Marvel's Werewolf By Night Effortlessly Puts Universal's Dark Universe To Shame

This article contains major spoilers for "Werewolf By Night"

Once Marvel blew the doors off of the cinematic universe game, everyone in the industry wanted a piece of the action. Whether you love or hate what Marvel's success has done to the state of moviegoing as a whole, there's no denying that Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige is one of the industry's top dogs. Even though a company like Warner Bros. has their own unique superhero spread with the DC Extended Universe, their current CEO is adamant on following the path laid down by Feige.

Part of the reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has survived, while countless others have failed, is patience — at least at the start. When you watch "Iron Man," that post-credits stinger is like a little treat after having digested a full meal of a movie. Even in the lead-up to "The Avengers," the movies of Phase One were largely singular stories that featured outward connective tissues, and hardly to the detriment of what's right in front of you.

After "The Avengers" showed what could be possible with connective storytelling, Marvel Studios methodically mapped out what their future could look like. It can be pretty exhausting to keep up with the MCU now, but the fact of the matter is that its foundation was built upon restraint.

In their new Halloween special "Werewolf By Night" (currently streaming on Disney+), the world of monsters has been broken open to the MCU. Although, rather than advertising a potential future, the special commits to telling its own self-contained story. It's a lesson another monster-centric universe could have taken some pointers from.

Why yes, I would like to talk about the epic fall of Universal's Dark Universe.

The Dark Universe chose IP over everything else

In seeing how Marvel handled "Werewolf By Night," it made me think back to a time when another group of monsters were dusted off for a cinematic universe treatment, only to be shoved right back into their crypts. Let's talk about one of the industry's most memorable disasters. 

In 2017, Universal Pictures tried to revamp the classic Universal Monsters for a new generation with the emergence of the Dark Universe. It's not a bad idea, especially since the Universal Monsters can be considered the first cinematic universe. Their films throughout the 1930s and 1940s would cross over with one another every now and then. Technically, they held the crown before Marvel could ever conceive of putting their heroes on the big screen.

The issue was immediately clear with their debut feature. "The Mummy" was half-baked at best, and it was evident that this idea was doomed to fail from the start. Here was an abysmal film that focused more on replicating the Marvel model than delivering a good movie. At a point, the introduction of Prodigium, a blatant SHIELD rip-off, wants to keep reminding you that your favorite monsters exist in this world, rather than focusing on, well, the Mummy. But why look at what you came for when you could have Tom Cruise fighting Russell Crowe as the nefarious Mr. Hyde instead?

"The Mummy" was a truly monumental failure that wrote checks that would never be cashed. Leigh Whannell's "The Invisible Man" ultimately survived against all odds after the shakeup because of one very important factor: it was a horror movie.

A Special Presentation

Marvel is no stranger to dabbling with horror elements. You can practically see Sam Raimi's fingerprints all over "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," in addition to the embalming scene in "Moon Knight." But in allowing "Werewolf By Night" to fully indulge in its horror roots, it becomes their most unique project to date. I can recommend it to almost anyone who hasn't seen a single second of the MCU, and it would play extremely well on its own terms.

Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino ("The Batman") makes his directorial debut with "Werewolf By Night," a gothic ode to the classic Universal Monster movies of the '30s and '40s. Based on the 1970s Marvel comic of the same name, "Werewolf By Night" is presumably the first in a new division of programming on Disney+ called a "Marvel Studios Special Presentation," which is one of the most exciting developments in years for the MCU. It presents a great opportunity for Marvel to experiment with some of their more obscure titles. In my eyes, some of the most creative MCU projects have been ones that have broken free from their cinematic universe prerequisites.

Werewolf By Night commits to its tone

Clocking in at just under an hour, "Werewolf By Night" is a thrilling and gory introduction to the monster side of the MCU. Even though it doesn't fully adopt the aesthetics of '30s horror movies, namely with its 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Giacchino's direction makes you feel like you're watching something from that era regardless. Imagine "The Wolf Man" by way of "Ready or Not," with a dash of EC Comics.

The opening tells you that this takes place during the same time the Avengers are doing their business around the world, but the Bloodstone compound is treated as a place out of time. With master monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone dead, the time has come for someone else to take up the mantle of guild leader. Among them are Elsa (Laura Donnelly), Ulysses' estranged daughter, and a mysterious man named Jack (Gael García Bernal), who has a hairy secret of his own. Within the Bloodstone compound is a monster that Elsa, Jack, and the other hunters have been tasked with taking out, with the champion becoming the new leader.

In addition to an excellent werewolf transformation, this is the first time we get to see the MCU introduction of Man-Thing. The heads of slain monsters such as a Sasquatch, and possibly a vampire bat, adorn the walls of the Bloodstone compound. Where the Dark Universe would wave these things in front of you like a keys in front of a baby, "Werewolf By Night" stays focused on the story at hand. Elsa and Jack's relationship never takes a backseat to all the cool stuff. 

What's the lesson within all of this?

In 2017's "The Mummy," classic Universal Monsters were billed as the new "Avengers," and that was their ultimate mistake. In terms of legacy, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man, the "Creature from the Black Lagoon," and more endured for all of these decades because of their reputation as horror films. Even when Universal unwrapped "The Mummy" out of its tomb for Stephen Sommers' 1999 action-adventure flick, it went so far in the opposite direction that the tone switch made the "Indiana Jones" offshoot feel new and special.

With Alex Kurtzman's "The Mummy," Universal wanted to have their action-horror movie cake and eat it too. The only problem was no one possessed the foresight to see why this might be a bad idea. "Werewolf By Night" succeeds because it doesn't lose sight of what made its monsters special to begin with. It was exciting to see Werewolf By Night and his relationship to Man-Thing within the confines of Giacchino's special, while retaining its sense of horror.

We all know "Blade" is only going to introduce more monsters to the MCU, but at the very least, Marvel Studios can claim they didn't blow their load too early by putting Gael García Bernal, Mahersalaha Ali, and whoever else they have lined up to play monsters in a hastily photoshopped image that looks really embarrassing when things don't go according to plan.

"Werewolf by Night" is currently streaming on Disney+.