Marvel Studios promised to deliver something different from what it’s done before in the MCU with Moon Knight. Based on the four episodes made available to critics, it’s safe to say it delivers on that promise.
Moon Knight is a chaotic and sometimes strange action-packed adventure that brings a new type of hero and mythology to the MCU. It follows Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a mild-mannered Englishman who discovers his dreams and blackouts are the results of being the alternate personality of Marc Spector, an American mercenary with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Complicating things further is the fact Marc is the avatar of Khonshu, the powerful Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance. Marc enacts the vengeance of Khonshu as the costumed vigilante Moon Knight.
Oh, and together they also have to stop a cult leader trying to bring back an even more dangerous Egyptian god.
Intrigued yet? Marvel is banking on the fact you will be despite no obvious ties to the rest of the MCU.
A Globetrotting Adventure
The series draws from the blockbuster action-adventure movies of the late 90s/early 00s while having the benefit of modern-day CGI and effects. The Mummy is the obvious comparison not just for the related subject matter but because of the blend of horror, action, and comedy.
Whether it’s chasing bad guys across rooftops or duking it out with supernatural monsters, there’s no shortage of action.
The show introduces the Ennead of Egyptian gods as being real in the Marvel universe, a concept that predates Moon Knight in the comics. It’s a whole new arena to explore in the MCU and one that seems to bear few ties to the other gods, aliens, and sorcerers we’ve come across so far.
At times it’s easy to forget Moon Knight even belongs to the MCU because of its lack of interest in connectivity. You don’t have to worry about any Mephisto theories this round.
The willingness to enter a new corner of the Marvel universe allows Moon Knight to delve into some trippier scenes including one that questions Marc’s reality entirely. While a lot of the action scenes fit within Marvel’s typical template, it’s these scenes that stand out.
Oscar Isaac: Leading Man and Character Actor
At the center of the story is Oscar Isaac playing the dual roles of Marc Spector/Moon Knight and his alter Steven Grant/Mr. Knight. If your first impressions based on Isaac’s accent in the trailer left you cold, I can assure you it works much better in the context of the story.
Starting from Steven’s perspective challenges the viewers as it takes a while for both Steven and the audience to figure out what’s going on. Not totally unlike WandaVision, viewers will need to exercise a little patience before the pieces start fitting together.
Marc’s disorder plays a key role in how the story works with Steven and Marc negotiating for control and figuring out how to work together. The show is respectful of the realities of Marc’s DID as being a real illness instead of a punchline but doesn’t dig as deeply as it could in the first four episodes.
It’s confirmed that Marc previously had his disorder “under control,” and Steven’s reappearance is a fairly recent occurrence. Beyond that, we don’t get much more explanation of Marc’s history or what trauma led to his disorder.
Marc and Steven interact by talking to each other through reflections. It’s a testament to Isaac’s acting that both feel like fully realized people and go beyond the switching of accents.
Despite Steven’s over-the-top accent and somewhat dorky personality, Isaac manages to pull together a character you’ll be interested in. Steven is funny and sad and earnest all in one breath, making it easy to emotionally invest in him.
Marc’s internal conflict plays out a little more stereotypically of an action hero before we peel back his layers. His heartbreaking reasons for helping Khonshu and leaving Layla are revealed eventually.
For Isaac, he’s getting to be a charismatic leading man and quirky character actor in one go. His excellent performance is what makes the show’s big swing pay off.
The dynamic between Marc and Steven and how that’s handled sets the show and Moon Knight as a hero apart from Marvel’s predecessors. Although much of the backstory could’ve been achieved with a simple flashback, the show chooses not to go that route.
It is not an origin story you’re used to, with Marvel pushing back on the audience’s typical expectations for a superhero’s debut.
Rounding Out the Cast
May Calamawy as Layla El-Faouly, Marc’s estranged wife, is magnetic to watch as she easily commands all the scenes she’s in. Of all the characters introduced, Layla may be the one to win you over the quickest.
The MCU’s track record with “love interests” is mixed to put it generously, but Layla is a hero all on her own. Her expertise and skills make her indispensable to Marc’s mission, and it’s clear she’d be out there trying to save the world with or without him.
Calamawy and Isaac’s chemistry is off the charts, playing into the fact that the two characters still love each other despite the hurt Marc inflicted on her. If there is more Moon Knight in the MCU’s future there better be more Layla as well.
Ethan Hawke as Arthur Harrow, the fanatical cult leader attempting to resurrect the dangerous god Ammit, is perfectly cast and a reminder of what Marvel villains can be when given real motive and adequate screentime. His ties to Khonshu make his quest for vengeance personal, and his psychoanalytical-meets-spiritual approach makes him a compelling foe for Marc.
Throughout the series, Hawke gets several weighty monologues that he delivers in such an absorbing fashion you can easily see why people chose to follow Harrow. It’s still unclear whether Harrow will be a one-and-done villain, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him return to the MCU one day in a Zemo-like fashion.
Dark is Relative
The show does sometimes feel like it’s holding back to fit its TV-14 rating. Switching between Marc and Steven allows it to imply a lot of violence in the early episodes without showing it.
Moon Knight is more brutal and bloodier than Marvel Studio’s normal offerings, but fans expecting the series to live up to the likes of Marvel TV’s Daredevil or The Punisher in terms of grittiness or violence will be disappointed.
Even if it does earn the title of darkest Marvel Disney+ series to date by default, Moon Knight doesn’t explore deeply enough the ethical consequences of Marc being a mercenary. The moral conflict is there for the picking and hopefully, in the remaining two episodes not offered to critics, we’ll see it examined more closely.
There are still a lot of boundaries left for Marvel to push, but that doesn’t stop Moon Knight from being a show worth watching. A little patience with the setup will lead to a satisfying adventure.
The first episode of Moon Knight premieres on Disney+ on March 30.