podcast review

Wolverine: The Long Night Is a Bold Experiment for Marvel

Photo: Marvel/Stitcher

Wolverine: The Long Night opens with one of my favorite creepy genre conventions: A ghost ship is found drifting off the Alaskan coast, housing a crew that met a grisly fate. Their bodies are slashed up with explosive and unnatural violence, as testified in a monologue delivered by an older fisherman whose boat unwittingly drifted into the remains of the massacre. When interviewed, he describes the scene with gory detail: “A man’s face staring back at me, eyes and mouth gaping open … split clean, red lines raked across it.”

Given that the name of Marvel’s most famous mutant prefixes the title, the probable source of these mutilations should come to no surprise. (Not since James Mangold’s truly great Logan has one been made to acutely consider the consequences of Wolverine’s claws on the human body. Damn, dude. Damn.) The narrative premise of The Long Night shouldn’t surprise, either: A pair of federal agents, Sally Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Tad Marshall (Ato Essandoh), arrive in the rural Alaskan locale to investigate the killings, and our old friend Logan (The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage) quickly emerges as the prime suspect.

Of course, nothing is what it seems. The ship massacre is swiftly connected to two other deaths in the region, previously dismissed as bear attacks in the suspicious way that suggests characters who have something to hide. As we follow Pierce and Marshall through their investigation, the narrative unfolds to reveal a town in the mold of Twin Peaks. Among other things, The Long Night features small-town corruption, a powerful family, and a night-worshipping cult that probably has something to do with the deaths. The agents themselves don’t seem all that trustworthy either: They’re too shady, too incongruous, to be taken at face value. Only the first three of ten planned episodes were made available to critics for review, but it feels readily evident in these opening volleys that we’re being set up for a bit of twistiness. And that much more weirdness is on the way.

The Long Night is Marvel’s first foray into audio drama in the modern podcasting age, a production formed through a collaboration between Marvel New Media and the veteran podcast company Stitcher. Although it doesn’t break particularly new ground while injecting the electric life of a comic-book universe into contemporary audio aesthetics — not yet, anyway — it is nonetheless a successful crossover into podcasting for Marvel.

In large part a classically constructed radio drama, The Long Night is elevated by shrewd sound design (which leans deftly into natural atmospherics, letting the wind and wilderness do a good deal of scene-setting) and supremely competent direction by Brendan Baker and Chloe Prasinos. Scenes move breezily, listeners are kept effectively grounded, and action is excellently communicated — a required competency, given the superhero genre — in ways clear and compelling. I can’t wait to see what will happen when the series crescendos into its third act and works through the difficulty of presenting a mutant-driven climactic encounter purely through sound, should there be one. Such is The Long Night’s burden of being Marvel’s first modern audio drama: It is tasked with establishing a vocabulary for everything that might come after.

The script, written by up-and-coming comics scribe Benjamin Percy, is fine enough. The rural murder-mystery gambit is always a pleasure, but there are bits of clunky dialogue that eat into podcast’s compelling tone and setting. It’s also worth noting that characterizations are paper thin in these early goings, with some characters presented as little more than a melange of clichés and attitude. (Agent Sally Pierce, in particular, feels exceptionally trope-oriented.) The characters are only sporadically transcended by their performers, who pitch their voice work at a theatrical level. This is in keeping with the presentation style common in the broader universe of fiction podcasts, which means The Long Night should work for those familiar with such audio dramas but may need some getting used to for those newer to the form.

The one standout exception is Richard Armitage’s Logan. Snarling and characteristically furious, Armitage plays the Canadian brawler with a light naturalistic touch that’s well within the classic noir tradition of an outsized man hiding from the very fact of existence. This version of Wolverine is one who’s lived too long, seen too much, and killed too many — which is to say, he’s the ripest Wolverine for psychological analysis and the one most resplendent with the prospect of human drama. That said, it’s entirely possible that the strength of Armitage’s performance is the product of how Wolverine is deployed in these early installments. Logan appears with relative economy at the outset of this mystery, so we mostly experience him as a specter in other people’s stories and mythologies: He’s the new guy in town, the quiet and ferocious square of a man, the loner with unbelievable and terrifying properties. It’s Wolverine told as a ghost story, and it’s a move that works really well for a character that’s so present in the wider culture.

We’ll see where The Long Night ultimately leads us, but it’s off to a promising start. Interviews with Percy suggest that Wolverine will be foregrounded more with each successive episode, and that we’ll soon be treated to more details about this specific version of the Marvel universe. Will there be a formal Marvel Podcast Universe, as hinted in a recent Mashable write-up? Possibly, depending on how successful this project turns out to be. For what it’s worth, I’d love to hear from this world and this nexus of creative teams again. Between the gravel of Armitage’s voice, the rustling of the trees, and the snikts of blades slicing through air, the loudest sound that cuts through is the sound of potential.

Wolverine: The Long Night is currently available on Stitcher Premium, a paid listening service, with new episodes dropping every Monday. It’s scheduled for a wider free release in the fall.

Wolverine: The Long Night Is a Bold Experiment for Marvel