Marvel's Werewolf By Night Proves Epic Runtimes Aren't Everything

"Werewolf By Night" doesn't feel like a Marvel movie, but it ends like one. When the striking black-and-white of the monster movie homage fades and color returns to the world, the werewolf in question (Gael Garcia Bernal) sits down next to Man-Thing and brainstorms lunch plans. It calls to mind the post-credits scene of 2012's "The Avengers," in which the newly minted team grabs some shawarma after saving the world. Only, somehow, with just a 53 minute runtime, Jack and Man-Thing's ending feels just as earned.

That's because "Werewolf By Night," more than perhaps anything Marvel has ever done before, is proof that an epic runtime does not equal an epic cinematic experience. Marvel movies have always been pretty lengthy — back in 2008, early entry "Iron Man" was already over two hours — but in recent years, they've made ballooning runtimes an industry norm. The average runtime of a Phase 4 Marvel film, with "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" (2 hours and 41 minutes) included in calculations, is about 2 hours and 19 minutes. The shortest "Avengers" film, meanwhile, is 2 hours and 21 minutes long.

I'm not against long movies, but I am a big believer that it's not about the runtime, so much as how you use it. And "Werewolf By Night" uses its compact time frame exceedingly well. Its story is slight, sure: it covers just one night, and isn't particularly interested in big character transformations outside of the titular beastie's literal one. But it still manages to wield all of its technical elements, from choreography to music to direction to lighting design, with impressive precision.

Giacchino uses everything at his disposal

"Werewolf By Night" also features not one but three great performances in a franchise that's not always known for its acting: Bernal's tense-but-funny Jack complements Laura Donnelly's cool-but-exasperated Elsa well, while Harriet Sansom Harris plays the kind of shrieking horror villain whose death is as cheer-worthy as her menacing line delivery. It doesn't take two hours or six episodes to realize this: the special is as efficient with its character introductions as with everything else it does, and the impressiveness of this cast is almost immediately on display.

Composer Michael Giacchino directed the project, and he seems to be the type of filmmaker who makes full use of every ingredient in his recipe. In an interview with /Film's Ryan Scott, Giacchino explained that there was no mandate for the project's length, and that it turned into what it ultimately is — a 53 minute one-off special — pretty organically. "One of the things I love about 'Twilight Zone' was that it was always a self-contained story in under an hour," Giacchino shared, explaining that the short runtime also let the filmmaker focus on one night as opposed to "too much of an origin story and too much of what happens after."

It also helps that "Werewolf By Night" is, as of now, not directly tied to anything in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. When MCU films fail to trim the fat on their stories, it can be tough to identify what could be left on the cutting room floor since each movie now seems to have several side plots designed simply as varyingly heavy-handed connective tissue between past and future projects. By virtue of being a standalone, "Werewolf By Night" can focus on delivering something great in exactly as long as the story takes to tell.

A short runtime doesn't mean a story can't pack a punch

By design or by habit, overlong Marvel movie runtimes have become standardized, and the standardization of art pretty much always makes it more predictable and, for many, less enjoyable. While I doubt the studio will use the creative success of "Werewolf By Night" to inform edits of future movies, the entire MCU could learn a thing or two from the special. The kinetic action scene in which Jack takes on a small army of opponents — all while a closing door casts a dark shadow over the dolly shot and the camera gets increasingly blood-splattered — is among the best action sequences Marvel has ever done. It came not as a reward at the culmination of several years of movies, nor in a long-anticipated season finale, but in a self-contained hour of TV.

For too long, the best parts of the MCU have been presented in the eleventh hour, treated as payoff that viewers have to earn my wading through everything else that came before it. "Werewolf By Night" posits that maybe, in the right hands and with the right edit, the best parts can be all the parts.