Werewolf by Night is, simply, absolutely perfect Halloween viewing. The fact that it’s one of the best projects that Marvel has put out in years and one of the most interesting things they’ve ever made is a bonus, really. At its core, Marvel’s first Special Presentation is a detailed, loving homage to classic horror films, which the creators clearly have a true love and admiration for — something that is evident in everything from the visuals to the characters.
It’s rare to watch something and not want to change a single thing about it apart from wishing for a longer runtime so there could be even more of everything that makes it so great. It will be required viewing several times every October, but it’s also far too good to be relegated to just one month out of the year. With stunning cinematography, stellar character work, and a fun story, Werewolf by Night is everything I wanted it to be because it is also, and perhaps most importantly, incredibly sexy.
Everything needs to fit into a tight fifty minutes, so the plot is blessedly simple (and accessible to everyone regardless of how many other MCU projects they’ve seen). Ulysses Bloodstone, a prolific monster hunter, has died, so the Bloodstone, a weapon that allowed him to inflict so much death on the creatures he hated, is up for grabs. Other famous hunters gather and embark on a ceremonial hunt in order to claim it and become its new owner, the most prominent of whom are Jack Russell and Ulysses’ estranged daughter Elsa.
The runtime doesn’t allow for exploration of all the history and baggage that everyone is bringing to this night, but one of the other hunters establishes early on that theirs is a lonely life. Despite and maybe because of this, Elsa and Jack form a shaky partnership relatively early on, in large part because they both seem reluctant to be a part of this hunt. I wonder if the two of them being established as a pair means something for them later in the special… (Sexy Rating: Forced Proximity Trope.)
We’re introduced to Jack as a monster hunter, one that leaves everyone slightly in awe with over one hundred kills to his name. We don’t get to see that hunting prowess (yet) because the second that Jack locates Ted — the monster that everyone is there to hunt, and, as it turns out, Jack’s dear friend — and lays out his plan to rescue the oddly adorable Man-Thing, everything shifts. Then it shifts again when it’s revealed that Jack is, in fact, the titular Werewolf By Night. He’s a killer, a savior, a monster, and a human. And that’s where the sexy magic really happens, doesn’t it?
A dark and dangerous man: hot. A gentle, sensitive man: also hot. Put them together, and you get the romantic lead dreams are made of.
Although we don’t hear it said, his full name, Jack Russell, could not be more fitting because, for all the throat-ripping and ruthless killing he does as a werewolf, there’s also a side to Jack that’s as sweet as a puppy. He doesn’t want to fight; he’s excited to see his friend and always seems to exist in a state of slight chaos. I’m obsessed with the tiny canine aspects of character — the way he scratches his ear when he and Elsa are caged together, the little spin he does before lying down in the Bloodstone family mausoleum, and the loyalty to those he cares about.
I love that he has sweet Ted to look after him, give him a warm beverage, and make sure he eats. In the very last scene of the special, Jack looks like a man who needs some soup, and I like to think that after the insanity of the previous night, Ted will take to keeping a thermos of chicken and stars with him. Jack is several hundred years old — that’s a lot of pain, loss, and time alone — which inevitably makes him a bit of a lone wolf, so there’s something beautiful in the fact that he’s still willing to form close bonds. He refers to Ted as his family and clearly feels something for Elsa after only a short time. (Sexy Rating: Gael García Bernal.)
Because director Michael Giacchino and writer Heather Quinn know what they’re doing, that connection is a feeling Elsa shares. This is the MCU, so of course, Elsa Bloodstone’s story is rife with father issues, and it is, in fact, the very first thing Werewolf by Night tells us about her. For reasons unbeknownst to the audience, Elsa decided to step away from her family twenty years ago. As much as she seems to enjoy picking at her stepmother, there’s a lot of hurt and unresolved issues, and those tiny flickers of hurt and fear were my favorite part of Laura Donnelly’s performance.
Verussa implies several times how disappointed Elsa’s father would be in her, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be at least a little bit impressed that his daughter managed to take out three hunters alone and earn the Bloodstone outright and not just as a birthright. It may have been far less physically dramatic than Jack’s, but Elsa underwent a transformation of her own, too, on the night this story takes place. Not only did she walk into her old home wanting the Bloodstone and get it, but she was closed off to everyone and realized that letting others in might not be so bad. Even if that guard only slips down for her new friend Ted and Jack Russell. Whether she fully understands why she trusts and feels drawn to him or not, the fact that Elsa was willing to let him get so close to her while she was hurt and let him tend to her injury is significant. (Sexy Rating: A strong woman allowing herself to be vulnerable with one very dangerous and handsome man with protective instincts.)
Romance is not always something that the MCU has tackled with a tremendous amount of success. Even with so many characters, there is either sadly little chemistry or any that exists is often squandered in favor of the plot. Not only do Gael García Bernal and Laura Donnelly have incredible and palpable chemistry in Werewolf by Night, but it’s also central to how the entire second act of the special plays out.
There’s the spark when they first meet in Bloodstone Manor’s ominous backyard maze, and Jack doesn’t want to fight. It builds as he and Elsa talk about family in the middle of the hunt, but it really takes flight during one specific scene that is somehow both the biggest moment of the special that, at the same time, inexplicably, has not completely taken over the pop culture conversation. It is the single most sensual thing to ever happen in the MCU. Yes, it’s the sniffing.
Identified by the Bloodstone as a monster, Jack is locked into a cage with Elsa. As punishment for helping to break Ted out of the maze during the hunt, Elsa will, presumably, be torn apart by Jack when he transforms into his werewolf form. Panicking, Jack implores Elsa to stare into his eyes and not break contact so that he doesn’t harm her while he’s in his uncontrollable frenzy. Stare into your beautiful eyes, Gael? I’m sure you really had to twist her arm. That alone would have been enough. The desperation. THE TENSION. But Werewolf by Night truly committed to its vibe.
Jack suddenly gathers Elsa to him and starts inhaling her scent, bringing his face to her hair and then down to her arm, telling her it’s to remember her scent so that he doesn’t attack her when he’s not himself. He looks agonized when he tells her that it’s worked only once before. This moment is the kind of thing that admittedly only works in stories. In real life, a man you’ve only known for an hour sniffing you makes for a bad day. Of course, in real life, that man would be a weirdo on public transit and not the handsome and charming Gael García Bernal, so there’s that. Yet, in this context, it’s unquestionably sexy, and screenwriter Heather Quinn stated in an interview that the romantic elements were intentional, as they should have been! Romance and danger are always a winning combination.
A good-looking man who’s tortured and dangerous to everyone but a very select few will always be appealing. It’s a heady fantasy. Monsters serve myriad purposes in our stories; they’re a metaphor for isolation, symbolic of how society views those who are different, and a way to experience the thrill and excitement of danger in a safe way. All the things we have to fear from men in our everyday lives become a protection because that violence and danger will always be directed at someone other than us, usually to ensure our protection. And here, even as he goes on a vicious slaughtering rampage in his werewolf form, Jack does not end up hurting Elsa.
There’s a very tense moment when he tackles her, but she does as he asked and stares into his eyes, even taking things one step further as she brings her hand up to caress his face lightly. Swoon! Some part of him remembers her and their connection, and he runs off. The first thing Jack does after he wakes up the next morning is ask about Elsa to make sure she’s okay because he’s a damn gentleman. I’m ravenous for more of these two; they have so much more yearning ahead of them. (Sexy Rating: Picturing the cover of Jack and Elsa’s gothic romance novel in my head.)
The whole of Werewolf by Night is a dark and moody yet still endearing introduction to characters I hope we get to see a whole lot more of in Marvel’s future. Overall sexy rating: Immaculate.