We’ve talked at length about how Phase 4 is the most controversial of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while I’ve been perfectly satisfied with it, not everything has worked for everyone, even many of the entries I’ll proudly defend. But for the most part, if there’s one thing you simply cannot deny about this phase, it’s how ambitious it’s been; both in the risks Marvel Studios has taken, and the creative liberties it has given its directors. Case in point, the latest risk the studio has to offer, the terrific Werewolf by Night!
Now whether you’re a hardcore Marvel Comics fan, and are familiar with the adventures of Jack Russell (Fun Fact: Werewolf by Night #32 was where Moon Knight made his first appearance) or not, you’ll instantly sink your fangs into this compelling, well-made Halloween special. It’s fun, freaky, and full of terrific surprises. And you’ll be howling for more appearances from the three main characters involved by the end of it (Forgive all the wolf puns — I couldn’t resist).
The special starts out with a simple premise. A group of monster hunters are gathered together by the death of Ulysses Bloodstone, one of the most famous, most lethal adventurers among them. In attendance are Ulysses’ daughter, Elsa Bloodstone (the amazing Laura Donnelly), and a stranger named Jack (the charming Gael Garcia Bernal), with over 100+ kills to his name. Though there to mourn, they come to realize that they’ve been summoned to determine who will inherit a rare and powerful antiquity Ulysses once possessed, and are pushed into a dangerous game of survival and brutality to claim the prize.
Saying any more would absolutely ruin the fun and surprises for you. But suffice it to say if you’re a fan of the supernatural, horror side of Marvel Comics, you will jump for joy at seeing some of your favorite characters and elements come to life. Werewolf by Night is an absolute joy! Such that the biggest disappointment regarding the show is that it’s only a one-off. This is a special that’s one-part Buffy, one-part Hulk, one-part Universal Monsters, and all parts awesomeness. It’s fun; it’s thrilling; it’s bloody; it’s super nerdy. And all of that stems from the confident enthusiasm of first-time filmmaker Michael Giacchino.
For those of you who follow film, you’re likely a fan of Giacchino’s terrific work as a composer. I know he’s frankly my favorite, giving us amazing scores for The Batman, Up, Star Trek, The Incredibles, the Tom Holland Spider-Man trilogy, and so much more. But I’m now a fan of him as a filmmaker, because he just goes for it here!
Werewolf by Night has such passion and style emulating the work of classic Universal Monster movies, but never once feels cheesy. There’s a conviction and full belief, and complete understanding about what this project is and what it tonally should be, and that’s because of Giacchino’s confidence. His shots are visually beautiful. His action is clear. The performances are terrific. The pacing is quick but never rushed. And nothing about this ever feels silly, wasteful, or lame. You hit the ground running and are instantly on the same page. And that takes real skill for a filmmaker/director to do this with their audience. Which is why it’s so surprising that this is only Giacchino’s first time behind the camera. To paraphrase a line from a film that Giacchino scored himself, not everyone can become a great director; but a great director can come from anywhere. And that has never been more applicable than the case of composer-turned-director Michael Giacchino.
As a filmmaker, he was also lucky enough to work with such terrific leads. For fans of The Nevers, Donnelly’s skills as an actress have never been a secret. On that show, she’s had to display so much versatility playing a version within a version within a version of a single character, in a multi-layered and multi-dimensional performance few have seen (or appreciated). So watching her deliver a badass, likable, roguish performance for a hero like Elsa Bloodstone comes as no surprise.
However for the uninitiated, get ready to completely become enamored with her skills as an actor, on both a physical action level, and a complex, subtle performance layer. Donnelly’s Elsa is a credit to who the character is in the comics, and she gives, perhaps, the perfect, definitive interpretation of this character on screen. I don’t want anyone else to play Elsa Bloodstone. Her Elsa is complex, resourceful, tough, funny, and compassionate. And instantly you’re rooting for her to win. Essentially, she’s the closest any character on screen has come to Buffy Summers in quite a long time.
Opposite Donnelly is the namesake of the series, and again, much like his counterpart, the definitive interpretation of Jack Russell: Bernal. His performance as Jack contains elements of unassuming, mild mannered charm that is comparable to what Mark Ruffalo has brought to The Hulk. However, the contrast between the two personas is arguably a lot more intense. Bernal’s Russell is a lot kinder, and gentler, with a quiet charisma that makes him instantly likable. But when he transforms, it’s brutal, relentless, savage, and scary. Part of that is how Giacchino stages the shots and action for the eponymous werewolf. But the other is the intensity and conflicted bloodthirst Bernal is infusing into the performance under some terrific prosthetics.
On a visual and technical level, I’ve alluded to how good the action is. But also the set-design and visual effects are also terrific; especially for a 50-minute one-shot. There are specific creature designs on a fan favorite comic character that are absolutely wonderful (I don’t want to spoil who it is). The effects bring to life the character and give a soul to it with excellent work with the creature’s eyes and character animation. It’s truly a joy to watch him come to life, and I predict he’ll become a fan-favorite on the same level as Groot.
But even outside of character looks, the set design and art direction is terrific. Giacchino delivers settings with so much character and personality, from mazes, to crypts, to mansion common rooms. The props, from creature heads to, books, gems, crypts, bones, etc. are macabre and terrific. And from an action standpoint, we get some of the bloodiest and most brutal kills we’ve ever seen in the MCU. Which is amazing to think about the top brass at Marvel Studios giving Giacchino the greenlight to go as brutal as he has, but I trust it helps for the project to be in black and white (a very nice touch).
The only thing that’s a little bit of a downside, ironically enough, is that the score isn’t as memorable as a typical “Giacchino” score should be. And no one can fault him for that, since he’s pulling triple or quadruple duty here. It would be great for future projects to have an iconic theme for this character, akin to what we have with Hesham Nazih’s work with Moon Knight. But my hope is that there’s still time for that in the future.
Also, fair warning, there was no post-credits sequence on the cut I viewed. Nor is there a “Jack Russell will return” or “Elsa Bloodstone will return” message in the show. Which is a disappointment since, unlike an MCU TV Series, there’s only one episode of this, and no guarantee there will be more appearances from these characters. I hope they change this when this officially hits Disney+, because the promise of seeing these characters again after such a terrific 50-minute debut would bring so much joy to my heart, it’s not even funny!
Here’s hoping Werewolf by Night will eventually return (and maybe meet Marc Spector someday too)! Hey, a fan can dream!
Overall Score: A
Werewolf by Night hits Disney+ this Friday, October 7.