Most everyone now associates Marvel with its gigantic roster of superheroes and their blockbuster movies, but it was, once upon a time, a publisher of pulp comics. This was a time when it was known as Atlas Comics. These books spanned many genres, from sci-fi and Westerns to, my personal favorite, horror. And now that the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe is starting to experiment with genre more than ever — think the cosmic sci-fi of Thor, She-Hulk’s courtroom drama, and even the recent horror-tinged adventures of Doctor Strange — it only makes sense for Marvel to embrace pulp. And with Disney Plus, there’s a ready-made platform for more experimental ventures, which is where Werewolf by Night comes in.
Werewolf by Midnight is a 50-minute “special presentation” shot mostly in black and white that has more in common with classic monster movies than the adventures of the Avengers. At the outset, famed monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone has died, and his funeral becomes a gathering place for other great hunters as well as his estranged daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly) who is described as the “greatest disappointment of his life.” Ulysses is not only the leader of the monster hunter crew, but he also wields a powerful gem that bears his namesake, the Bloodstone. Normally, the stone and the leadership would be passed down to his heir, but given his relationship with his daughter, Ulysses has a different idea: a hunt.
The idea is that each of the hunters — ranging from the brutal Jovan (Kirk R. Thatcher) to the mysterious Linda (Eugenie Bondurant) — will compete to take down a monster that has the Bloodstone attached to it. The stone will weaken the creature, but also make it extra pissed off, just to make things more exciting. The winner becomes leader of the hunter fraternity and gets to wield the Bloodstone. Jack (Gael García Bernal), the hunter with the most confirmed kills, heads out into the hunting ground first, where each of the participants can only use weapons they find in the field. It’s kind of like Fortnite meets The Wolf Man.
You can tell something is off almost immediately. Despite being one of the most renowned monster hunters in the world, Jack seems strangely nervous and uncomfortable. Elsa, meanwhile, is clearly much more than just a disowned child of a legendary hunter; she wants the stone for herself, and is willing to go through this dangerous ordeal to get her hands on it. I won’t spoil anything, but Werewolf by Midnight has a few big twists that dramatically change the tone, shifting it from a simple hunt to something much more interesting.
The most refreshing thing about the special, though, is how it barely feels like a Marvel production at all. Part of that is stylistic; everything from the set design to the costumes to the actual monsters fits perfectly with the retro horror aesthetic, which is a far cry from the CG-laden shininess typical of MCU movies and shows. Even when there is more advanced special effects, like during a dramatic turn to action at the end, the vintage vibe makes it seem more grounded under the black-and-white filter. (I should also note that this is one of the bloodier entries in the MCU. It is horror, after all.)
More than the visuals, though, is the fact that this is the most standalone production in the MCU yet story-wise. In fact, if I didn’t already know this was set in the same universe as Black Widow and Groot, I wouldn’t have realized it from watching. Werewolf by Midnight hints at a bigger story beyond its short run time, but isn’t focused on tying that story to the greater Marvel world. It’s just 50 minutes of pulp horror you can enjoy on its own.
And really, this is one of the most exciting promises of streaming. Shows like Loki and Moon Knight are fine, but they’re mostly extensions of the MCU’s theatrical efforts, and they’re still structured like a typical cable TV show. But streaming services like Disney Plus open up the possibilities for stuff that’s a lot weirder, and we’ve already seen some of that in the form of What If…?, I Am Groot, and Star Wars Visions. Werewolf by Night expands that experimental spirit to the world of live-action. It’s kind of like a Marvel movie crossed with Tales From the Crypt, and it does something that the more recent blockbusters have often failed at: it makes me want more.
Werewolf by Night starts streaming on Disney Plus on October 7th.