Directed by: Michael Giacchino
Distributed by: Disney+
Written by Anna Harrison
The past couple of years have seen Marvel diversifying their slate—at least in theory. The slew of new Disney+ shows have, more often than not, felt repetitive: a strong start which promises a new direction, a middle which loses some of the “new” factor, and then an end which kills momentum completely and reverts to standard MCU fare, and all save “She-Hulk” and (mostly) “Loki” have suffered from ruinous pacing issues. That’s the problem with building your brand off a shared universe: you’re scared to break said universe, even after it’s been proven time and time again that your worst failures still end up being mild successes.
“Werewolf by Night,” a so-called “special presentation,” finally bucks the trend of MCU Disney+ offerings—for real this time, not in a half-assed way like “Moon Knight.” With only a 53-minute runtime, it’s a breezy, self-contained trip down memory lane to Universal’s classic monster movies, with nary a trace of the MCU to be found. In fact, had Disney branded this as a standalone special, it would be no different, save that several characters’ names come from Marvel comics.
The plot is paper-thin, but it’s not trying for anything more than that. Jack (Gael García Bernal) has posed as a hunter of supernatural beings so he can help save his friend Ted, aka Man-Thing (Carey Jones). He crosses paths with Elsa (Laura Donnelly), who’s on a quest to retrieve her family heirloom, the Bloodstone, but once it’s discovered that Jack is a werewolf, he and Elsa suddenly become the hunted. I could not tell you any personality traits about the two other than “kind” for Jack and “spunky” for Elsa, but Bernal and Donnelly—especially Bernal, one of the many loves of my life—are charming enough that you still want to watch.
The true standout here is first-time feature director, longtime Marvel/Disney composer Michael Giacchino. He commits to the bit in a way that no other Marvel director has: shot in black and white and with at least the appearance of being on film, “Werewolf by Night” takes obvious cues from “The Twilight Zone” and “The Wolf Man” though not in a bad way; it lends the whole thing a feeling of, if not B-movie camp, then at least something akin to it—and a good thing too, because there are gruesome kills aplenty in it, with the black-and-white photography going a long way to secure that TV-14 rating. Giacchino opts for a mostly practical approach to all this, another refreshing change of pace for Marvel. Blood even spatters onto the camera and stays there as we track Jack on his rampage. There’s also some wonderful puppetry with a dead body straight out of a Haunted Mansion ride, and Jack’s werewolf prosthetics—after a fun transformation told via lighting and sound design—are a mix of delightfully cheesy and unnervingly expressive. How often do you see puppets in a Marvel film? Have we ever, without CGI to cover it back up?
Maybe it says something current about the state of the MCU that this short special with slim plot and simple characters shows more promise than almost any of their output over the past couple of years. Yet even paying no heed to the MCU outside of this film, it’s a brisk, fun Halloween flick starring some talented, attractive actors, and should hopefully inspire Marvel to do more of these, and not movies stretched into six-hour television shows, or television shows stretched into a six-hour movie.
“Werewolf by Night” Trailer