There was a period in the 1960s when Marvel Comics ruled the world of monsters. Series like Tales to Astonish and Journey Into Mystery introduced readers to one terrifying — and typically, giant-sized — creature after another, years before Marvel turned its full attention to superhero stories.
The ubiquitous success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days seems poised to transform Marvel’s monster era into a relic of simpler (and perhaps, weirder) times, but Disney’s Werewolf By Night suggests the studio isn’t ready to cast it aside just yet.
Directed by Oscar-winning composer and filmmaker Michael Giacchino from a script penned by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron, Werewolf By Night is a throwback to both Marvel’s past and the history of monster cinema, and offers an adventure unlike anything in the MCU so far.
Less is more
Presented as a classic, black-and-white horror film a la the Universal Pictures monster classics, Werewolf By Night casts Gael García Bernal as a monster hunter and secret werewolf Jack Russell (Marvel was never known for subtlety). After Russell is summoned to the estate of recently deceased, prolific hunter Ulysses Bloodstone, he soon finds himself pitted against a group of hunters vying for a powerful artifact from Bloodstone’s collection.
As one might expect, Werewolf By Night takes some narrative twists and turns along the way that explore the relationship between monsters and those who hunt them (particularly once Russell’s secret is revealed). And despite some modern, Marvel-esque humor peppering the film, it does an impressive job of channeling the old-school look and feel of the Universal Pictures horror classics that inspired it.
Giacchino’s evocative score and use of the black-and-white palette and lighting are put to great effect, for example, with strobe-like flashes, creative use of shadows, and powerful, orchestral blasts marking shocking moments in the story. All of these elements elevate Werewolf By Night into a cinematic symphony that pays homage to the very same films that inspired many of the creators of Marvel’s early monster stories.
While the film itself is packed with plenty of familiar pieces and echoes of the past, Werewolf By Night also breaks some new ground for Disney and the MCU.
The film is a surprisingly gory tale, with severed hands and impaled heads popping up with alarming frequency for a Disney-branded project. The film’s limited color palette serves to dull the gore a bit, but it feels like a dash of color is all Werewolf By Night might need to be regarded as the bloodiest MCU film to date — although it faces some competition there from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
More so than with Doctor Strange, however, the blood and gore of Werewolf By Night feels right in line with the overall tone of the film. It’s an old-school creature feature at heart, and the way the bloody moments are filmed (and the frequency with which they occur) feels more akin to classic cinema than over-the-top camp. In most cases, they’re moments that shouldn’t be shocking to modern movie audiences but are made so through Giacchino’s camera and score.
Whoever knows fear…
García Bernal’s talents are put to good use as Russell, the film’s titular wolfman, and he adds plenty of humor and heart to the character to accompany the horror unfolding around him. Laura Donnelly also delivers a good performance as Elsa Bloodstone, Ulysses’ estranged daughter, making her debut in the MCU.
The film surrounds Bernal’s Russell with a cast of interesting hunters to contend with, too. That group of characters — which includes Eugenie Bondurant as an intimidating hunter whose choice of an all-white, feathered uniform is brilliant in every sense of the word — collectively tease a much larger, intriguing universe of monsters and hunters that Marvel will hopefully explore further at some point.
By far the film’s most memorable supporting character, though, is lesser-known Marvel monster Man-Thing, who makes his return to live-action features after essentially serving as a supporting character in his terrible, self-titled 2005 film. The film nicely positions swamp monster Man-Thing as another Groot- or Korg-type figure — an oversized character whose intimidating exterior appearance conceals a kind, relatable personality. Introducing Man-Thing is a big swing for Marvel to take, but the studio’s record so far with these sorts of characters is a good one.
Big risk, big reward
Werewolf By Night might not fit cleanly into the mold of Marvel’s interconnected universe right now, but it’s exactly the sort of bold, unique project that pushes boundaries and nurtures the MCU’s growth and evolution. Those expecting a standard superhero story with some monster flavor aren’t going to get that in Werewolf By Night, but what they will receive is an entertaining callback to Hollywood’s horror history wrapped around some familiar Marvel touchstones.
If Disney truly wants to embrace the darker corners of its Marvel Comics universe, Werewolf By Night is a great first step in that direction. Here’s hoping the studio’s journey into mystery (or perhaps, a tale to astonish) continues, and the adventures of Marvel’s on-screen monsters become as popular as their comics counterparts.
Marvel’s Werewolf By Night premieres October 7 on the Disney+ streaming service.
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