By Josh Reilly B.
In recent months, Marvel Studios’ Disney+ presence has caused a degree of divisiveness amongst fans and audiences. Shows like Loki, written by Michael Waldron (who will now write Avengers: Secret Wars), and WandaVision have taken off, while others failed to garner the same sort of attention. Some critics have noted the relative lack of diversity in terms of the Marvel stories being told on the streamer; in other words, new series tend to rely too heavily on the tried and trusted formula that the studio has used for so long.
Enter Marvel Studios’ first Special Presentstion, Werewolf by Night. This is not a show that audiences can tune into week after week like something like She-Hulk, which has its finale next Thursday, nor is it a feature film to go watch in the movie theater. This is a one off television event, the first of its kind for the MCU. It’s also their 2022 Halloween special, or titles matching upcoming holidays. Inspired by the Star Wars Holiday Special, the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is set to debut later this year. Stylistically, Werewolf by Night differs from the rest of the franchise greatly as well. The entire special is black and white, a filmmaking choice that helps it invoke the iconic Universal monster films of the 20th century. Suffice to say, Werewolf by Night marks quite a few firsts for the franchise.
The special follows Jack Russell, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, as he attends a gathering of monster hunters, a group spun into semi-turmoil after the death of its leader as many fight for control. This is the no-spoilers premise, though, as the title develops into something far more complex than that. Not everything, or everyone, is as it seems, making for a whodunnit sort of atmosphere as the audience is unsure of who to trust.
The best aspect of Werewolf by Night is the Universal movie monsters style of it all, boldly going in this colorless direction that brings added life into the special. There’s a real commitment to this style as well, especially with the presence of fake cigarette burns on the ‘film’ as well as a score that could easily slot into a Bela Lugosi movie. Director and composer Michael Giacchiano said recently that Kevin Feige didn’t sign off on the black and white visuals until the third cut of the special, a peculiar fact given just how much the style elevates this hour of television.
There’s a surprising emotional resonance in Werewolf by Night, too, with Bernal’s title hero having a heartwarming relationship with Man-Thing, aka Ted, a living being that might look like a monster but is, all things considered, mild-mannered and kind. That the monster everyone is tasked with hunting at the beginning is not really a monster at all is a fresh twist for the special, adding an extra layer and dynamic to the proceedings. But as stated, the most welcome effect of this twist is that it keeps the audience much more emotionally engaged and invested in the story.
That emotional resonance is something that has been lacking from certain MCU projects in this post-Endgame era, and although most have been completely serviceable and fine, it’s intriguing that Werewolf by Night essentially surpasses them in this regard despite it being completely removed from the rest of the universe. And that it is so separated from everything else, a brief art piece showing the Avengers in the opening title sequence the only reference to the broader MCU, is another refreshing beat of this special. This story isn’t being told to service a wider, longer narrative or to set up a future movie, nor is it filled with references or cameos to inform audiences that what they’re watching is in the MCU. Both of those things are perfectly fine in certain projects, but it just wouldn’t have worked in Werewolf by Night, so that this isolated story was completely and fully embraced by the creative team is incredibly refreshing.
The design of the Werewolf is yet another refreshing and unique aspect of this special. The MCU leans into CGI and special effects so often that one would be forgiven for being a little shocked that this Werewolf is modeled after the Universal monster in its practical design. This only further serves as proof that CGI is not always a necessity to get audiences to buy into the story or the threat that this monster possesses. Much like his friend Ted, there’s a gentle giant component of Bernal’s Werewolf, but there’s also a viscousness when he’s facing enemies as well. Particular praise must go to the director for the visuals of the sequence where the hero takes down the soldiers of this cruel guild of killers, especially as the full look of the Werewolf is continually teased but not shown until much later on.
If there is a criticism to be had with Werewolf by Night, it’s that it doesn’t exactly linger afterwards. For all these positives, it’s still relatively throwaway in nature, enjoyed in the moment but not very thought provoking beyond that. Perhaps that’s just down to its place in a franchise that has its most memorable moments in the form of fan service or cameos, of which there are none here.
Werewolf by Night is a refreshing entry in the MCU, differing from all other titles before it in almost every way. It’s bold, unique, and wholly different, especially when it comes to the visual style. It might not be as memorable or impactful as one would hope, but Marvel Studios would be wise to continue telling stories like this in the future.