Note: For my thoughts on Moon Knight as a character, please check out my previous essay: Moon Knight is Not Batman.
Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight is fundamentally a Marvel Studios version of Moon Knight. Fans who are entering into the six-part limited series on Disney+ expecting a story as dark or brooding as later-day Moon Knight comics or the Netflix Defenders series will find themselves disappointed. There is a slightly greater level of violence, gore and horror than in other Disney+ series but nothing more extreme than the scene where U.S. Agent executes a man in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier. As a fan of the earlier, odder depictions of the character, I’m fine with this because the emphasis of the show is firmly focused on Oscar Isaac performing (at minimum) two different and equally interesting men trapped in the same body.
In an unprecedented move, Disney provided critics with advanced previews of the first four episodes of the series. That’s two-thirds of the story. It covers quite a lot of ground as our hero, Marc Spector / Steve Grant (Isaac), tries to figure himself out while facing down a fanatical cult leader, Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke). The series mixes psychological thriller beats, superhero action and an approach to pop Egyptology that feels lovingly lifted from Stephen Sommers’ version of The Mummy.
For fans of the character, there are creative decisions that might rankle their feathers. This is a composite built from the many different interpretations of a character who has never been approached with consistency in nearly a half-century of publication. Still, and without going into spoilers, there are a few tweaks that might bother existing fans who hold one particular Moon Knight comic story above others. Personally, I fell in love with this new iteration immediately, entirely on the strength of Isaac’s performance.
It’s impossible to say he’s a revelation or anything; everyone knows how great an actor Isaac is. He simply delivers here. We’re first introduced to Steven Grant, a mild-mannered, awkward gift shop employee at a museum in London where he spends his days geeking out about Egyptian artifacts. Each night, he ties himself to his bed to prevent himself from sleepwalking. Or so he tells himself.
Anyone who has seen the trailers knows that’s not the case. Grant is one of two minds in the same body. The other is Marc Spector, a brutal mercenary indebted to the Egyptian deity Khonshu. When Spector is in control, he sets out on missions to bring justice to those who hurt innocents, wrapped in a healing suit of armor gifted to him by his god.
Isaac distinguishes his characterizations of Grant and Spector, who frequently interact through mirror reflections and jostle over which one controls their physical body. interaction frequently through reflections, jostling over which one of them controls their physical body. The show gets quite a bit of mileage out of Isaac v. Isaac and finds clever ways of putting the two men at odds during inopportune moments.
If you don’t count Khonshu himself (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), there are only two other major characters in the story. Hawke’s Harrow is an interesting foil for our hero, although it’s hard to judge his overall effectiveness without the conclusion to the story. More notable is May Calamity as Layla El-Faouly, an archaeologist whose history with Spector is slowly revealed over the course of the series. She’s great. Some fans have wondered if she’s a reimagining of longtime comics love-interest Marlene Alraune. The answer is yes, but by way of Marvel Studios’ practice of giving women characters quite a bit more agency in these stories. It’s an intelligent shift.
Harrow is a name lifted from the comics but given a new personality while Layla is a new name and personality given to a previously existing character. That’s kind of the way this take on Moon Knight approaches his supporting cast, at least for now. There are references to several other important characters. Some are known; Anton Mogart, the Midnight Man, shows up in one episode portrayed by the late actor Gaspard Ulliel. Others are worth keeping a surprise.
So as a fan, I’m quite pleased with the show’s take on the main character and his immediate supporting cast. I like how it introduces quite a lot of new mythology into the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it owes a great debt to the 1980s Fist of Khonshu run in how explicitly it draws on Egyptian inspiration. Isaac is extremely funny in the lead role. There are fun references for dedicated fans of the character.
The series is not perfect, however. As a Marvel Studios take on Moon Knight for Disney+, that means it still looks and feels like a Marvel Studios take on Moon Knight for Disney+ in ways that sometimes frustrate. There are multiple instances where the green-screen backdrops feel frustratingly obvious. The six-episode pacing still feels somewhat off, too, an issue I’ve had with pretty much all of their series that had this length. A friend asked me if Moon Knight starts slow like the rest of their shows. I would say it has the most exciting season premiere of the bunch, but despite the amount of plot that unfolds over the subsequent episodes, it still feels like an extended movie rather than a series of stories. I wish Moon Knight — and other Marvel Disney+ shows — could commit more decisively to deeper serialization. Six episodes? Give me six villains. Embrace the format of storytelling these properties have thrived on for so long. These are stories that grow in the telling, and six hours is a long time to focus on one ongoing conflict.
All that being said, I liked Moon Knight quite a lot. I’m excited to see how it wraps up a month from now, and I’ll likely watch each episode as it airs on Disney+ over the next month.