Disney+ throws lunacy into the MCU with Moon Knight, Marvel’s most complicated superhero
Now that the Infinity Saga is long past its endgame, Marvel’s been busy the last few years with the difficult task of introducing audiences to its lesser known stable of heroes and villains. There have been some spectacular misses on film, notably Eternals and Morbius, but the television offerings have a few surprising bright spots on hand for fans. Hawkeye was an enjoyable holiday romp, giving us both Kate Bishop and Echo to look forward to in future offerings, and both Loki and WandaVision felt smart, complex and, most of all, fun. But you can’t rely on your old heavy hitters forever; audiences crave fresh blood, lest things get stale. To that end, we have the newest and perhaps most challenging hero in the MCU now hitting Disney Plus: Moon Knight.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Going all in on Moon Knight is a huge gamble for Disney/Marvel. There is no universe in which depicting the character on screen is an easy feat. If you’re not familiar with him, as I’m sure few of us were before this series, it would be simple to call the character “Marvel’s version of Batman.” The two are alike in that they both fight crime wearing costumes at night using gadgets, sure, but that’s where the similarities end.
In fact, Batman seems almost absurdly straightforward by comparison. To put it as succinctly as possible, Moon Knight is one of the many personalities of Marc Spector, a Jewish-American former Marine and mercenary with dissociative identity disorder who serves as the vengeful avatar of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu. In the comics, as in the show, Moon Knight is as much about Spector wrestling with his own fractured mind as it is with bad guys and otherworldly deities.
In the new series, Oscar Isaac plays the title role. But we meet him not as Marc, but as Steven Grant, here portrayed as an awkward schmuck working in a London museum gift shop and sporting a comically awful cockney accent. This is an odd choice by the writers. Grant struggles to serve his belittling shrew of a boss at the museum, which isn’t easy since he’s battling what he deduces as a sleep disorder. Much like the narrator in Fight Club, he suffers from nightly blackouts, huge swaths of time missing from his memory, and figures he must be a somnambulant or a narcoleptic.
He does his best to keep his small, messy life together, until he wakes up in a German mountain village to find himself confronting a creepily charismatic cult leader named Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) and an army of heavily armed baddies over a stolen Egyptian artifact. Thus commences the lunacy. Random bullshit, go!
Episode One goes entertainingly off the rails at this point, as Grant’s DID comes to the forefront. His eyes roll back in his head, we cut to black, and when our protagonist reappears he’s horrified to discover that he’s covered in blood and surrounded by dead bodies. Also, there’s an ominous voice in his head, and it’s apparently not Steven’s biggest fan. “Ugh,” it moans, “the idiot’s in control.” The voice, of course, is Khonshu, here played with delightful, gravelly sarcasm by F. Murray Abraham. What follows is the show’s first big action sequence, with Steven attempting to flee and fight off the horde of mercenaries while driving a candy pink cupcake van along twisty Alpine roads, blacking out and waking up in terrifying new circumstances, like suddenly driving at high velocity in reverse while holding a gun, all the while enduring Khonshu’s mocking voice.
“Did he just throw the gun?” it complains as Grant tosses his pistol at the bad guys instead of firing it. “Leave us be, parasite!” It’s a thrilling and hilarious sequence, with seamless action and stunts punctuated by bright comedic notes. There may be doubts about the show’s various merits along the way, but this scene alone is worth the price of entry.
By the end of the first episode, Steven’s life has gone completely sideways. He misses a romantic date he doesn’t remember making by two whole days, there’s a mysterious burner phone with dozens of missing calls and voicemails from a woman he doesn’t recognize named Layla, his pet goldfish seems to have been replaced with a different one, more voices begin talking to him via his reflections in mirrored surfaces, and eventually poor little Stevie finds himself attacked in the museum by monstrous jackals.
Facing either death by jackal or surrendering control of his body to an “alter” named Marc, Steven decides on the latter. With Marc at the helm, a luminous costume of mummy wrappings and robes magically swathes his body, his eyes glow with fierce, pale light, and Moon Knight gets busy kicking ass. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the first episode, and a solid start to the series.
Episode Two gets us more deeply involved with Steven’s increasingly complicated life and mental state, as well as giving us more background on Harrow. I had my doubts about the casting, but Hawke turns in an admirable performance as the villain here, and as an avatar of the Egyptian soul-devouring goddess Ammit, he’s in equal turns monstrous and charming. Like many big bad evil guys, including Thanos, his motives are seemingly noble, in this case putting an end to all evil, particularly before it even rears its head. This same idea, you might remember, was at the philosophical and narrative center of Minority Report. Steven rightly deduces that this might include killing babies before they become criminals, and when Harrow concedes to that ugly side of Ammit’s modus operandi, it’s clear that the guy is about as noble as a hungry crocodile with a baby egret in its sights.
We also meet the mysterious Layla, who turns out to be Marc’s wife, much to Steven’s surprise, and she clearly knows more about Steven’s life than he does, including his ability to summon the powers of Moon Knight. Only when Steven does so during a moment of extreme duress whilst fighting more jackals, it’s as “Mr. Knight,” whose costume Marc, reflected in a mirror, describes to Steven as “psycho Colonel Sanders,” which is admittedly funny. More exciting action ensues, our hero finds himself (or themselves) momentarily victorious, and at the end of the episode he awakes in an Egyptian hotel room, as we head back to the source of Marc Spector’s near death and his rebirth as Moon Knight.
If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry, it is. There’s no way around that for Marvel, not without oversimplifying and therefore dooming the entire series. To their credit, the writers and producers haven’t dumbed anything down, and fans of the comics have much to enjoy here, even if they’ll undoubtedly nitpick everything, as comic book fanatics tend to do, including this writer. A character as dizzyingly complicated as Moon Knight might have seemed unfilmable for years, and surely it took a long time for Marvel to figure out how to do it right.
And, for the most part, they’ve done so successfully, albeit not without using a few cliches in the process. First, the visual language employed here, particularly the repeated use of reflective surfaces to illustrate the many facets of Steven/Marc’s personality, is about as subtle as a bag of wet cement. It would be nice to figure out a novel way to illustrate a person with DID talking to their alters without using mirrors and pools of water or, in one case, the chrome finish of a 9mm pistol. But, in the end, it works, even if it’s not particularly original, and it’s also slick and cinematically beautiful.
One thing the show definitely nails is its depiction of Khonshu, which is straight out of the 2013 series of comics by Warren Ellis, and illustrates the ancient god as a humanoid with a massive, floating bird’s skull. The creature design and CGI work is both impressive and terrifying, and you can feel Steven’s abject horror when he first encounters the grumpy god. It gives me hope for what will inevitably be a massive set action sequence involving Moon Knight and the physical incarnation of Ammit. Nasty croc-lady’s coming for us by the end of the season, you mark my words.
On the other hand, we have Steven Grant. In the comics, Grant is more like Bruce Wayne, a wealthy, handsome playboy movie producer. Here, Steven is an insufferable putz. I didn’t find myself rooting for him so much as desperately begging him to be less pathetic. This stands in stark contrast to Marc, when we finally meet him, but we haven’t gotten to know him much in the first two episodes, which are almost entirely Steven-centric. The accent, as mentioned before, is atrocious, but that’s obviously by design.
Marc Spector is American, so naturally his English accent would be shite, and at one point Layla even calls him out on it. And Isaac doesn’t chew the scenery as Steven, he devours it. We’re talking Derek Jacobi-level scenery masticating. His performance is equally as over the top and spastic as Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene, and the more hammy moments of Ed Norton in both Primal Fear and Fight Club. It is, in all honesty, very often what the kids would call “cringe.” I’m really hoping that the show finds some balance, because an entire series of this particular Steven Grant would quickly become insufferable, even if it is only six episodes.
Bearing that in mind, I think there’s a lot to look forward to as this series moves forward, even if we don’t find our hero battling werewolves in space, which is 100% something that happens in the comics. We’ve yet to meet the third alter from the source material, Jake Lockley, a cab driver and street-level tough guy who keeps his ear to the ground for Marc. We will of course have plenty more glorious action sequences, which I think Marvel has really honed to a diamond point these days, especially as Harrow grows in his power and Steven/Marc needs to grow in order to challenge it. And, of course, we haven’t fully explored the character’s origin story, including his youth as the son of a rabbi and Holocaust survivor in Chicago, his early mental health issues, and of course the bloody ordeal in the Egyptian desert that leads to his Faustian compact with Khonshu.
No filmic version of Moon Knight could possibly be perfect, but it’s an entertaining start so far, if a little broad at times, particularly in Isaac’s performance as Steven. But that’s definitely not enough to keep me from eagerly hanging on for more. At this rate, with Disney offering their own spin on the character, who knows what might happen? We might even get to see Moon Knight shakedown Dracula for money! Wouldn’t that be grand?