In a 2019 interview for Empire magazine, Martin Scorsese talked about his latest film, “The Irishman,” the films that have defined his prolific career, working with Akira Kurosawa, and praised the hell out of “Midsommar.” But the one thing that caught everyone’s attention was his comment on Marvel movies. He said that he had tried to watch them but couldn’t because they aren’t cinema. He said that they are nothing but well-made theme parks. Given the “controversy” it caused, Scorsese clarified and re-clarified his thoughts about Marvel by essentially doubling down on what he had said earlier. Back in 2019, a lot of us were way too enamored by the explosion of nostalgia that was “Avengers: Endgame” and hence reacted violently to this reality check. But as Marvel entered its fourth phase, the franchise’s lack of quality started to become evident, and Scorsese’s comment started to grow in relevance. And “Werewolf by Night” is further proof that no one is more haunted by Scorsese than Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios.
Directed by Michael Giacchino, the Disney+ television special, “Werewolf by Night,” is based on the Marvel comic book character of the same name. It follows Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal) as he enters a tournament of sorts that is being held by Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris). Who’s Verussa? What’s this tournament about? Who are its participants? Well, as explained in the opening narration, Ulysses Bloodstone (Richard Dixon) was a monster-hunter and the possessor of the coveted Bloodstone. After his death, that relic needs to be passed on to someone who is worthy of wielding it. If Ulysses and his daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly) weren’t all that estranged, she would’ve gotten the stone. But since that’s not the case, Ulysses’s widow, Verussa, has called for the best monster hunters to slay Ted/Man-Thing (Carey Jones). In addition to Jack and Elsa, the list of competitors includes Jovan (Kirk R. Thatcher), Azarel (Eugenie Bondurant), Liorn (Leonardo Nam), and Barasso (Daniel J. Watts). However, Jack isn’t actually a monster-hunter, and he isn’t there to hunt.
Before getting into the “plot” of “Werewolf by Night,” let’s go back to the point about how Scorsese’s “Marvel movies aren’t cinema” comment continues to haunt Feige and co. It’s true that, apart from the Phase 1 films, Marvel hasn’t made anything cinematic. But they’ve flooded the market with their stuff to such a dizzying degree that they’ve essentially created their own yardstick for measuring their properties’ cinematic quality. That way, you don’t have to see if Marvel films, and shows are adding anything substantial to the medium of entertainment. You just have to notice if it’s louder, “funnier,” and has more CGI-heavy moments than the last film or show. And if a director accidentally follows the basic rules of filmmaking, you feel compelled to applaud because it is like finding a puddle of water in a desert. This insular and backward process of consuming media, along with the aforementioned yardstick, has been shattered to pieces by Scorsese. This has caused a significant drop in Marvel Studios’ critical acclaim as people have started to notice that their work is hollow, shoddy, and is exploiting VFX artists to death.
“Werewolf by Night” seems like a desperate attempt to be considered “cinema” by overlaying a black-and-white retro filter on the television special to make it look like the movies from the ’40s. But the funniest (read: bizarre) thing about borrowing this aesthetic is that Giacchino doesn’t even fully commit to this bit. We’ve seen movies from that era, right? We know how they were lit. We know how carefully but dynamically the camera moved back then. We are aware of how awkward the action scenes used to be. We are familiar with the pitches of the actors from that time period. Is any of that visible here? No, absolutely not. The action choreography, the editing (by Jeffrey Ford), and the camerawork are egregiously modern. The production design by Maya Shimoguchi, the art direction by Lauren Rosenbloom, the costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo, the make-up, and the SFX seem interesting. But cinematographer Zoë White and Giacchino don’t really highlight any of it. Giacchino’s score is the only element that manages to evoke the ’40s, and that’s about it.
So, if there’s nothing interesting to “see” in “Werewolf by Night,” at least the plot must be interesting. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Due to the short runtime, the writers do not get to flesh out these characters. They become mere tools for exposition and “action” (which is what most Marvel characters do nowadays). And after seeing aliens and monsters, how is the existence of a werewolf or a vampire supposed to blow my mind? But those aren’t the worst parts of the Disney+ TV special. That accolade goes to the television special’s efforts at being “scary.” Apart from one really loud jump scare, Giacchino and his team don’t come close to generating an emotion that’s synonymous with fear. This is coming from a person who has watched way too many horror films and is easily scared. The suspense is absent because the “twists” are predictable (even if you know nothing about the characters). Neither the monsters nor the hunters are framed in a way to invoke terror. The killing and the use of blood are juvenile. The performances are probably the only saving grace.
I am sure that you are aware of DTV movies. They are made on a low budget. They are incredibly schlocky. They aren’t considered to be the pinnacle of cinema. But they get the job done on a Friday evening when you are in the mood for something that’s not going to make you work your brain. That’s essentially what “Werewolf by Night” is. However, the only difference between actual DTV movies and a Marvel production is that the latter is coming out of one of the richest studios in the whole wide world. The latter doesn’t need to look so bereft of anything cinematic. And the latter doesn’t need to pretend that it’s doing something radical by making its “first-ever special presentation” (because many have done that before them). Marvel can actually use its resources to make a genuinely good horror film (or TV special) instead of faking it with a black-and-white Instagram filter and some half-baked storytelling. At this point, they can take risks and stop trying to cater to everyone (because horror isn’t supposed to do so). If they don’t, well, they are going to be haunted by Martin Scorsese’s words forever.