Last night in Austin, the famous Fantastic Fest offered a secret screening of Marvel’s upcoming Werewolf By Night special – and it was an odd pairing, to say the least.
The festival is known for show-casing up and coming talent in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genre for films from all over the world and usually steers clear of television, though they sometimes make exceptions if a project is particularly special.
But what was even more surprising was my discovery the show’s promotion seems to be in contradiction to the events seen across its 60-minute run time.
Despite being teased as a series centered around the titular Werewolf by Night, the special insteads highlight a female character who – you guessed it – ends up saving the day.
Rather than centering on Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal, Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle) and his time as a lycanthrope, the special is actually about the passing of a magical jewel, the Bloodstone, to a worthy bearer who will continue its eponymous family’s legacy of fighting monsters.
As the special opens, a group of supernatural hunters are seen gathering around a coffin when the estranged daughter of the deceased, Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly, Tolkien), arrives late to the festivities.
Upon her entrance, the gathered are treated to an eerie scene as the lifeless corpse of Ulysses Bloodstone flips the lid off of his coffin. Puppetted with a mechanism, he begins to move around with a series of sickeningly jerky movements.
At the same time, a speaker suddenly crackles to life and begins to play a prerecorded message which invites the various guests to compete in a contest for the aforementioned family jewel.
Soon after, Elsa’s mother and Ulysse’s wife, Verusa Bloodstone (Harriet Sansom Harris, Desperate Housewives), walks in and begins highlighting the skills and talents of the fighters and killers in attendance, listing their numerous achievements off in order to bait the competition.
Verusa then stops at one character in particular, a man with a peculiar set of make-up lines on his face, and explains that he’s killed more than 100 monsters – far more than anyone else in attendance.
Everyone looks impressed, especially as he doesn’t seem to fit the criteria of someone they’d expect to be invited, being dressed in a trendy suit whilst everyone else looks like they are ready to battle.
Eventually, Elsa teams up with the suit-wearing man to fight their opponents, discovering in the process that he is none other than Russell, who reveals that he doesn’t care about the jewel, but is actually there to save his friend, Ted.
Who is Ted? He’s the Man-Thing – the monster that everyone is suppose to hunt and kill to win the Bloodstone. Depicted as the most eldritch interpretation of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s Davy Jones, Ted sports the ability to incinerate his victims, which he does in a number of electrifying scenes that might shock younger kids.
In terms of production, WBN is visually stylized, features an expansive musical score (no doubt thanks to director Michael Giacchino’s primary career as a well-known and established film composer), and boasts an extensive use of sound effects in service of intensifying and heightening its action
While there are moments that certainly could use less of these sound effects, there is definitely a ‘more-is-more’ philosophy when it comes to WBN‘s sound, which should play well on a nice home surround sound system.
Aside from that, there’s not a lot of substance here, as despite the stylized photography, WBN is quite simple in terms of plot.
However, this is probably what it needs to be, considering it’s for kids.
As a project touting itself as a Halloween special to be enjoyed by the family, WBN absolutely meets its goal. It’s just spooky enough that kids will get scared, and fun enough that parents who have to sit through it with their kids will be mildly entertained.
The special’s throw-back 1960s television direction – thinking heavy and over-emphasized acting ala William Shatner in the original Star Trek series – also plays well to its holiday theme.
Overall, WBN harkens back in all the best ways to the Sundays when families would gather around the TV to watch Disney Presents (For all my Gen X’ers outo there, I almost expected to see a commercial for Mutual of Ohama).
And when viewed through this lens of someone seeking family entertainment, WBN works. Your average ten-year-old will no doubt love it.
But when viewed through the lens of an adult more familiar with the behind-the-scenes moves of Disney and Marvel, the film raises the typical question of whether or not its content has been influenced by “wokeness”.
For example, the aforementioned hunters come from a number of different demographics and tropes, with its wide range of members including an Asian man (Leonardo Nam, Swamp Thing), a Black guy clad whose outfit resembles that of A-Train from The Boys (Daniel J. Watts, The Last O.G.), a non-binary character who looks like a complete rip-off of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona (Eugenie Bondurant, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), an axe wielding Scotsman who can’t help but call women Lassies (Kirk Thatcher, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) and of course – in a trope that Disney just can’t escape – the Mary-Sue protagonist, the one and only actual heir to the Bloodstone, Elsa (who, as an aside, looks a lot like Krystin Ritter’s Jessica Jones).
This line-up will likely leave you wondering if this team came together by way of genuine enthusiasm for the source material, lazy-writing, or a desire to check off a list of marketable identities.
The hunters’ ranks are made all the more suspicious by the fact that Disney doesn’t care about honoring the beloved and cherished series’ now under their charge.
The Little Mermaid is a perfect example of this.
Though the live-action remake has yet to premiere, its teaser trailer reveals that outside dying her hair red (or gives her a wig, if it matters), the film makes little attempt to have its Ariel actress, Halle Bailey, resemble the original animated film version.
Same goes for Star Wars, as most recently seen with the recent Obi-Wan Kenobi series.
There, Disney once again trounced all over the beloved sci-fi series’ source material by revealing that Princess Leia spent her tenth year of age outrunning trained assassins, fighting off Storm Troopers (in ridiculously choreographed scenes that audiences wished were left on the cutting room floor), and skipping around the galaxy with Obi-Wan himself.
Even Marvel suffers from Disney’s indifference.
Many tried to watch the new She-Hulk: Attorney at Law series on Disney Plus, but after its main character took issue with being catcalled and objectified before later twerking for a post-credits scene, even the most loyal of fans couldn’t tolerate the studios’ hypocrisy.
Of course, there’s far more examples of this than just these three, but let’s get back to what we were talking about: whether or not WBN is woke.
The series’ Mary Sue, ‘overtly-kick-ass-woman’ depiction of Elsa is an instant turn off, especially in light of both this character archtype’s overuse in mainstream shows and the fact that the story was marketed as being about Russell’s Werewolf, not her.
If writers Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron had given their characters a few flaws or allowed them to show a wider range of emotions, they might have come across as more than just representatives of their respective tropes.
Instead, they wrote only what they needed to, interspersing brief moments of character development amidst the special’s fight scenes.
Because of this, the characters just don’t have enough room to breathe on their own and as such come across as pretty hollow up until the special’s end.
The parameters for judging something like this are varying and contentious, which is probably why Disney and Marvel haven’t released a whole lot of information about WBN.
That said, if WBN turns out to actually be a proof-of-concept for a full-blown series rather than just a one-off feature, it will be interesting to see how the story evolves and how much of the source material is twisted to fit the prerequisite boxes.
As of now, WBN stands as a special which was developed almost seemingly by checking off boxes according to the theme of “Smart Heroine Saves The Day By Rectifying Mistake Made By Dumb Man”.
Of course, follow that storyline, and you’ll get a green light for just about anything from any studio.
When will this change? That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Werewolf by Night is set to premiere on Disney’s signature streaming service on October 7th.