Marvel is starting to really ramp things up in the horror department within the MCU. Werewolf by Night is their first true step into the genre after a few entries have begun to wade into these waters. Some Spoilers Ahead
This Halloween season, the MCU has dropped its first fully horror entry in the form of a “Special Presentation” on Disney+ on Friday, October 7th. Werewolf by Night is a TV movie event that is inspired by the Marvel Comic of the same name. The horror portion of Marvel Comics has always been more of an after thought in the minds of their wider audience, but when it comes to film and TV adaptations, most of the characters are household names, even if the results have varied in quality over the years. Even most casual fans and non-fans know who Blade and Ghost Rider are. And within just this year, the masses have been introduced to the scarier side of Doctor Strange, the spooky mythology of Moon Knight, Marvel Zombies in an episode of What If?, and yes… Morbius.
Now the MCU has sets its sights on expanding its use of horror with Werewolf by Night. Creating an adaption with the original Marvel werewolf Jack Russell at the center. This special event looks to draw in fans of all eras as it pays homage to decades of the horror genre. The plot is simple, an organization of monster hunters is coming together to pay their respects to their fallen leader and engage in a sacred ritual. One of them will leave with the power of the Bloodstone, making them the new leader and the most powerful hunter on Earth. However, a wolf is in their midst as Jack has infiltrated their ranks claiming to be one of them and looking to claim the Bloodstone for himself. However, even this deception has layers, and Jack’s true intentions can only be revealed once the ritual has begun. Thrown into the mix is Elsa Bloodstone, the estranged daughter of the deceased leader who looks to claim what she is owed, even if the other hunters believe her years long absence disqualifies her from any claims.
Famed film and television composer Michael Giacchino (Rogue One, The Batman) directs, and brings with him a style and list of homages that must have made this a true passion project and something he specifically wanted to make for Marvel. As with most of the MCU entries, this is not a one to one adaptation of any one “Werewolf by Night” comic, as it pulls in many details and aspects from the decades worth of comics under this title and other Marvel Comics in which the character appeared. Making this more of an homage to classic horror than simply a superhero and horror mashup story, a la Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Giacchino and crew go out of their way to really give this special its own look, its own tone, and take things in some new directions. Fans of classics like the Universal Monsters will find plenty to love here. It also dabbles in later decades of the gorier and meaner likes of the Hammer Films take on classic monsters, and even the schlock-ier, sexier B versions that permeated screens from the 1950s to the 1980s.
I was surprised by some of the gore that made it into this. In terms of horror flicks, it isn’t all that much, but it’s a big step from what we typically get under the Disney umbrella in things like this. There are quick cutaways, and the black and white picture allows for blood to fly in black sprays, but there are some moments that the camera is allowed to linger just a bit at the violence on display. There are times when the tones and styles simply don’t mesh. It isn’t often, but it does happen more than once in the 55 minute runtime. The black and white picture, cult movie filming style, hokey and earnest dialogue are all wonderful, but when it has to juggle all of that plus some of the more modern action, violence, and some of the signature MCU vibes, it simply can’t handle it all. It takes some big swings for being this deep in the MCU’s catalogue and I commend every single one, even the strikes. As a fan who has seen literally thousands of horror movies, there was so much for me to love about this. And I think it is going to draw in a lot of fellow horror nuts, and possibly be some kids’s gateway horror, which is great. It isn’t going to resonate with everyone, but what does?Continued below
Gael Garcia Bernal leads the cast as Jack. His portrayal has a quiet sadness to it balanced out by an acceptance that makes Jack both sympathetic, but also not a wholly broken character. This isn’t just a play on Lon Chaney Jr.’s beautifully tragic Wolfman, but rather Bernal brings a little bit of what we’ve seen from every successful major werewolf character. Jack isn’t new to being a werewolf and he has set up rules and a code for living as both a man and a monster. An addition to the character of Jack is Bernal’s Mexican heritage. There are some key elements brought into the role and it also allows to make for a slight blending of the two comic book werewolf counterparts: Jack Russell and Jake Gomez (the current W.B.N.). Bernal is known for his quiet, sometimes brooding, leading men roles and he brings all of that to Jack, but with just a glimmer of a seductive confidence that is rarely seen in singular werewolf roles like this. An out of the box casting decision that really pays off.
Matched up with Laura Donnelly’s Elsa, Jack has a magnetism that pulls Elsa to his side, but the charm and mutual empathy they have for each other carries a friendly and professional respect rather than a (thankfully) romantic one. While something more could evolve between these two in future MCU installments, it would have been incredibly forced in such a short time span in this movie. Donnelly plays up Elsa’s roguish personality, sternly standing up for what she believes in, but she is also a whole person. We see a sense of humor, sympathy, and true fear come out, and it all plays true even with her more brutish entry. Elsa is a character that can really swing either way in terms of good and evil. We empathize with her, but her goals could easily set her on a path to darkness.
Harriet Sansom Harris in the role of Verusa is one of the best parts of this special. Absolutely chewing her way through scenery and the other actors in a way that is not only rare for such a commercial franchise such as this, but is also rarely pulled off without making everyone in the audience groan and roll their eyes. Filling in as leader of the group as the widow of Elsa’s father, she is going full ham sandwich and it couldn’t make for a more fun villainous turn. The rest of the cast is mostly action sequence filler, cannon fodder for Russell’s wolfier self and big reveal that the MCU has now debuted SPOILERS-SPOILERS-SPOILERS the one and only Ted Sallis aka The Man-Thing. This was another huge surprise within this story. As Jack has crossed paths with Blade, Morbius, Moon Knight, Spider-Woman, and others in the comics, it was speculated that one of Marvel’s other horror characters would pop up and the inclusion of Man-Thing is a welcome one. Another tragic monster, Man-Thing is the perfect kind of creature to throw in as a bonus. Unlike DC’s similar counterpart, ol’ Teddy has hardly been able to carry his own solo stories outside of his origins and some great monster of the week issues. And his last live action outing, was an extremely low budget SyFy Channel original movie that is truly terrible outside of a pretty good looking creature working under a 2005 TV budget. Working best in a team-up role, Man-Thing is a perfect choice for this event and I hope we see him again soon.
One of the stronger, fully formed, and satisfying Phase 4 entries, Werewolf by Night is something pretty special for fans looking to get their Marvel and Halloween special fix this October. It’s a mash-up, it’s a love letter, it’s a ton of fun, and it mostly all works.