysses’ animated zombie form, are slightly jarring, and some of the dialog is hokey. It’s likely that these are further acknowledgements of the films Werewolf by Night takes inspiration from, though, so their awkwardness can be attributed to being contextually intentional.
From a violence perspective, Werewolf by Night is a little disappointing. The one-off special has been hailed as a surprisingly brutal production and, from a Marvel Studios standpoint, that’s certainly the case.
However, fans expecting a viscerally gory or gratuitously over the top MCU offering should reign in their expectations. Sure, Werewolf by Night is the most sadistic Marvel project to date – Moon Knight arguably held that label before it – but it doesn’t come close to matching, say, Fox’s two Deadpool films or The Boys on Prime Video. Still, it provides a peek at how Marvel might tackle its first R-rated movie, i.e. Deadpool 3, which is slated to arrive in late 2024.
Werewolf by Night offers another spellbinding, Halloween-focused trip into the MCU’s mystical side. It’s unquestionably a comedy-horror production rather than a straight-up, needlessly vicious fright fest. However, with its multiple horror tropes, throwbacks to monochromatic films of yesteryear, Giacchino’s flair for creativity outside of musical composition, and alluring story and characters, it’s an entertaining spectacle.
In fact, Marvel may be onto something with its Disney Plus special presentations. The Marvel universe is one stacked with compelling characters, but not all of them are popular enough to earn a tentpole, blockbuster superhero movie adaptation. Equally, some don’t have the substantial comic book backstory necessary to star in an MCU TV series. Special presentations offer a satisfying middle ground that expands the borders of the MCU without completely saturating the theatrical and TV markets with more superhero and comic book adaptations.
Werewolf by Night, then, is a teeth-bearing pioneer in the live-action superhero space. It’s not perfect, but then Iron Man and WandaVision – the first MCU movie and TV show respectively – weren’t either. As experiments go, Werewolf by Night can generally be considered a success. With more MCU special presentations to come, including a Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, that’ll be music to Marvel’s furry, wolf-like ears.
Werewolf by Night launches exclusively on Disney Plus on Friday, October 7.