Werewolf By Night Review: A Major Turning Point for Marvel’s Disney+ Formula
Werewolf By Night confirms that when it comes to Marvel's live-action Disney+ projects, less is more.
This review contains Werewolf By Night spoilers
After no less than 15 Phase Four MCU projects, Marvel’s Werewolf By Night has arrived on Disney+ as a one-off curiosity, and the “special presentation”, directed by acclaimed composer Michael Giacchino, is refreshingly free from many of the pressures associated with Marvel’s other live-action TV endeavors.
There’s been no mandate to stretch this tale out over six-to-nine episodes. There’s little in the way of reliance on CG or green screen effects. Nor is there any urge to connect the plot to upcoming MCU stories. It simply is. That feels like a smart choice for this entry into the cinematic universe, which has been struggling to find its feet since wrapping The Infinity Saga in 2019.
The action centers on Gael García Bernal’s Jack Russell – bless them for unashamedly sticking with the original name – a sweet-natured lycanthrope in control of his inner monster, and the mysterious Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), a character who is often unfairly referred to as Marvel Comics’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer ripoff. The duo have to fight alongside each other one dark and ominous night when Elsa’s father Ulysses, the head of a monster-hunting cabal, passes away, and a competition to vie for his mystical Bloodstone gem ensues. To obtain this powerful and prized possession, one of them must slay Man-Thing, who has been captured in an adjacent labyrinth. Jack is there to sabotage the situation and rescue Man-Thing aka his mate Ted, but Elsa is there to grab the gem for herself. Pissing off everyone who was glad to see the back of her after she cut ties with Ulysses long ago is just a bonus.
Werewolf By Night pulls back on its characters’ history enough to leave you wanting more. For sure, there’s exposition here, but it’s tantalizing. An illustrated introduction is charmingly narrated by notable Marvel animation voice actor Rick Wasserman, informing us that the main MCU is blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the shadows, as a cheeky Gorr the God Butcher nod hints at the timeline. We don’t need flashbacks to show us that Ulysses Bloodstone was an unbearable prick and a shitty dad, it’s written all over Donnelly’s face. Jack doesn’t need to tell us about the one time he was able to remember a friend when he was in werewolf form, we get to imagine those circumstances for ourselves when heartbreak briefly flashes in Bernal’s eyes. The pair are perfectly cast in the roles, with Bernal embracing the silliness of it all while Donnelly exudes the emotional scars that decades of abuse and neglect have inflicted.
The spooky season project is a deft love letter to old monster movies, playing with the aesthetic of the classic Universal and Hammer output, and even adding cue marks to the top right corner of the screen. It makes for a woozy experience, with some of the black and white edges bleeding off in a nightmarish but pleasing way. A traditional set and practical effects add to the relatively lo-fi nature of the special (at least by Marvel standards), and the camera lingers on Werewolf By Night’s bloodshed longer than you’d expect, giving the brawls a real “oof” factor you don’t get with Marvel’s more sanitized fight sequences. It’s hard not to imagine a version of Moon Knight that leaned into this vibe. Moreover, Werewolf By Night constructs a more competent introduction to the supernatural horror side of the comics in 50-odd minutes than the Oscar Isaac-starring series managed in six expensive episodes.
It’s the tight, standalone nature of Werewolf By Night that really hits different. Perhaps we will see these characters again in the MCU, but this special puts no emphasis on the need for it. Questions that arose before it began streaming, like “does this take place in the multiverse?”, “is this setting up Moon Knight Season 2?”, or “will Elsa go on to bust Black Knight’s balls in the Blade reboot?” seem beside the point. As they should be! It’s fun to have spent time in this world, but part of Phase Four’s problem has been an often-misplaced fixation on “what’s next?” and less focus on delivering a viewing experience that stays with you. Werewolf By Night, with its themes of alienation and reckoning with the legacy of an abusive family dynamic, will stay with me.
Many of Marvel’s Disney+ efforts to date (and their Phase Four movies to be fair) have received a mixed reception from fans, but one reoccurring complaint on the TV side is that the stories are either given too much room to breathe, or not enough. Werewolf By Night slides into the Goldilocks zone, delivering exactly the right amount. Let’s see more of this purposeful storytelling in Phase Five, please.