‘Werewolf By Night’ Will Leave You Hungry For More – Review
Werewolf by Night is a much-needed sign of hope for the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this very moment. Now heading towards the finish line of Phase 4 with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, casual moviegoers and dedicated fans alike can agree that these last few years have seen the MCU at its most mixed or lackluster even. Regardless of a few notable outliers and what you might think overall, just going off widespread reception and Marvel’s box office standards, the franchise hasn’t been on a “homerun” streak like in the days of Phase 3. The rinse-and-repeat middle ground quality stemmed down from the studio’s brute structure is obviously to blame. However, Michael Giacchino is here to remind us of what magic the MCU still has up its sleeves with the help of Laura Donnelly and the impeccable Gael García Bernal.
This first Marvel Studios Special Presentation comes in the form of a Halloween event, paying homage to retro TV horror programs like The Twilight Zone while also introducing one of Marvel Comic’s oldest monster characters. Werewolf by Night started as a classic monster that Marvel could utilize in diversifying its superhero-dominated titles with an excellent old-fashioned run of successful horror comics. Of course, over time, the beast came into contact with characters like Moon Knight, Doctor Strange, and Morbius, cementing his place in the supernatural underbelly of the Marvel Universe. Now, could this eventually happen down the line in the MCU? Probably, but Werewolf by Night on Disney+ isn’t so much preoccupied with making those promises, at least not yet. Instead, the special stays true to its inspirations, telling a self-contained thrill ride in under 50 minutes.
We’re immediately thrown into a simple yet engaging premise with our titular Lycan Jack Russell (Bernal) front and center in human form. Russell and a league of extraordinary monster hunters have gathered in a far-off mansion to honor the death of their leader, Ulysses Bloodstone. Sacred texts and the severed heads of Vampires and Sasquatches decorate the halls. As a part of timeless tradition, the mystical Bloodstone itself – an orb of dark power used in catching monsters – must be passed down to a new hunter to bear. Ulysses’ daughter Elsa Bloodstone (Donnelly), comes to reclaim what’s rightfully hers. However, after years of being disowned as the family’s black sheep, she has to earn the gem by participating in a winner-takes-all monster hunt. Jack and Elsa soon find out they can help each other as there is a larger mystery afoot!
Presented in black-and-white and with other old-school effects like film grain and cue marks, the best defining quality of Werewolf by Night is that it knows how to earn the atmosphere that comes with these aesthetics rather than using them as cheap window dressing. Michael Giacchino, famously known as one of Hollywood’s most resourceful film composers today, makes the leap into the director’s chair with confidence and a fundamental understanding of what kind of bar he is setting with tone. With only less than an hour to tell a satisfying story, Giacchino ensures that all elements of horror and action serve either of the lead characters in return. No time is wasted on forced humor or anything of the like, and when there is room for minor gags, it feels easy to take in levity that further lets us know who Jack and Elsa are.
With every new MCU release, you hear some kind of praise for the franchise “breaking new ground” when we soon realize the frustrating truth. Werewolf by Night isn’t really this huge game-changer in this regard, not counting its format, though it still does a pretty damn good job of what it set out to do in the first place. Like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, this special goes all-in with its violence and visual horror iconography without thinking twice or looking back. It might not be groundbreaking per se, but it’s pretty great to see an MCU project stick to its guns and fully deliver on its promises. If you’re here to revel in the darker side of Marvel and see monster action and people getting their limbs ripped off and throats slit, Werewolf by Night doesn’t disappoint.
Another major sigh of relief, Gael García Bernal’s charm and screen presence is not wasted one bit. The Mexican star is known as a prolific face within Latin American cinema, so jumping into literally the most extensive film series on Earth had its fair share of concerns and excitement. Bernal is a perfect fit for the moody undertones and retro aesthetics of Werewolf by Night and, thankfully, is allowed to bring his recognizable flavor to the role. Yes, he can be a bit light-hearted and admirable in the way Bernal is known for at times, but this depiction of the character still stays true to his horror roots. Again, the moments of humor don’t overshadow who the titular werewolf is supposed to be. The same mostly goes for Laura Donnelly’s Elsa Bloodstone, who earns her badass nature smoothly.
The real cherry on top comes with the design of Jack Russell in Lycan form, which comes to life mainly via practical effects. Even if this wasn’t a throwback horror special, the Werewolf here is of fine quality and would still work excellently in a story told in the modern-day MCU. The makeup and costuming of the entire special are commendable, for that matter, making us forget about the capes and spandex of the franchise in favor of gothic drapes and leather. Werewolf by Night proves that the special presentation format works superbly for the brand, and the studio would be remiss not to consider more after the release of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special at the end of this year. One hour of forgetting about what’s supposed to be canon or essential for the future of the franchise and just journeying into untapped mystery.
That said, Gael García Bernal and Laura Donnelly deserve a shot at the big leagues after how swell of a time Werewolf by Night is. Going even further, it would be gratifying to see Marvel Studios take more swings at genres like this on the big screen. They’ve already shown that they can make almost anything work, and committing to this kind of vision could do wonders for comic-book films as a whole. For now, we’ll just have to settle with one-shot specials on Disney+, which admittedly does have its own worth. It’s just that by the time Werewolf by Night comes to its blood-soaked finale, you’ll be demanding more.