Werewolf By Night

3 out of 5

Directed by: Michael Giacchino

As of 2022, its been nearly 15 years of MCU films, coming out at a steady-ish clip. The last few years have seen a heavy (and more official, versus the Netflix / Hulu editions) infiltration into television via Disney+, covering even more media space. Plenty has been said and written about superhero fatigue, going back pretty far, relatively, in this lil’ history, and we’ve also seen plenty of change during this time – expanding focus; formalization of a Marvel “style.” And now we’re somewhere I honestly would not have guessed: seeing some of the most exciting and experimental offerings yet.

Sure, when a series / franchise gets long in the tooth, maybe some risks are taken, but that’s often in a “so-and-so in space” method – you’re so far past the point it doesn’t exactly matter anymore. Otherwise, when something’s working, why change it? And honestly, the first few entries of TV and “Phase 4” promised exactly that approach: it was all cookie cutter.

But we’re getting into an interesting place, now, where it seems like Marvel / Disney have racked up enough clout to try some new things while they’re still growing, reminding somewhat of the funkier Phase 2 stuff, but with more confidence and trust behind it. Otherwise – why hand over a comparatively violent, really-not-tied-to-the-majority-of-the-MCU, Halloween special over to an untested director? And sure, maybe the reason is stated there – Werewolf by Night is off-brand by design, so it doesn’t have to abide by the house style – but Disney+ promoted it on their homepage, and Halloween is prime time for stuff like this – I’d consider this a front-and-center pitch.

The story is a mish-mash of some lesser-known Marvel stuff: the monster-hunting Bloodstone line; probably the titular werewolf. Daddy Bloodstone has died, leaving the gift of his super-powered stone – yes, his last name is Bloodstone and he has a super-powered, er, bloodstone, deal with it (yadda yadda it’s better explained in the comics) – to the person who can capture a beast in a special competition. So several gather – all unnamed, save Jack (Gael García Bernal) and estranged Bloodstone daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly) – for said competition, which is no holds barred. Thus: not everyone makes it out alive.

Jack has his own reasons for being there – in a super-fun swerve in the story – and Elsa just wants to get the stone to stick it to her family, and not, necessarily, for its power. But they’re both still in the mix of these warriors, and we get to watch them all duke it out amusingly for about forty minutes.

Michael Giacchino, stepping over from composing to direct – though he handles the score here as well – goes with a black and white palette (just some red pop for the stone), milking a classic monster movie vibe which works its way into a lot of the production as well, with some fantastic lighting throughout. And while the action is definitely more for a modern audience, it’s to Giacchino’s / the team’s credit that they don’t push too much of the Marvel style and instead let the special find its own pace, with steady / wide shots that serve the atmosphere well. And the violence…! I mean, it’s standard fare for regular TV, but definitely surprising for Disney / MCU; it does the trick of upping the ante, though – people are not dying off screen – while maintaining the classic horror vibe by injecting a bit of EC camp into things.

Now, something else about experimentation: it can be rewarding, without being perfect. Even at about an hour, this runs a bit thin on plot, in part because of how much they’re purposefully holding back: because the goal wasn’t to tie this in to every other series, no one is really here to have a character arc, and the whole Bloodstone monster hunting concept could obviously support a longer series, but in this form, it’s just zoomed past as a reason to get everyone in the room. Similarly, while it’s nice to not have our hands held from scene to scene, the special definitely needed some breathing room to transition between its setups; the whole thing comes and goes while you’re blinking.

Moreover, though I’ve praised the visuals… I’d say the overall style wasn’t enough. If there is compromise, it’s in that regard: the sets and title cards look classic, everything else looks pretty modern. It would’ve been interesting if they’d pushed the aesthetic further – and interestingly, I think that would’ve helped to distract from the thin story as well.

But all of this doesn’t take away from a core, important thing: that Werewolf By Night is tons of fun. It’s got a great tone, and it’s fun to look at! Bernal’s engaging as heck, and the more mature sensibilities allowed in a sense of danger that’s very new to the MCU. While it doesn’t really break any new ground in media – maybe we’re grading on a sliding Disney+ scale – it’s equivalent to a great episode of Tales From the Crypt, enlivened by the in-universe vibe of the MCU, where even though it doesn’t directly connect to, say, Thor, there’s the promise of things being part of a bigger world that gives it a bit of swagger.

I’d take countless more average oddballs like this special than bigger budgeted, prestige cookie-cutter flicks. Bring ’em on.