One of Marvel Studios’ longest-kept “secrets” turns out to be perhaps one of the most triumphant projects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four, if not the MCU as a whole. Formally announced only last month, Werewolf By Night is Marvel Studios’ first foray into the “Special Presentation” format (in this case, a one-off feature less than an hour long) and without a doubt, this project is, indeed, enormously special. Werewolf By Night shines for several reasons, but its brilliance as a standalone story is the most obvious.
The first thing the viewer notices about Werewolf By Night is its aesthetic. Through its limited marketing, it is known that the feature was inspired by classic horror films of the 1930s and 40s. While the concept elicits immediate excitement from some, it of course risks overwhelming a story with a gimmick. Fortunately, the stylistic choices of this project were almost entirely in service of the story itself, and director Michael Giacchino achieves a near-perfect cocktail of stunning imagery, blocking, and overall texture. The use of black-and-white is an easy grab for an older or spookier look, but it was far more productive in Werewolf By Night than in most modern films that use the technique. The unique and rather all-consuming style certainly takes the viewer to a place easily associated with horror and monster stores, but it also removes one from the known Marvel universe. Consequently, the natural expectations the audience might place on the feature are almost reset, allowing a completely fresh experience.
The greatest achievement of Werewolf By Night is surely its excellence as its own story, disconnected from anything else. Whether in the comic book genre or elsewhere, there is something extremely refreshing about a short story that is able to be thoroughly enjoyed and leave a memorable impact on the viewer. Despite a limited runtime and plenty of moving parts, the feature does a phenomenal job telling a full story without invoking virtually any backstory. The triumph of Werewolf By Night is captured in the feeling of simplicity and ease it executes despite clearly arising from a relatively complex technical foundation. At the end of the day, the project is a wonderful standalone think piece that invokes plenty of metaphors and themes regarding what makes a monster.
However, given its inclusion in the MCU, there is little question that Werewolf By Night will ultimately be part of a larger narrative. Lucky for Marvel Studios, the feature doubles as an exciting introduction to a future Monsterverse considering it leaves the audiences with a litany of questions about the story’s and characters’ past and futures. If anything, Werewolf By Night could have benefitted from additional runtime purely due to the fact that there is enough action and intrigue to go around. An expanded rendition of the hunt itself would almost certainly be a riot, as a prolonged bottle-episode-type suspenseful action thriller would without a doubt rival the famous Daredevil hallway fight scene.
In fact, a certain sequence in Werewolf By Night already does. The amount of violence in the feature has been a key talking point ahead of its release. The project features, objectively, some of the most violent, brutal, and gory scenes in the MCU. Where those are utilized are done so in a way that serves the story—Werewolf By Night is not filled to the brim with blood and violence, but it stands out when on display in the best way. Similarly, the feature gives off plenty of notes of horror, but it is not an overwhelmingly “scary” or frightening piece. It is, however, extremely tense, suspenseful, and even uncomfortable at times like any good horror film.
Werewolf By Night further benefitted from its cast and character ensemble. Laura Donnelly as Elsa Bloodstone is, perhaps, the surprise standout of the feature. Not the title character and not given much fanfare, Donnelly’s portrayal comes off as effortless and she easily carries scenes in a way that cements Elsa as much more than she appears. Two rather different storylines crisscross throughout the special, and Elsa is the rock that holds them together. Gael García Bernal certainly hits the sweet spot as the mild-mannered and warm Jack Russell. The heart of the project resides in him, even if he were not (ultimately) the title character. Viewers should not worry about a “nice” Jack, as Bernal can flip the switch into the titular werewolf without a problem.
The rest of the cast is stellar, and the character designs are so spectacular as to stand out in a generally visually-stunning project. Harriet Sansom Harris supplies the particular brand of sinister that Werewolf By Night needs to achieve its delicious end result. The monster at the heart of it all will surely go on to be a new fan-favorite creature of the MCU, but the special does not forget that he is, indeed, a monster.
If Marvel Studios intended for Werewolf By Night to be a surprise, it is perhaps the best surprise a viewer could hope for. The special is incredibly unique on virtually all levels, and its short story format is one of the most fulfilling MCU experiences in years. Not all Marvel projects can benefit from, or achieve, the type of creative leap required to produce this feature. This special demonstrates that Marvel Studios should continue investing in “Special Presentations,” but Werewolf By Night is special enough on its own to be a one-and-done.