As we approach the end of Phase 4 now 14 years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s existence, we’ve got a somewhat surprising swing at something wholly new. Werewolf by Night acts as a lot of firsts for the studio, introducing an entirely new cast of characters (though not all of them are long-lived enough to be recurring), acting as the first of Marvel’s Disney+ specials, and being famed composer Michael Giacchino’s directorial debut. The special, however, isn’t Marvel’s first monochrome release, Wandavision featured two such episodes, but where the latter had immersed itself in 50s and 60s sitcoms, Werewolf by Night instead pulls from classic horror films, making it a perfect watch as Halloween rolls around.
At roughly 50 minutes, Werewolf by Night wastes no time, dropping viewers into a monster-hunting contest and introducing us to protagonist Jack Russell. Despite Jack spending the first half of the special with very little to say, Gael García Bernal’s performance paired with a great design makes for an immediately likable first impression. As we learn more about Jack, this sense only grows. Bernal brings an incredibly level-headed and calming presence to the role, which works to contrast excellently with his monstrous werewolf form.
While the monster design, clearly made as a throwback to the horror genre’s classics, may prove a bit too much for some viewers to take seriously, he’s given the weight and speed to communicate that he’s still very much deadly. Gael García Bernal also works to make his transformation more dreadful, his motions of the creature painting a picture of a beast that can neither be stopped nor controlled. Even if the special takes its time getting around to the titular monster’s appearance, by the time he enters the stage, it feels more than earned.
Partnered with Jack is Elsa Bloodstone, estranged heir to the Bloodstone family line. While Laura Donnelly’s performance brings more of the traditional MCU snark to the special, there’s a sense of sincerity combined with a certain edge to the character that forms her own identity. Not much is revealed about her past, yet it’s clear that her relationship with her family has been messy and that they have room to explore Elsa much deeper in her future appearances. Elsa’s relationship with Jack is developed very quickly but feels genuine and represents a high point of the runtime. She acts as the physical element of the special as well, contrasting with the non-violent Jack.
Harriet Sansom Harris takes the spot of the villain, Verusa, and she fills the role perfectly, as cackling and grandiose as you would expect from such a project. Little writing is allocated to give her depth, but with such a tight runtime and her acting as the film’s staple evil-by-default villain, Verusa does her job well. The last piece of the puzzle is Man-Thing, a Marvel monster that’s ravaged the comics for over 50 years now. Without giving too much away, fans of Man-Thing are going to be happy with how he turns out. However, his execution as an entirely CGI creation is a bit disappointing, especially with how low-budget and old-school the special presents itself, as well as how practically the titular creature in Werewolf by Night is realized.
Michael Giacchino’s first outing as a director immediately proves him capable in the seat. He’s able to capture the staples of the genre without resorting to just recreating iconic shots. That said, Werewolf by Night does feel like it wastes some opportunities for more interesting visuals, especially with how distinct its schtick is for the MCU. This issue is particularly present during exterior shots in the labyrinth where the monster hunt takes place. Interior scenes capture the aesthetic that Giacchino was looking to reference far more efficiently, but only half of the special is made up of those moments.
The design work in Werewolf by Night is incredibly impressive. Everything about the costuming, sets, and make-up communicates that there’s a deeper history at play here and makes us want to learn more. The special wastes little opportunities for visual worldbuilding; the trumpets spit out fire, the walls are dressed with stuffed monster heads, and even the standard weapons have their own flairs. For such a short amount of time to introduce a wholly new side of the MCU, the world already feels entirely realized and ready to be explored further at a moment’s notice.
With the special picking up on the dark magic side of the universe from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Werewolf by Night features similar grisly kills to its predecessor, but you can imagine that the lack of color and quick camera movement makes it easier to get away with. As it stands as a horror special, Werewolf by Night isn’t very frightening for fans of the genre, though the stylistic homages still prove appealing. That said, for younger viewers and those not as acquainted with horror, it acts as a unique opportunity to see something new and get some scares.
Werewolf by Night is a fun introduction to the MCU’s newest format of storytelling. Built up by likable characters, solid performances, interesting worldbuilding, and a charming gimmick that doesn’t get the time to become old, this Disney+ special presentation proves to be a great entry this Halloween season.