By George Bate
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has trekked into a number of genres and realms during its 14 year run so far. Grounded, street-level films like Spider-Man: Homecoming exist in the same universe as cosmic adventures like Guardians of the Galaxy, sprawling political thrillers like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and magical tales like Doctor Strange. Unlike its predecessors, Moon Knight, the newest MCU series for Disney+, introduces viewers to a more mystical and historical side of the universe. Moon Knight follows a quirky, lonely man named Steven Grant (played by Oscar Isaac), whose monotonous life as a gift shop employee is interrupted by mysterious blackouts, visions of Egyptian Gods, and a nefarious cult leader (played by Ethan Hawke).
First and foremost, Moon Knight affirms that the MCU’s core strength lies in its development of likable, charismatic, vulnerable lead characters. Fans of the source material will know that Moon Knight follows a man with dissociative identity disorder, who, in turn, struggles with multiple identities or personalities in ways reminiscent of Split or Primal Fear.
Oscar Isaac dives head first into this complex role, seamlessly alternating between wonderfully over-the-top and decidedly badass as his protagonist’s multiple personalities shine through. Moon Knight simply would not work without an actor of Oscar Isaac’s caliber at the helm. Isaac features in virtually every scene of the first four episodes and is tasked with delivering multiple, multi-faceted performances, something he excels at. Some of the most mesmerizing moments from the these initial episodes are not when punches are being thrown or mystical elements of the MCU are explored, but, rather, when Isaac’s Steven Grant and Marc Spector engage in tense, funny, and intelligently crafted dialogue sequences as they struggle for control and work together.
Adding more complexity to the warring personalities is the presence of Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), an Egyptian God that uses Grant/Spector as an avatar. Between Grant, Spector, and Khonshu, it’s hard not to think of Venom or Venom: Let There Be Carnage in watching these characters interact. While not leaning into humor as heavily as Sony’s anti-hero, Moon Knight certainly engages in the quippy, internal back-and-forths that made Venom work so well. Beyond Venom, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde influences permeate the series.
The initial episodes of Moon Knight are characterized by a fun and frantic pacing that purposefully disorients, for better or for worse. As revealed in the series’ promotional materials, Moon Knight begins from Steven Grant’s perspective as he begins to uncover the secrets of his true identity. In doing so, the series utilizes an identity amnesia trope seen in films like The Bourne Identity and Memento. And, similar to these films, it makes sense for the audience to be as initially disoriented as the lead. Like Grant, the viewer has so many questions about what is going on and who Grant really is, and it’s exciting to be along for this journey as this seemingly menial man’s life is revealed to be so much more. That being said, this disorientation persists a little too long in Moon Knight. As the secrets unravel, the series desperately cries out for an expositional flashback sequence that never comes. Without this, the audience is left feeling a little out of touch from the mechanics and backstory of the plot. For instance, information about Marc Spector’s background, including his relationship with a character named Layla (played by May Calamawy) and the origins of his connection to Khonshu, is trickled out intermittently across various dialogues that need piecing together. And even when piecing together all of this information, it’s hard not to feel a little distant from some of our characters given their lengthy, unseen, and, for a long time, unexplained histories.
Despite some of these issues, Moon Knight’s plot unfolds in extremely exciting ways. The narrative combines elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, The Endless, National Treasure, and even The Descent (yes, Neil Marshall’s cave horror film). It’s a globe-trotting adventure story with stakes that are felt, twists that surprise (to say the least), and emotional moments that hit hard. In its use of on-location sets and variety of mystical elements on display, directors Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, and Mohamed Diab craft a series that is visually discrepant from anything we’ve seen before in the MCU. It all feels grand and momentous as we follow our leads’ pursuit to save the world.
This pursuit to save the world results from the actions of Ethan Hawke’s Arthur Harrow, the villain of the series. As expected, Hawke is superb in the role. He’s dressed and acts like a cult leader, evoking equal amounts of menace and charisma. Unlike other Disney+ MCU series so far, the lead villain has a significant amount of screen time in Moon Knight. Hawke is given plenty to do in this role and is a looming presence over the series.
Speaking of strong performances, May Calamawy plays a more prominent role from episode to episode. Her chemistry with Oscar Isaac works from the very beginning and Calamawy nails the series of action-oriented and more intimate moments during her character’s journey.
Moon Knight showcases a unique, mystical side of the MCU that had yet to be seen. Oscar Isaac is equal parts badass and quirky, as he seamlessly navigates the complexities of his multiple characters. The first few episodes are, at times, disorienting, which add to the fun and frantic pace of the show and its identity themes, but introduce rather lofty concepts that take some getting used to. Nonetheless, Moon Knight never ceases to captivate. If the first four episodes are any indication of where this character and story are heading, Marvel fans are in for a treat.
Images courtesy of Marvel Studios & Disney+