Werewolf by Night represents several firsts. It’s Marvel’s first “Special Presentation,” the title they’re giving one-off Disney+ content. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also hopping into this new format, they’ve got their Holiday Special coming out this December. As an aside, I wonder if anyone watched those Groot short films they put out this summer? It’s also Michael Giacchino’s first special, as he works his way through every possible format until he gets his first feature film. Before this, Giacchino made a short film called Monster Challenge in 2018 and also directed an episode of Star Trek: Short Treks, the short-form anthology show that definitely would have been called “webisodes” if it came out 10 years earlier. We’re living in a brave new world.
Set on Halloween 2024, Werewolf by Night stars Gael García Bernal, which means both of the boys from Y tu mamá también have a big franchise thing on Disney+ this month, with Diego Luna kicking as over in a galaxy far, far away. Bernal plays Jack Russell, one of five monster hunters who have been invited to Bloodstone Manor to compete in a hunt to win the powerful Bloodstone, an artifact that needs a new wielder following the death of Ulysses Bloodstone. Yes, you will hear the word “Bloodstone” said more times than you thought possible in 53 minutes. Case in point: one of the other hunters Russell is competing against is Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), Ulysses’ estranged daughter who nonetheless feels entitled to her former birthright. The remaining competitors are the massive Jovan (Kirk Thatcher, another Star Trek alum, he was “punk on a bus” in The Voyage Home), the Bowie-esque Azarel (Eugenie Bondurant), and the confident Barasso (Daniel J. Watts).
After some mingling in the manor, the hunters are introduced to Bloodstone’s widow, Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris, of Frasier fame), who is eager to enjoy this sacred ceremony. Ulysses himself is also present in a way, having turned his corpse into an animatronic exposition machine. It tells the hunters that they’ll all be hunting a monster that’s been captured and implanted with the Bloodstone, increasing its power and its rage. The hunters and the monster will be released onto a part of the grounds that’s been set up with traps and weapons and whoever slays the beast keeps the prize. The stakes made crystal clear, Verussa hurries to get things started. Soon enough, Russel is being escorted into the labyrinth alongside a flaming tuba player played by real-life flaming tuba player and The Simpsons legend, David Silverman. Does Russel have what it takes to come out on top? Just how many secrets are everyone hiding? And hey, isn’t this supposed to be about werewolves?
While it’s probably wise to never credit to artistic vision that which could be explained as budgetary restrictions, in this case I’ll take a leap and say that Werewolf by Night is part of a recent trend in franchise filmmaking to give a damn about production values. Like The Eternals, The Rings of Power, and Andor, it feels like an effort was made to shoot on sets and with props and to do as much practically as possible, as opposed living in a world of green screens and ping pong balls (see: Love and Thunder). Nowhere is that more evident than the titular werewolf, which is accomplished by prosthetics and makeup alone and even transforms using in-camera techniques instead of CGI. Couple this commitment to tangibility with the stylish black-and-white presentation and you get a movie that feels like a tasteful homage to its forebears as opposed to, I don’t know, Morbius.
There was a time when I would have worried about the insistence that Werewolf by Night is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I would have worried about how these characters fit in with the greater MCU and the repercussions of canonizing effectively Universal Classic Monsters. But Phase Four of the MCU has been so scattershot already and with multiverses I don’t really care anymore. Endgame was the end of the MCU that I loved and now they’re doing another thing. That other thing now involves a werewolf that flips around like it’s in The Matrix, so that’s cool.