Marvel’s latest project, Werewolf by Night, adapts the classic 1970s horror character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The short 55-minute special is something between a TV episode and a mini-movie, giving audiences a bite-sized taste of the creepy side of Marvel Comics.
The special follows Jack Russell, the titular werewolf, as he infiltrates a coven of monster hunters to help save his friend, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Sallis. Along the way, he meets a monster hunter named Elsa Bloodstone who is dedicated to winning back the Bloodstone artifact her family is named after from her villainous stepmother. As she battles a dangerous coven of monster hunters, the special reveals that the real monsters often look just like us.
Werewolf by Night is a fun watch near Halloween, bringing creatures like werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural creatures to the forefront of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With characters like Moon Knight and Shang-Chi already running around, Jack Russell isn’t the weirdest superhero in Marvel’s live-action universe. However, the distinctly horror-themed imagery around him makes him an odd fit in Marvel’s usual film and TV outings, so it’s fun to see the studio playing around with this TV special framing and black-and-white production.
Who Is the Werewolf by Night?
Jack Russell first appeared in Marvel comics in the mid-1970s. Horror comics were extremely popular in the US throughout the 1940s and 1950s, trading on the same thrills that made Universal’s iconic monster movies such massive hits. The Werewolf by Night series served as a nostalgic love letter to that era of comic books, though the publisher has consistently mixed up the tone of the series to fit the era.
Jack’s background in the comics is that he got his werewolf abilities from a family curse. One of his ancestors once worked as a monster hunter and tangled with Dracula, the iconic progenitor of modern vampires. In that battle, Jack’s ancestor was bitten by Dracula’s werewolf ally, cursing both himself and his bloodline with the ability to become a wolf-like creature during the night of the full moon.
In the comics, Jack is often oblivious to the curse up until the moment he remembers that he’s out partying on a full-moon night. This Teen Wolf-style storytelling would sometimes give his comics a goofy, almost sitcom-like feel. This time, though, Marvel plays the character’s horror roots straight and even updates his background to make him even more compelling.
The MCU’s Jack Russell
In the Disney+ Werewolf by Night, Jack is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, a Mexican actor well known for his role in Pixar’s Coco. Bernal’s nationality is an interesting retcon of Jack’s origins in the comics; in the original series, he’s an American-Transylvanian born as Jacob Russoff. Here, Jack’s family is presumably Mexican, as the character himself notes that he wears traditional Day of the Dead face paint during the ceremonial hunt to honor his ancestors.
In a later conversation with Elsa Bloodstone, Jack seems to indicate that his family lineage is the reason he has the werewolf curse. This is similar to his history in the comics, where his ancestor Grigory is bitten by a werewolf while hunting the vampire king Vlad Dracula. While Grigory’s children were born before this event, the curse still clung to his family until Jack’s father read a passage from a cursed book called the Darkhold.
While Werewolf by Night doesn’t offer much in the way of an explanation for Jack’s powers, it’s interesting to see the character still closely tied to his family and interested in preserving the legacy of his ancestors.
The special’s other protagonist is Elsa Bloodstone, played by Laura Donnelly. Elsa is the child of the long-lived and legendary monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone, and she’s a more recent addition to Marvel Comics. She returns to her childhood home after a long absence to fight for what she believes is her birthright: the legendary Bloodstone itself.
Elsa’s stepmother, Verusa, is livid that the prodigal child has returned only now after her father has passed away. The special is adept at showing, not telling, as Elsa’s face betrays the years of torment and abuse she clearly endured at the hands of Ulysses and Verusa, underscoring why she needed to flee this den of monster hunters.
Indeed, it seems like Elsa isn’t even interested in the power the Bloodstone provides. She’s a practical, no-nonsense woman who clearly wants to just keep this mighty artifact away from the hands of the unworthy. The motley collection of hunters assembled to fight for the right to lead the coven isn’t exactly bursting with nobility–these are strange, cruel people who clearly revel in the brutality of their chosen paths.
The group gathers in the ancestral Bloodstone estate to commence a ceremonial hunt. Jack has apparently been operating as a monster hunter for some time, as Verusa notes that he’s secured over 100 monster kills–far more than any of his rivals. He even seems surprised by the number, suggesting that he must coordinate his hunts to fall on the full moon and conducts his business while in wolf form.
Some quick math indicates that Jack has been doing this for over nine years, assuming he’s hunting one monster per night and each year only has twelve full moons. This underscores one of Werewolf by Night’s best features: like classic films of years gone by, it’s more interested in delighting the audience and teasing them with backstories that it only hints at.
The modern Marvel movie machine thrives on callbacks and setting up characters for future crossovers, and this is all good fun. However, it’s refreshing to see a project that mostly stands on its own and only hints at the wider world beyond the borders of any given scene. After all, the audience’s imagination is just as important as the director’s ability to bring these fantastical scenes to life.
Verusa has the gathered hunters go after Man-Thing, another deep cut from Marvel’s stable of weird ‘70s characters. Originally known as Dr. Theodore Sallis, Man-Thing became a plant-human hybrid after injecting himself with a modified version of the super-soldier serum and falling into a magical swamp that transformed his body. Oh, and his magic swamp is a nexus point that connects to all multiverses in the Marvel canon. Yes, comics are weird.
Jack isn’t here for the Bloodstone: he just wants to save his buddy, Ted. Elsa has less of an appetite for bloodshed than the other hunters, and the hunt descends into a battle royale of violence and mayhem as the hunters hack at each other for a chance to claim the Bloodstone. Jack and Elsa become fast allies as they realize they’re the only sane people in the hunt, and they manage to free Ted from the bizarre maze he’s been trapped in.
However, the two are captured by Verusa after Jack tries to touch the Bloodstone, which injures him and reveals his curse to the monster hunters. Verusa then uses the stone to force Jack to transform into a werewolf despite the next full moon still being five nights away. She hopes he will attack Elsa and do her dirty work for her, but instead, he breaks out of his cage and brutally takes down the guards she’s brought in to defend the hunters. Elsa, likewise, makes short work of the surviving rival hunters.
Jack manages to calm the bloodlust that typically clouds his judgment in his wolf form and manages to leave Elsa unscathed after they defeat their captors. He escapes from the compound just as Verusa regains her senses and holds Elsa at gunpoint, claiming that Ulysses would be disgusted by his daughter working with monsters.
Ted crashes in and uses his powers to kill Verusa, tossing her aside and saving Elsa’s life–returning the favor from earlier when she saved him. As Elsa holds the Bloodstone she earned by right, its red glow permeates the camera’s eye. Color spills out into the frame for the first time. The black-and-white gloom of the night of horrors is gone, and the warm light of day shows us that Elsa was wearing a red jacket throughout the ceremonial hunt–indicating that she was always destined to claim the blood-red stone that gave her family its name.
Meanwhile, Jack wakes up in Ted’s makeshift camp, finally seen in color for the first time. Ted greets his ally, and the two have some back-and-forth banter and decide to get sushi for lunch. Seeing Jack smile at the sun and drink coffee is a fun touch, showing how sweet and gentle he is. The stark contrast between his vicious demeanor when he’s in his wolf form and his genuine kindness when he’s a human makes for a fun parallel to the hunters, who acted police before the ceremony but became bloodthirsty killers when the hunt commenced.
House of Horrors
It’s fantastic to see the MCU experimenting with different genres and styles. The Marvel Comics universe is vast and full of countless characters and genres, so seeing the live-action universe reflect its origins is a treat.
Director Michael Giacchino, well known for his stellar work as a composer, knocks this special out of the park. His clear love for the Universal and Hammer horror flicks of the ‘30s and ‘40s shines through in this production, all the way down to little visual details like the cue marks in the corner of the screen that indicate the shifts between acts.
If the MCU continues to focus on strong, standalone outings like this between its big-budget tentpole films and massive DIsney+ TV shows, the franchise will be in a great spot. Here’s hoping we see more of Jack, Ted, and Elsa–but if we don’t, Werewolf by Night will still function as a perfect love letter to the dark corners of Marvel mythos.