Many Marvel Studios productions claim they’re going to be something different, but much like Pixar, they largely share the same unifying tone and house style. Usually, that’s because whatever the story being told, it always has an essential tie-in to the larger universe. Werewolf by Night, for the moment, does not, which allows it to serve as a tribute to the kinds of monster movies Kevin Feige might have come across as a kid on late-night TV. Yet its relative lack of characterization suggests that Marvel Studios may have forgotten how to do something fully self-contained, as the main protagonists cry out for more.
The black and white production design and aesthetic successfully captures a Universal monsters retro vibe, although the camera movements and CG enhancements give the game away. Digital blood splatter in particular remains noticeable in monochrome, and one particular familiar character has the telltale lightness of a digital effect rather than the full heft of a man in suit. Not that Werewolf by Night is trying to fool anyone — the bright red aura of the special’s MacGuffin, the Bloodgem, gives the game away. But it’s weird to do a homage that doesn’t go 100%. A couple of scenes shot in what looks like color film convincingly resembles a ’70s TV movie, CG and all.
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The plot keeps it simple. Wealthy monster-hunting patriarch Ulysses Bloodstone recently died, and in order to claim his Bloodgem and be considered his true heir, a hunter must slay the monster kept within an outdoor labyrinth, and grab the jewel attached to its hide. Naturally, the various contenders may increase their odds by killing each other if they wish. Though several potential hunters vie for the title, the only two who seem to have any real shot are the unusually calm Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Bloodstone’s bitter, estranged daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly), who has been away and training hard for this day.
The trailer already gave away most of the surprises, so there’s no need to reiterate them here. Obviously there is a werewolf, and its makeup goes the classic route, with woolly costume and false fangs rather than digital enhancement. It’s not necessarily terrifying to look at, but frightening because of its actions. Modern technology visuals give the creature extra jumping power, and the ability to induce swift, gory dismemberments. There’s also Marvel’s Man-Thing, who does everything a fan would expect in his brief screen time, and he is easily the highlight.
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As a tribute to fright flicks of yore, Werewolf by Night feels like effective cosplay. As an actual story, it’s not so strong. We barely learn anything about Elsa, who deserves better as Marvel’s version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bernal plays Russell against type with more layers than the script seems to offer. But he doesn’t get much else to work with besides atmosphere.
This probably sounds like an ironic complaint, given that the MCU’s usual problem is fueling endless spinoffs with cliffhangers. But if Werewolf by Night really was meant to be a stand-alone, writers Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron shouldn’t have scripted Elsa and Jack as if they’re enigmas to be unwrapped in future episodes. It’s pretty clear Marvel wants to use both again should this become a hit.
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In ways that the MCU likely didn’t intend, then, Werewolf by Night is ironically its own dual-nature monster. On the surface it seems to be an amiable individual to meet once, but when the franchise spirits rise, it becomes a new kind of insatiable creature, stealthily setting up more stories that never end.
That’s not necessarily a major slam, but like the werewolf in question, it might do better to pick a lane. Wolf down every possible spinoff lead, or man up and seriously do a one-off story that ends? Time will tell.
Aesthetically, Werewolf by Night is a winner. But Marvel usually remembers that it takes more than that.
Werewolf by Night debuts Friday, October 7 on Disney+
Recommended Reading: Werewolf by Night: New Wolf Rising
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