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The shadows of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are pooling together, forming a new corner in this ever-expanding franchise. It’s populated not by brightly colored costumed heroes who can stand in the spotlight as Avengers, or villains who demand the world’s attention, but by monsters rendered in every shade of grey, forced to navigate a black and white world. While Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness cracked the door open to Marvel Studios horror, Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night, a 53-minute entry billed as a “Marvel Special Presentation,” blows that door off its hinges and fully immerses audiences in a world that has long existed on the fringes, even within the realm of Marvel publishing. 50 years ago, Marvel Comics changed their universe by welcoming horror into its midst. And now, 50 years later, it’s happening again on the film and television side. The monsters have come to Marvel.
With Werewolf by Night, Giacchino, best known as the go-to composer for blockbuster films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Batman, firmly situates himself as a double-threat in the entertainment world. More than simply a capable filmmaker, Giacchino exceeds expectations and creates a loving ode to Universal and Hammer horror films, wrapped up inside the action and atmosphere of Marvel horror comics of the ’70s.
There’s a clear sense of passion on display in Werewolf by Night, and it’s evident that Giacchino has done his homework, both as a filmmaker and a comic fan. The Halloween special pits a group of monster-hunters against each other, and a common threat, for ownership of the Bloodstone, a powerful artifact that allows its wielder to weaken and control monsters. That common threat just so happens to be Ted Sallis, the scientist turned muck-monster known as Man-Thing. His friend, Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), has infiltrated the hunt, and partners with the disgraced Bloodstone heir, Elsa (Laura Donnelly), to save him. That’s easier said than done once the other hunters catch wind of Jack’s true nature: he’s a werewolf.
It’s a simple premise but such a fun one in that it feels like it could have been pulled from a back issues bin (despite Elsa Bloodstone being a relatively recent character, first appearing in 2001). There’s no concern about grounding the characters’ abilities, or where the entry fits in in the larger MCU. Werewolf by Night is just a pure monster mash with plenty of bloodshed and lore that gives evidence to a larger mythology of monsters, vampires and family curses. In fact, it’s not so dissimilar in purpose than the film that made Marvel a cinematic giant to be reckoned with: Blade (1998). But where Stephen Norrington’s film had a limited number of Marvel characters and concepts at its disposal, Werewolf by Night has access to everything. The fact that audiences get a fully-realized Man-Thing in the special (Kevin Feige’s idea) for the first time in live-action since 2005’s disappointing horror attempt, Man-Thing, speaks volumes to just how invested Marvel is in building this world out.
Giacchino and co-executive producer, Brian Gay have spoken about the future for Marvel’s monsters, and lore that goes back centuries that could be explored in further Special Presentations. Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula, Son of Satan, Tales of the Zombie, Frankenstein, The Living Mummy, and Manphibian — Marvel’s semi-unique spins on Universal’s classic monsters — all feel like characters that could thrive in this space, and be further reimagined by Giacchino, and a handful of talented actors. And of course, there’s the hope that these characters, unknown by most non-comic fans, could also tie into bigger projects as well, with characters everyone knows.
Fans have expressed hopes that the TV special will tee-up an MCU version of the Legion of Monsters or the Midnight Suns, formally Midnight Sons. With a reboot of Blade, starring Mahershala Ali gearing up for production in the midst of a search for a new director, and Ghost Rider being a lobbied for role by Norman Reedus, Ryan Gosling and Keanu Reeves, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before these horror threads come together, and perhaps finally make good on my Mephisto theories. While some newcomers to Marvel horror might scratch their heads at how the Werewolf and Blade can easily fit alongside Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi, and and She-Hulk, the MCU has already begun building that bridge.
In the comics, most of the lore behind monsters stems from the demon Cthon, and the book of dark magic, The Darkhold, both of which played into Multiverse of Madness. Werewolves, vampires, witches, ghouls and goblins of every variety can all be traced back to the Cthon in the Marvel Universe. It seems likely that Doctor Strange, The Scarlet Witch, Moon Knight and Agatha Harkness will be the strings connecting Marvel’s horror world to the larger battles of the Avengers, eventually.
But Marvel has something novel here, and has clearly benefitted from starting small and aiming to do something entirely different from what audiences expect from the franchise. Werewolf by Night is not entirely unlike Iron Man, in which a director, best known for non-directing work, put their stamp on characters that had been written off as non-A-list. Many of these characters operated on their own in the Marvel Universe, with limited comic book crossover, and perhaps that’s the way to keep them for now. The major exception to that was Morbius, the Living Vampire – Marvel’s first official horror character, who debuted as a Spider-Man antagonist before becoming a prominent anti-hero throughout the ’70s. He linked Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing, and Ghost Rider together, eventually leading to the founding of the Legion of Monsters in 1976.
The internet may have given into the idea that Morbius is a meme at best, following the release of the Jared Leto-starrer, Morbius. But what’s interesting is that the character is key to the formation of both the Legion of Monsters and the Midnight Sons. The film may not have worked for everyone, something I still chalk up to pre-release hyperbole more than what’s actually on the screen, but I still think it’s a solid start with a character that could be better utilized squaring off against Jack Russell or Blade. It certainly doesn’t seem like as big of a longshot given Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures’ renewed collaboration that has allowed for characters to crossover between the MCU and Sony’s own universe.
Whether that comes to fruition or not, it feels fortuitous that three of Marvel’s original horror characters, Morbius, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing, were brought to screens this year, alongside a Doctor Strange film that leans into Cthon and the Darkhold. In fact, the only original member of the Legion of Monsters missing is the team’s founder, Ghost Rider, currently celebrating his 70th anniversary in the comics and whose casting this year could break the internet.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that in our current cinematic landscape, superheroes and horror movies sell. If Marvel continues to carefully build a bridge between the two, then I think the longevity and variety of the MCU will benefit from it, pulling in more fans and winning back those who have grown weary of square-jawed Avengers and want something with a little more bite. And in this new age of gods and monsters, Marvel may end up beating Universal at its own dreams of a Dark Universe, the failed plan to create an MCU-style franchise of its own. But of course, a little healthy competition is ultimately good for the genre and will hopefully allow both franchises to aid audiences in their rediscovery of classic monsters. For now, Werewolf by Night rules the day.
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