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Marvel's Werewolf by Night Bodes Well for the Future of the Studio's New Experimental Format

Led by Gael García Bernal, the special deftly riffs on the tried-and-tired superhero formula
  • Gael García Bernal (Screenshot: Marvel Studios/Disney+)
    Gael García Bernal (Screenshot: Marvel Studios/Disney+)

    At first blush, Werewolf by Night sounds like another perfunctory Marvel Studios outing. There's a misunderstood hero who shares a fraught but ultimately amicable working relationship with his co-star. A shiny object of power gets the story cooking, wielded by a hammy villain who commands a generic army. Been there, Age of Ultron-ed that. But Werewolf by Night comes packing a gimmick, and woof — it sure has teeth.

    Presented in black and white with a healthy dose of rent limbs and shiny arcs of arterial spray, Marvel's Werewolf by Night is a surprisingly rowdy tribute to the shadows and frights of Universal Pictures' monster movies. It's also the first in a new standalone format for Disney+ called the "Marvel Studios Special Presentation," which, as far as titles go, is a mouthful. But damn if it doesn't free the most ubiquitous studio in the land to apply a bit of jazzy improvisation to its tried-and-tired superhero formula. As first impressions go, it's a spritely brew of untapped potential. 

    There is, however, that pesky Marvel formula to consider. Directed by Michael Giacchino and written by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron, Werewolf introduces audiences to a family of monster hunters who possess a glowing-red heirloom called the Bloodstone. (It's described as a "weapon unlike any other," though it glows like an Infinity Stone and does vague Scarlet Witch magicks.) Following the death of the family's patriarch, a ceremonial hunting contest takes place on the eve of his funeral, with this mysterious thingamajig serving as the top prize. It's a compelling premise, befitting those found in dusty issues of Tomb of Dracula or Crypt of Shadows

    As a standalone story, it isn't necessary for Werewolf by Night to pay lip service to canon (after all, not all Marvel installments have to feel like homework). Yet it goes out of its way to state that monsters have always existed in this universe: amongst its "heroes and marvels," the narration tells us, lurks monsters. Fine. Then, it continues: "In our modern world, [darkness] is where monsters dwell, alongside those who hunt and slaughter them with pride." While tossing dopey exposition at the viewer (not to mention a tasty Easter egg), the opening comes packing gorgeously horrific imagery and eldritch foreboding, a moody improvement over typical Marvel fare.

    As for that hunting ceremony, it attracts fellow hunters Jovan (Kirk Thatcher), Azrael (Eugenie Bondurant), Liorn (Leonardo Nam), and the prodigal Bloodstone Elsa (Laura Donnelly), all ready to slaughter a monster in a bid to claim the artifact as their own. Among their ranks is a mysterious (and quite dapper) fellow named Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), motivated by different desires altogether. 

    Despite his impressive kill count (100 monsters and counting), Jack doesn't pop in competing for the Bloodstone; he's there to rescue the target of this ghastly competition, his big green pal Ted Sallis. ("Man-Thing" to those in the know.) "You can't keep counting on me to save you," Jack tells his lumbering pal. "This is the last time." Don't believe him: Jack has a soft spot for the beleaguered, moss-ridden monstrosity for reasons that become clear by the middle of the special. As for Elsa, she wants to wrest control of the Bloodstone from her domineering stepmother Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris). So, as is the custom in the Marvel universe, Jack and Elsa team up.

    Bernal gives a powerful yet nimble performance, flexing pathos during a quiet moment with Donnelly, where he describes the influence and legacy of family as "an atmosphere," and there's a lovely comedic moment where Jack struggles with a malfunctioning grenade. And when Jack is thrown back by the Bloodstone's touch, revealing him as a monster, Bernal goes into beast mode with startling effectiveness, all spit and snarl. He's a frightfully compelling Marvel lead, the kind that has every reason to thrive in one-and-done specials like this. 

    As for aesthetics, the look of Werewolf by Night certainly promises all sorts of creative potential for this new format. Marvel's glaring digital sheen and the startling flatness of its in-camera compositions are mitigated quite well with its black-and-white presentation — which is also a neat way to evade a TV-MA rating, considering the special's surprising amount of mayhem and splatter. (The Crazy 88s sequence from Kill Bill served a similar function.) Giacchino shot the special in color but convinced top Marvel brass to transition it to monochrome, a creative decision that ultimately emphasizes the filmmaker's '70s horror comic and '40s monster movie ambitions for the project. The inevitable werewolf transformation sequence, which Donnelly sells with visceral aplomb, benefits from this. 

    Watching Werewolf by Night effectively juggle superheroics with shocks and thrills, it's difficult not to imagine what other fascinating stories, or genre fusions, could come from this new format. Right now, the only announced project that falls under this banner is The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, set to drop in December 2022 and bridge events between Guardians Vol. 2 and 2023's Vol. 3. A rude James Gunn Christmas special feels right for the Marvel Studios Special Presentation, but as Werewolf by Night so stridently proves with its overall quality, it doesn't have to navigate familiar (and well-trod) MCU pathways to be successful. (Let's see a spacefaring Howard the Duck one-shot one day, please and thank you.) 
     
    With opening fanfare that resembles the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard and looks like a cheeky nod to a similar HBO opener, the Marvel Studios Special Presentation currently stands apart from the rest of Marvel's Phase Four and the MCU overall. And thank Hela for that — characters like Man-Thing and Jack Russell might scrape more abrasively in an Avengers movie or come across as ridiculous if they appeared in an episode of She-Hulk. In the confines of its own ferocious one-and-done special, Werewolf by Night becomes a monstrously good time. The trick going forward will be to find new, creative ways to make the Marvel Studios Special Presentation feel precisely that: special.  

    Werewolf by Night is now streaming on Disney+.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: Werewolf by Night, Disney+, Untitled Gael Garcia Bernal Project, Harriet Sansom Harris, Laura Donnelly, Marvel, Marvel Cinematic Universe