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Before ‘Werewolf by Night,’ there was 2005’s abysmal ‘Man-Thing’

This obscure Marvel adaptation was an ‘Adventure into Fear.’

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

On October 7, Marvel unleashed Werewolf by Night on Disney+, finally bringing a touch of horror — and camp! — to the MCU machine. In addition to the titular Fella That Wolfs After Dark, the special also introduced mainstream audiences to Ted Sallis, a.k.a. Man-Thing. And although the character is only referred to by his first name in this adventure, and even though he’s certainly a bit more self-aware and gregarious than the majority of his comic book appearances, this incarnation of Man-Thing has been pretty well received. Who knew a mossy monster who torches people alive could be so adorable?

However, this is not the first time Man-Thing has appeared in live-action. Oh, no, dear readers. In fact, Man-Thing once headlined a movie of his very own, and the results were… considerably less impressive than Werewolf by Night.

The year was 2005. The MCU was barely a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, and it was strangely difficult to get superheroes to the big screen up until this point. Recent comic-based flicks had made the prospect a bit less of a long-shot, though, and so Lionsgate decided to roll them dice with a creature feature based on Steve Gerber’s classic monster creation. Directed by The Lawnmower Man helmer Bret Leonard and written by future Lost Boys sequel scribe Hans Rodionoff, Man-Thing aimed to embrace the darker side of the Marvel Universe in a way that only Blade had thus far.

Unfortunately, this movie took a lot of the wrong lessons from Blade. This movie opens with a party and an awkward sex scene, then immediately transitions into a horrific murder as one of the drunken youths is torn to shreds by the titular monster. Cue generic southern rock as our handsome hero rides into town. So far, you might think this sounds a lot more like a generic creature feature than an earnest adaptation of Man-Thing. You’d be right.

Before 'Werewolf by Night,' there was 2005's abysmal 'Man-Thing'

To be fair, there are attempts to pay tribute to the source material, albeit in some wacky and on-the-nose ways. Characters in the story are named after comic creators Steve Gerber, Val Mayerik, and Mike Ploog, but that’s honestly more distracting than cute. And to its credit, the movie adapts a more grounded version of Gerber’s classic Man-Thing foil, the not-so-subtly-named F.A. Schist, to serve a similar role here. The creature design (when we get to see it) is pretty faithful to the comics. There’s a half-assed reference to the Nexus of All Realities, which comes to absolutely nothing in this narrative. And that’s about where the similarities stop.

In this film, the Man-Thing — again, never named on-screen, which may be for the best — was once a Seminole shaman who was killed while attempting to protect his tribal land from Schist’s company. After his untimely death, Sallis rose again as an angry spirit to exact revenge on the people destroying the marshland. There’s a really intriguing idea here about the land taking itself back by force, but the movie’s not terribly interested in those heady concepts. Instead, much of the runtime is devoted to uncomfortable stereotypes, a murder mystery in which the culprits are obvious from the jump, off-putting run-ins with local yokels, and a budding romance between two of the blandest leads I’ve seen in a minute.

Maybe that last bit’s a little harsh. No slam against them personally — just look at what they have to work with — but Matthew Le Nevez and Rachael Taylor are not given much more to do beyond posture and occasionally yell while making doe eyes at one another. Le Nevez is particularly stiff in the role of the new town sheriff, seemingly nonplussed by nearly every horrible sight he comes across. He comes alive a bit in the grand finale, but by then it’s too late, because we’re squarely in bad CGI land for the last little chunk.

Yes, even the muck monster itself suffers from some unfortunate mid-2000s special effects. There are a few scenes where Man-Thing is realized by actor Conan Stevens in a practical suit — aided by some goofy-looking animated tendrils — and those are fairly impressive. The moments of practical gore are well done, too, with a few of the mangled bodies left behind by Man-Thing’s rampages looking particularly good. However, the majority of Man-Thing‘s screen time is occupied by a blurry and murky computer representation of the main character, which kind of takes the terror out of the proceedings. It’s hard to get too invested when the baddies are running from something that looks like a character from Killer Instinct. Of course, that brings me to the biggest strike against 2005’s Man-Thing: the titular beast is barely in it at all.

Before 'Werewolf by Night,' there was 2005's abysmal 'Man-Thing'

There’s something to be said for the way Leonard keeps the creature mostly in the shadows, which affords the film a few decent jump-scares and some eerie POV shots. Aside from some quick flashes here and there, ol’ Ted’s film debut is mostly relegated to brief appearances in the opening and closing moments of the movie. Otherwise, we’re left with characters talking about the dread protector of the swamp, or else firing their guns wildly off-screen at something we can’t see. The whole things starts to take on the feeling of a direct-to-video flick from the Asylum — fitting, seeing how this one debuted on Sci Fi back in the day (before the name rebrand to Syfy, thank you very much). Reportedly, a lot of the budget for this flick got slashed at the last minute, which necessitated keeping Man-Thing mostly on the sidelines.

Even so, the screenwriter seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the character, turning it into a bloodthirsty killer that has to be eliminated by the stoic hero by the end of the runtime. There’s none of the poetry or whimsy of Steve Gerber’s run, nor the often-silly purple prose of Chris Claremont’s time writing the creature. What audiences are left with is a slow-moving monster movie that seems to have been made with no one in mind, a far cry from the crowd-pleasing ambitions of today’s Marvel output. Love the MCU or hate it, at least we never got that movie about Spider-Man turning into a monster and fighting Dr. Zork. Fans of the source material don’t seem to have been considered in the making of this particular adaptation.

It should be noted that I never go into anything, be it a book or a movie, with the intention of disliking. I was actually curious to revisit this flick after all of these years, and kind of bummed when I rediscovered that it’s kind of a slog. It’s not even “so bad it’s good,” as some maligned superhero films of yesteryear are. If you’re a fan of Marvel ephemera and want to see what this flick is all about, I might still say to skip it. But if you’re a glutton for punishment (like me) or a completist (like me), you can find it streaming for free on Tubi. You’ll probably know in the first five minutes whether you’re going to groove to this movie’s vibe — or if you’ll burn at its touch.

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