You’d never expect to see the iconic Marvel Studios logo sequence in black-and-white, sporting the flicker of vintage film, while underlying the unhinged roars of some rabid monster. Werewolf by Night begins with this desperate flair as if to shout, “Look, look! We have something different to show you!”
Critics often say that recent installments of the Marvel franchise feel samey. Recall Martin Scorcese’s polemic against the studio: “The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.” When you watch a Marvel movie nowadays, it’s hard to shake the sense that the studio’s greatest inspiration is itself. Each new project feels cut from precisely the same cloth. This was not always the case — Captain America was a war movie, Thor was a crisis between period drama and modern blockbuster adventure, and Guardians of the Galaxy was a comedic take on speculative space fiction of the Star Wars variety.
It seems that upon the arrival of each post-Endgame installment, we anticipate something as fresh as those movies felt at the time. Were we not hoping that Sam Raimi would bring more of his goofy, ingenious horror tendencies to Multiverse of Madness? Or, that Chloe Zhao could sprinkle into Eternals some of the intense character realism that she flexes in her independent films? Instead, it seems that “Marvel” itself has become a genre, and, for each new movie, some other thing (rom-com for Love and Thunder, tournament a la Enter the Dragon for Shang-Chi, mythic fantasy for Eternals) is its half-assed sub-genre. It feels disingenuous to say something like, “Black Widow was a terrific spy thriller” — in fact, it is not a spy thriller, but just some retooling of the Marvel template with a hollow espionage aesthetic.
Werewolf by Night is the stylistic departure that Marvel has long needed to break from its own tired genre. After all, the Marvel multiverse is a vast setting with infinite potential — here, we begin to explore a new corner of it with sincere appreciation for that vastness. By Night’s commitment to its genre inspirations — mostly the James Whale monster flicks of the ‘30s — is what sets it apart from Marvel’s other recent projects. It never wavers in its insistence on the vintage aesthetic, with the crackle of a film reel projection and grayscale theme (until its transition to a still-vintage technicolor look, with likely inspiration from The Wizard of Oz). Harriet Sansom Harris offers a very genre-appropriate and brilliantly theatrical performance as the antagonistic Verussa. Even the title card format is an overt homage to Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.
Perhaps most telling of Marvel’s commitment to a new direction is Werewolf by Night’s approach to visual effects. Besides the glaring exception of the computer-generated Man-Thing, most effects here appear practical. The costume design of Gael Garcia Bernal’s titular werewolf, which borrows its look from George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, is especially bold in its simplicity — an abundance of fur and a monstrous face. It shows a clear intent to shift away from the studio’s humiliation over the computer animation in She-Hulk.
Marvel hopes, in this new feature, to prove its ability to overcome its own nature. It seems apt that this task is the thematic heart of Werewolf by Night. Jack Russell (Bernal) may be a monster, but his sense of compassion, stronger than that of any human in this story, might save him from literally consuming his new friend. Elsa (Laura Donnelly), the daughter of remorseless hunters, hopes to defy her family’s nature and put an end to the hunt, but it won’t be quite that simple for her. Jack says it best: “Sometimes, we think that by doing something very specific, we can change everything, and not be like [our family].” But “they stay, like they become an atmosphere.”
Yes, this atmosphere brews above every new Marvel project. It is that sense of sameness that we always criticize, that permeates everything the studio touches. It is Marvel’s nature, but nature is not impossible to overcome — what it takes is not just one Werewolf by Night, but many more of its kind of authenticity. With Blade on the horizon and Fantastic Four and mutant-related projects even further ahead, this quaint Halloween special is a good sign for the creative direction of the studio. Werewolf by Night is twice as exciting as Marvel’s feature-length releases with half of the runtime. Its purpose is not to recontextualize a character with which we are already familiar (Black Widow), cash in on our nostalgia for other characters (Spiderman: No Way Home), or hint at more exciting future arrivals (She-Hulk). The studio has, through this one-hour special, declared the beginning of its own redemptive journey. Only time will tell how committed it is to that path, if at all.
Eric Han is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]