Phase 4 has been a period of transition for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man is dead, the Avengers are in stasis, and new Disney Plus shows are launching as fast as we can watch them. As such, this might be the perfect time for Werewolf by Night.
Some of these Phase 4 experiments have been more successful than others. Tom Hiddleston hardly broke a sweat carrying an entire season of Loki. Meanwhile, even Oscar Isaac couldn’t save Moon Knight. Not every character needs a feature-length film or a lengthy series, which is why I was so intrigued to see Marvel’s first one-off holiday special, which is something Marvel may do more of in the future.
Werewolf by Night is unlike anything else in the MCU, and that might be why it works.
Werewolf by Night spoiler-free review
Following the death of their leader, Ulysses Bloodstone, a group of monster hunters gathers for a contest to decide who will now take his place and wield the powerful relic known as the Bloodstone. The “Special Presentation,” as Marvel calls it, draws inspiration from the horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, especially in its black-and-white aesthetic.
As the hunt begins, Verusa Bloodstone (Harriet Sansom Harris), widow of Ulysses and host of the event, becomes enraged when Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), daughter of Ulysses, shows up to throw her hat into the ring. Despite being estranged from her father for years, Elsa still wants a chance to win back the family heirloom for herself.
In order to do so, she will have to best some of the world’s greatest monster hunters. That includes the mysterious Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), who seems not to be on the same wavelength as his fellow hunters despite his unprecedented accomplishments.
What follows is Marvel’s first “mood piece,” as Werewolf by Night is much more interested in paying homage to horror classics and establishing a tone than weaving a complex narrative. Director Michael Giacchino is a composer first and foremost, having scored the likes of Lost, Up, Rogue One, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Thor: Love and Thunder.
Giacchino has directed two short films, but this was his first major directorial role. The stakes weren’t especially high, as Werewolf by Night isn’t about to be the next Steve Rogers, but the special stands on its own. Giacchino manages to mash up the look and feel of a ’30s monster movie with a modern blockbuster without sacrificing the strengths of either.
The real strength of the special is its leads. Bernal brings a refreshingly calm, gentle energy to a universe filled with over-the-top heroes and villains. His sensitivity clashes perfectly with the cartoonish aggressiveness of the other hunters. Donnelly plays off of him well, and steals the scene more than once. By the time the special ended, I was trying to figure out where I’d like to see these characters in upcoming MCU adventures.
Whether or not Werewolf by Night sets up more stories for any of its characters, it is a stellar proof of concept for future not-quite-feature-length specials. Not every story needs a full six episodes or a theatrical release. Marvel should continue to give writers, directors, and actors the opportunity to experiment with lesser-known characters in this format. No one overstays their welcome, and they leave us wanting more.