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In the Refreshingly Inessential 'Moon Knight,' the MCU Continues Its F--- It Phase

By Tori Preston | TV | March 31, 2022 |

By Tori Preston | TV | March 31, 2022 |

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Based on the first episode of the latest Disney Plus/Marvel joint, Moon Knight, a lot of this show is going to involve the disembodied voice of F. Murray Abraham demanding that Oscar Isaac “SURRENDER THE BODY” and honestly, if that doesn’t make you want to watch then I’m not sure what more there is to say. My kinks aside, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the more casual MCU fans — the non-comic book readers out there — have no idea who the eff this Moon Knight dude is or why he matters enough to give him a show, so let me do my best to walk you through it.

Moon Knight is a vigilante with dissociative identity disorder who also happens to be the avatar of an Egyptian lunar deity, and he absolutely doesn’t matter at all. The character is a niche cut, his lore is an oft-retconned mess, and frankly, I’m not sure how this show fits into Kevin Feige’s grand design unless he needed to check “Give Oscar Isaac whatever he wants” off his to-do list. If you’re just sick to death of the whole Marvel machine, then you could easily sit this one out for the time being — but that would be a shame because it turns out that the most exciting thing Marvel could do at this point is to try something completely inessential. Something that simply is, for no clear reason at all.

We’re well into Phase Four now — or as I like to call it, the MCU’s “f**k it” phase — and it’s clear the goal is to bring in some fresh, diverse faces and finally embrace the mystical mojo that’s always been a through-line of the comics. No more “Asgard isn’t magic — it’s just really, really shiny science” for this franchise, no siree. Marvel is finally down to clown, and I dig it! But like, there’s Kang the Conquerer weird, there’s Multiverse of Madness weird, and then there’s “violent mercenary with multiple personalities and a god in his head” weird, and from the get-go Moon Knight feels like the square peg that doesn’t fit neatly in Marvel’s very round holes. It’s got the violence of a Netflix/Marvel effort, but with an almost whimsical sense of humor that keeps it from being gritty. My understanding is that the show is set a few years in the future, far enough that it won’t be able to directly impact any of the other MCU properties, and so this isn’t a show that’s likely to set up anything important to the future events. Besides, it has its hands full just trying to establish who this guy is, and as the first episode (titled “The Goldfish Problem”) makes clear — it’s complicated.

We first meet Oscar Isaac as a mild-mannered museum gift shop employee with an amusingly fake British accent named Steven Grant. He has a sleeping problem, in that he’s always tired and sometimes wakes up in strange places, so now he chains himself to his bed at night. Except that one night his countermeasures fail, and Steven wakes up in the countryside of a whole other country with blood in his mouth, a golden scarab in his pocket, and an angry voice in his head demanding that he, ahem, “SURRENDER THE BODY” while some crazed cultists chase him. The cultists are led by Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), who believes he’s the servant of the Egyptian goddess Ammit, the “eater of hearts.” Traditionally her role is to be on hand as the dead have their hearts weighed on the scales of justice, and if they’re deemed impure she’d get to… ya know, eat them. According to Harrow, however, Ammit was betrayed by the rest of her pantheon for trying to get a jump on things and weed out the bad hearts early, while they’re still alive — and in some cases before they’ve actually committed any crimes. So now Harrow has a tattoo of scales on his arm and a mission to walk through the world judging people in her stead, and Steven is in the crowd as Harrow’s demonstration leads to a woman’s death.

The scarab, it turns out, belongs to Harrow — who also seems to recognize Steven and calls him “mercenary.” Since Steven is exceedingly mild-mannered and baffled and genuinely doesn’t want any trouble with crazed cultists who mysteriously kill old ladies, he’d love to just hand the fancy bug right back. Only his hand won’t let him. And neither will his whole arm or the voice in his head. And when he’s overtaken by Harrow’s goons and the scarab is ripped from his grasp, Steven’s eyes drift shut … and then open moments later to find the goons on the ground and his hands drenched with blood. What follows is basically the mission statement of the series: A thrilling chase sequence that unfolds solely from Steven’s point of view as he drives a stolen cupcake truck, and whenever he’s almost apprehended he loses time while something — or someone — saves his bacon. And all the while that F. Murray Abraham voice continues to berate him and demand that “Marc” wake up.

Steven eventually comes to in his own bed thinking everything he experienced was just a dream, only to realize he’s lost two days of his life. His goldfish has been replaced, and he finds a cubby hole in his apartment with a key and a phone in it — a phone that apparently belongs to someone named Marc. There are things in his life that just don’t add up, but then a new voice in his head — a voice that sounds like Oscar Isaac, with an American accent — tells him to “stop looking,” and the world starts shaking and the lights flicker and a giant mummy with a bird skull for a head shows up, and then… it all goes back to normal. Steven’s reality is breaking down around him, but how much of it is in his head — a symptom of a mental illness he isn’t aware he has — and how much of it is real is unclear. In fact, that may be the driving question of the whole series.

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The episode ends with Harrow confronting Steven at his museum job in London, still looking for the scarab, then sending a dog monster after him. Steven, who is woefully unprepared for monster fights, hides in the bathroom where he is confronted by his own reflection in the mirror. A reflection that sounds like him, only American. The reflection tells Steven that he needs to stop fighting him and let him take control. “Let me save us.” So Steven does … and that’s when we finally meet Moon Knight, with his glowing eyes and long white cape. And hey! Beating up a monster dog is easy for this new guy!

A superhero with a mild-mannered alter ego is commonplace in the comic book world, and usually the story goes that they struggle to keep their heroic persona a secret from the ones they love in an effort to protect them. Spider-Man: No Way Home was entirely about Peter Parker trying to make his identity a secret again for the safety of his friends and family. The twist with Moon Knight is that it’s the alter ego who has no idea he’s a hero, and the hero who apparently is going to great lengths to keep it that way. It makes for an unusual origin story as well, a sideways approach to a character that’s less about them becoming a hero than realizing that a part of them has been one all along. Credit that approach to writer Jeremy Slater, who is responsible for the television adaptations of The Umbrella Academy and The Exorcist but also had a hand in, uh, Death Note and the most recent Fantastic Four. Here he’s doing the work of, essentially, crafting a brand new definitive text for this character, one that isn’t so different in detail from its comics counterpart but lacks the confusing years of baggage. On the page, Moon Knight was a dime store Batman — he stalks the night with fancy themed gadgets, he’s prone to violence, his real face is his real mask, yada yada yada. He was Marc Spector, the mercenary who died outside of an Egyptian tomb and was resurrected by the lunar god of vengeance Khonshu to do his bidding on Earth under the guise of his several aspects (Steven Grant being one of them, albeit a rich mogul type). Is Marc mentally ill, or did Khonshu injure his brain during the resurrection? Did Khonshu save Marc because he was there, or did the god target and groom Marc from childhood because his mind was fragile all along? Is Khonshu a force for good, or something more sinister? Depending on the decade and the writer, the how and why of Moon Knight shifted — but without a doubt the character’s fractured psyche is what always set him apart.

Marvel wisely hired Egyptian director Mohamed Diab to help craft this version of the character by steering the show away from the cheap exoticism the comics often fell into while still bringing the lore to life in a fun, vibrant way. More importantly, he’s responsible for the unique action — having to shoot a sequence of events around the absence of the hero, and the struggle of a character who’s body and mind isn’t always under his control. Moon Knight is more akin to Venom than anything in the actual MCU, but at least Eddie always knew his symbiote was there. In creating a visual language for Steven’s dissociative identity disorder, the show does much more than just represent the experience of a mental illness. It sets up a central conflict around a character’s own self-awareness — or lack thereof.

Still, none of it would work if Oscar Isaac wasn’t there selling the absolute hell out of this concept, and it’s his game performance that justifies this whole experiment. His Steven is teeth-achingly awkward and bumbling, but also finely tuned to feel juuuuuuuuust a little unreal. A persona, not a person. The premiere is constructed to make you wait for the other shoe to drop, for him to figure out the mystery of the voices in his head and his lost time, but that tension isn’t very tense because sleep-deprived, haggard, and confused Oscar Isaac is DELIGHTFUL and FINE! Like yeah OK, tell me why F. Murray Abraham is mad at him or whatever, but please don’t make him comb his hair! When his serious reflection, Marc, shows up at the end to save the day, I was honestly taken aback because even though that version is more in line with the Oscar Isaac we know and love, I’d forgotten he even existed. Steven erased him. Steven is all.

Ethan Hawke is also well deployed as the zealot Harrow, who maintains the even-keeled, soft-spoken disposition of someone who believes wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their purpose. Though a character with the same name does appear in the comics as a brief adversary of Moon Knight, he bears no resemblance to the character Hawke is portraying. It’s safe to treat this Harrow as an original creation of the show, and if we take it at face value that he’ll be the show’s main villain, I appreciate the way we just… know what his whole evil plan is from the jump. “Create utopia by feeding evil hearts to goddess,” got it. The plan is transparent because the show isn’t really about it. It’s there to help establish the theology and keep the plot moving. What the show is about is untangling the knot that is Steven, Marc, and Moon Knight, and that’s complicated enough. We literally get a whole info dump about Ammit, but we haven’t heard the name Khonshu even once yet.

Khonshu, by the way, is the bird-headed mummy guy — the character F. Murray Abraham is voicing. The godly voice in Steven’s head who just wants him to “SURRENDER THE BODY.” I very much look forward to five more episodes of that kind of banter.

Tori Preston is the managing editor of Pajiba. She tweets here. You can also listen to her weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

Header Image Source: Disney+/Marvel