Review: 'Werewolf by Night’ Is One of the Strongest Entries of Marvel’s Phase 4
Werewolf by Night is something unique for Marvel Studios. Not only is it their first proper foray into old school horror after they dabbled with it in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but it’s also their first attempt at one-off TV specials. No series, just 50 minutes of television on Disney Plus. It also happens to be one of the best things they’ve done in all of Phase 4.
Werewolf by Night stands apart from the rest of the MCU. Aside from one reference to the Avengers in the opening shot, the rest of it remains entirely unconnected to the rest of the cinematic universe, standing as its own story told within its own isolated pocket of the universe we know and love. As is usually the case with these stories, that is to its benefit.
The music is incredible, as you would expect from established-composer-turned-director Michael Giacchino. The special’s overture sounds like a classic horror story from decades ago, and the score perfectly complements each scene, be that when building slow tension or during a chaotic action scene.
While Werewolf by Night is a horror story through and through, I wouldn’t say it’s actually that scary. There are certainly some unsettling performances — Harriet Sansom Harris delivers a barnstorming outing as the widow Verussa, both self-righteous and demonic in equal measure — but I was never actually frightened during its runtime. Children will almost certainly be scared by the monsters on show and its harrowing tone, but there’s not really enough here to terrify adults. The black-and-white colour tone both amplifies the atmosphere and mutes the fear factor of all the gore and monsters.
Some viewers might be surprised to learn that Werewolf by Night does not actually lead with the werewolf in question. When the special begins, there is no mention of a werewolf, only some other monster that must be hunted. With the famed monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone deceased, a collection of accomplished monster hunters has gathered to conduct a ritual to decide who will be the next person to inherit the Bloodstone, an ancient gemstone capable of supernatural powers that hurt monsters and empower its holder (though in the comics, it is capable of more).
One of our protagonists, Jack Russell, arrives with an agenda of his own. Though he’s unknown to the rest of the hunters, the widow Verussa seems to be aware of his exploits, revealing he is responsible for “100 deaths” of monsters. Our other protagonist is Elsa Bloodstone, daughter of Ulysses. She left her father when she was younger; it seems Ulysses was not a good parent and was rather unforgiving when training her in the way of monster hunting. Elsa has turned up not to honour her father, but to make sure the Bloodstone doesn’t fall into the wrong hands by winning it through this ritual.
Laura Donnelly delivers a great performance as Elsa Bloodstone. Early on after a conversation with Verussa, she lets her mask slip for a moment so we can see that coming to her father’s funeral is actually a complicated emotional situation for her, struggling to keep her tears at bay. She then provides a reliable source of levity amongst all the melodrama, frequently rolling her eyes and providing sarcastic barbs when confronted with the traditions of her father’s monster hunting order. I can’t wait to see her in more MCU projects going forward.
Eagle-eyed viewers may have already identified the monster in the trailers, which definitely does justice to its look from the comics. Kevin Feige still knows what he’s doing when it comes to bringing these characters to life. The monster hunt itself is quiet and tense, until it is inevitably punctuated with thrilling action sequences. Some are flashier than others, but director Michael Giacchino is excellent at raising the tension and erupting in a thrilling climax, with the frequent jump scares that we expect in horror stories.
It’s not until the werewolf itself is introduced that the story really descends into chaos, with every surviving hunter fighting for their life, including Elsa. The fight scenes are visceral and unusually bloody for the MCU, a satisfying crescendo to the early tension. The story comes to a very rewarding conclusion after an entertaining 50 minutes. While it didn’t scare me, I very much enjoyed this story with no real complaints. It definitely makes for one of the highlights of Marvel’s Phase 4.
It seems Giacchino’s main goal was to ask who the “real” monsters are; the monsters themselves, or the ones hunting them? They definitely look fearsome and evil, but we don’t know anything else about them or any of the perceived horrors they might have committed. The monsters never attack on sight. They only ever do so when provoked or to save another’s life. By contrast, the monster hunters seem self-righteous and appear to enjoy their job too much, killing monsters simply because they look like monsters.
While monster hunting seems a noble pursuit — and there must be some dangerous monsters out there in the MCU that need killing — these hunters and their order don’t seem to care if these creatures have done anything to justify killing them. Man-Thing and Jack Russell seem peaceful beings unlikely to hurt anyone, but because they look terrifying and otherworldly (once the latter has transformed of course), they are deemed deserving of death. Verussa preaches about killing these monsters so they don’t hurt anyone else, but the look in her eyes once she discovers that Jack Russell is a werewolf betrays a bloodlust that won’t be sated until he is executed — her behaviour exposes her true intentions.
So, the big twist in Werewolf by Night is the MCU debut of Man-Thing! I wasn’t sure when we would get a creature as niche as Man-Thing in the MCU, so I really appreciate his inclusion as one of the more monstrous figures in Marvel’s library of characters. His menacing appearance is teased expertly, but when Jack reunites with him, we see him as a gentle giant merely trying to escape his captors. I enjoyed the reveal that his name is Ted, a fun joke typical of the MCU that alluded to his origin story. He was once a regular human being named Dr. Ted Sallis. I applauded when he jumped in at the last second to save Elsa and disintegrate Verussa, getting revenge on the woman who imprisoned him, but for noble reasons.
His friendship with Jack Russell was heartwarming, and I enjoyed their banter together. It’s clear early on that Jack is quite different to the other hunters, and while it’s obvious to the viewer that he is the werewolf, I appreciated how they slowly revealed his true identity throughout the story.
His reluctance to fight Elsa immediately sets him apart from the others, and his casual mention that he fought one of the monsters displayed on the walls tells us that he does use his powers to fight other monsters too. His alliance with Elsa makes sense, as the two quickly deduce they are the most honourable people there. He does everything in his power to prevent himself from harming Elsa before he transforms, cementing himself as a tragic hero in our eyes before he mauls the hunters and guards.
Elsa’s flagrant disregard for the ritual’s pomp and circumstance makes her immediately likeable, and she is clearly a competent fighter. Laura Donnelly’s performance during Jack’s transformation is excellent too. While you spend the first few seconds of that shot watching the shadow displaying the transformation, eager to see what the werewolf will look like, you find yourself compelled to watch her performance instead. She really sells the abject terror Elsa displays while she reacts to the horrific scenario that she finds herself in, imprisoned in a cage with an angry werewolf.
The story works extremely well, and even though the trailer revealed a few of the main story beats, you’re never quite sure where it’s going to go next. I was thrilled by the whole thing and hope Marvel continues this exploration of horror in the near future.
Josh is a huge a fan of Star Wars, superheroes and video games. He spends most of his time wondering who would win in a fight between Boba Fett and Star Lord.