In 2019, during the rise of the streaming age, Disney released its service “Disney +” and with it they announced that they would expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a novel concept, TV SHOWS. They quickly announced multiple spin-off shows including WandaVision, Loki, Falcon and Winter Soldier, and many more. Each of these was an attempt to expand the cinematic universe, while also being creative experiments that were less limited by the Marvel film style, like the sitcom aesthetics for WandaVision. Now not all projects were created equal, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, feels more akin to the usual MCU fanfare, but each project was able to be its own thing. Arguably the most interesting creative swing has to be their attempt at a Halloween special in 2022 Werewolf by Night. This was a 55-minute “MCU special presentation” directed by the renowned, award-winning composer Michael Giacchino.
While not directly tied to the MCU, it features no returning players or even references to any previously established characters, Werewolf by Night is essentially a self-contained story about new characters being introduced in this universe. Along with being groundbreaking story-wise, the “special presentation” featured an extremely unique visual palette in that the film was released in black and white, was shot on hand-built sets, and featured numerous practical effects. Now in 2023, Disney has decided to re-release Werewolf by Night (IN COLOR), which was a simple one-to-one re-release of the original, except… well in color. This re-release feels lazy and takes away from a lot of the creative decisions the team made while filming. Let’s break down a few examples and talk about how this new version is more of a mistake than an upgrade.
First of all, this “special presentation” was written, designed, and shot to be an homage to classic “Universal” monster films, the same films that inspired the original Werewolf by Night comics. When the lead character Jack Russell, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, transforms into a werewolf, his design takes direct visual reference to the 1941 The Wolf Man film. To complement this, all the sets are hand-made in a closed studio loaded with fun props such as giant wall mounts adorned with monster heads, a life-size animatronic zombie in a casket talk box, and a flaming tuba. Yeah, that’s right, there’s a flaming tuba in this.
Now you’re probably asking, why is there a flaming tuba? Well, the cinematography of this film is designed to emphasize the contrast between shadow and light. Most scenes are light via some sort of flame, whether it be candlelight, torches, or a literal flaming tuba. This helps create dynamic shadows that give the whole special this eerie, classic Hollywood horror vibe that isn’t so much literally scary but feels scary. With black and white, these shadows are harsher and make every object or person pop when illuminated by some light source. However, once you add color, you completely lose the naturally eerie vibe, and instead get just an interestingly lit show. You also lose little details popped more when the film was in black in white.
One great detail about the lead character Jack is that his face is painted. He says the marks are to “honor his ancestors” which gives this character both a distinct look and a small personality detail that gives him some depth. In the original cut, these marks pop against Gael’s skin tone, making them one of his most prominent visual signifiers. However, once color is introduced these marks become harder to see and lose their significance as a character detail. Another lost detail from this transition is the loss of emphasis on the MacGuffin, the Bloodstone. The plot centers around two lead characters, the previously mentioned “Werewolf by Night” Jack Russell, and the monster hunter, Elsa Bloodstone (played by Laura Donnelly), who has returned home to acquire the Bloodstone, an ancient artifact that is used to hunt monsters. While the whole film is in black in white, the Bloodstone shimmers this bright red glow. This causes the audience to immediately gravitate towards the object when it’s in frame and gives it a cinematically natural importance. When it’s in color, it’s just another object that people you are told is important you have to believe it because they say so. The story loses such a strong visual element because of this change, and it’s rather disappointing.
Much of the third act of Werewolf by Night features a lot of flashing lights during the climactic battle. Now in color, this seems odd, like these flashing lights in theory illuminate the minor shadows of the scene, but honestly, they do not add anything to the scene. However, shoot the scene in black and white, and boom it all makes sense. The flashes are there to make the horror element of a werewolf feel impactful. There are few moments of illumination to see the horror that is has fallen upon our antagonist. It invokes a classic monster movie terror. The sequence that loses the most creative sauce through this change is a hallway fight scene, where we see multiple henchmen attempt to fight the werewolf. At the center of the frame is a door filled with light, but as the camera pushes forward toward the door, we notice that it’s beginning to close from the top. Thus, as the scene goes on and the camera gets closer, the light is slowly dimming, and the world is slowly getting darker. All the while, our Werewolf by Night is tearing through these henchmen, with a small splash of blood hitting the camera lens with each victim. This sequence rules and really shows how exciting and more visually interesting this project is as a black-and-white homage to classic monster flicks.
The final visual element we want to discuss is the ending. Now there won’t be any story spoilers here, so don’t be alarmed. At the end of the special, Elsa sits down with the Bloodstone and, slowly, color begins to fill the screen. We first see that Elsa’s jacket (which looks grey or black in most scenes) is actually this bright crimson red, which was such a fun surprise on the first watch. Plus this whole moment is scored to “Over the Rainbow” sung by Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz. They did this for a reason. It’s both a reference to the Wizard of Oz and a visual metaphor for a return to normalcy. The nightmare is over and everyone can return to their “normal” lives. In color, the song just starts playing and that’s it. I mean the thematic relevance is still there, but without the transition to color, it just rings a little hollow. We just lose
Overall the whole project suffers transitioning to color. Fun fact, this film was shot digitally, they applied the black and white color change and other visual effects and finally printed the digital footage onto film so they could get natural film grain. The film grain, much like the black and white, helps give Werewolf by Night that classic monster movie feel it was going for. However, once they added color, they did so on the now digitized film version, meaning the in-color presentation still has the natural film grain and film effects. The natural effects of film mixed with modern digital filmmaking color correction feel disconnected like the film grain was a mistake in some way. In black and white, the elements of film feel so much more natural, while now in color they feel just wrong.
We hate to harp on this re-release too much, partially because this is how Werewolf by Night was originally shot. However, after everything was shot, the director and editor Jeffery Ford, edited the project to be black and white and showed it to Kevin Feige, who then approved the project being released in black and white. This shows that all the creative decisions in the color version were intentional and thought to be sufficient for the creative team if they didn’t get the green light for black and white. However, this also shows that they knew that Werewolf by Night benefitted from this change creatively. If you’ve never worked in video production, you can’t simply shoot something one way and flip it to black and white. You have to consider the effects of lighting, how it creates shadows, and how it is absorbed or reflected off of objects, paint, and people.
Artists make creative decisions for a reason. Werewolf by Night is a visual and thematic homage to classic monster films through its numerous stylish choices in its cinematography, set design, and interesting choice to release the film in black and white. The fact that Disney decided to spend their resources on just a cheap re-release that only negatively affects the project comes off as incredibly lazy and portrays them as blind as to what made Werewolf by Night stand out in the first place. Calling a work of art a mistake is not something we like to do here. However, this is not a work of art. This is a bland repackaging of something that was truly unique in a catalog of projects that are beginning to look duller and duller with every installment.