Josh Reviews Moon Knight
Oscar Isaac stars in Marvel’s latest excellent Disney+ series, Moon Knight. Mr. Isaac plays Steven Grant, a shy, nebbishy fellow who works in the gift shop of the British Museum in London. Mr. Grant is afflicted by a weird problem in which he seems to lose time and wake up in strange places with no memory of how he got there. This is getting worse, and he’s resorted to chaining himself to his bed when he goes to sleep. But that doesn’t stop poor Steven from one day waking up somehow in the Austrian Alps, where he encounters the fanatical cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), who, we and Steven eventually learn, is out to free an imprisoned Egyptian goddess: Ammit. Fleeing Harrow and his goons, Steven eventually realizes that he’s been sharing his body with an alternate persona: the hit-man Marc Spector, who functions as the hand of vengeance for the Egyptian god Khonshu. Thrust into a crazy world of violence and warring Egyptian dieties, Steven and Marc have to find some way to work together and make peace with their shared trauma… while also stopping Harrow from unleashing an ancient evil.
I can’t believe there’s actually a Moon Knight TV show!! Part of the fun of the MCU in recent years is how many times I have said “I can’t believe so-and-so character is actually appearing on-screen!” It’s very cool to see so many different obscure characters from the Marvel comics universe get brought into the MCU. Even so, wowsers, I never thought there would actually be a Moon Knight TV show!
Moon Knight has existed in the comics for decades, and he’s used a lot, but the character doesn’t quite have that one definitive storyline or run that stands out. There have been a lot of different interpretations of Moon Knight over the years. The character was created by writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin in Werewolf by Night in the seventies. Brilliant artist Bill Sienkiewicz illustrated the initial run of issues of Moon Knight’s first solo series, which began in 1980. For me, the “classic” Moon Knight of my youth is the version involved in the West Coast Avengers in the eighties, as written by Steve Englehart. More recently, I’ve quite enjoyed the short (and very different) runs on the character by Warren Ellis (in 2014, illustrated by Declan Shalvey) and Brian Michael Bendis (in 2011, illustrated by Alex Maleev). Because there have been so many different versions of Moon Knight in the comics, the show-runners had a lot of freedom to pick and choose from the best aspects of the character, to combine them to create this new version for the MCU.
I’m very impressed at how the Moon Knight seen on the show feels “right” while, at the same time, being very much an all-new version of this character. That’s a tough balance to find, so bravo to creator Jeremy Slater and his team (including directors Mohamed Diab, Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson) for this accomplishment.
I was also surprised, but happy, at how separate Moon Knight is from the rest of the MCU. The show has very few connections to the MCU. There’s a one-sentence mention of Madripoor at one point, but other than that, the show entirely stands on its own. There are no cameo appearances by other MCU characters, no references to previous MCU storylines, and no teases of future crossovers. Now, on the one hand, I usually love all that stuff! For me, one of my favorite aspects of the MCU is its interconnectivity. At the same time, it’s fun to see this show choosing to take a different path and tell a story that stands entirely on its own.
Moon Knight also sets itself apart in tone. I know some critics complain that every MCU film/show is just more of the same. I have never believed that to be the case. (Iron Man is a very different film than Captain America: Winter Soldier, which is very different than Guardians of the Galaxy, which is very different than the WandaVision TV show… etc…) But Moon Knight is VERY different in tone and style from most previous MCU adventures. This show leans heavily into the horror/suspense aspects of the character. This is a show that is very weird, and very creepy at times. I also enjoyed the way the show leaned into an Indiana Jones vibe in the later episodes, as our characters investigate ancient Egyptian supernatural goings-on.
The show rests squarely on the shoulders of Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in the Star Wars sequel trilogy; Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, Show Me a Hero, Dune), who gives a magnificent performance. Mr. Isaac has to create two entirely different characters: Steven Grant and Marc Spector. Not only that, but as the series progresses, the two men are often interacting with one another within the same scene. The visual effects are flawless (and deserving of praise), but it’s all carried by Mr. Isaac’s committed, compelling performance. It’s hugely entertaining seeing him bounce back between these two entirely different characters who happen to share the same body!! I haven’t seen anything like it since Andy Serkis played Gollum and Smeagol in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. As if that’s not enough, each episode seems to present additional challenges before Mr. Isaac, which he crushes one after another. I loved seeing him play Marc as controlled by Khonshu, when speaking before the other assembled Egyptian gods in episode three. And the way he plays Marc’s emotional breakdown, on the street outside his mother’s shiva, was incredibly moving. The series has some plotting hiccups (which I’ll discuss below), but I found I was mostly able to forgive those flaws because of how much fun I was having, watching Oscar Isaac’s performance.
Ethan Hawke (Dead Poets Society, Gattaca, Boyhood) is terrific as the series’ main villain, Arthur Harrow. I love the way Mr. Hawke plays Harrow as a true believer, someone who is 100% committed in his heart to the idea that what he’s doing is right. Mr. Hawke plays Harrow with the gentleness combined with intensity of a truly scary, charismatic cult leader. It’s a great performance and a wonderful new take on an MCU villain.
A huge stand-out on the show for me was May Calamawy (Ramy) as Layla El-Faouly, the intrepid young woman who, we discover, is Marc Spector’s wife. I love Layla on the show — she’s smart, she’s brave, she’s tough, she’s loyal. I was as smitten with her as Steven winds up being. I was very pleased that, in the back half of the season, the show allowed Layla to have a lot of moments in the spotlight, to be a hero. (It was Steven who usually wound up playing the damsel in distress, which was terrific.). And when (OK, small SPOILERS here, but attentive viewers will surely be able to see this coming) the show allows Layla to become a superhero in the finale, it is AWESOME. It’s great fun seeing Layla get to kick ass, and I loved the look of her costume. It’s very cool to have an Egyptian superhero in the MCU!
It’s also cool that the series didn’t ignore Marc Spector’s Jewish heritage, an aspect of the character from the comics. Marc’s Judaism isn’t talked about for much of the series, but episode five gives that aspect of Marc the attention it deserves. That was very well done. (And I love that the show doesn’t treat it as even worthy of mention that the Jewish Marc Spector is in a relationship with the Egyptian Layla. That’s terrific.)
The show benefits from having several Egyptian artists were involved in key roles, such as Egyptian director Mohamed Diab and Egyptian-Palestinian-Bahraini actress May Calamawy. There are a number of wonderful small moments in the show in which we get to see Egyptians living normal, happy, modern lives (such as the happy group of people on the boat with Marc and Layla in episode three), as opposed to the tendency in so many movies and TV shows to portray Arabs/Muslims in more backwards or outlandish ways. It was cool hearing so much Arabic music on the show’s soundtrack. These types of touches make a difference!
- F. Murray Abraham (All the President’s Men, Scarface, Star Trek: Insurrection, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is perfect as the voice of Khonshu. I love how much of an asshole the show allows Khonshu to be!! I laughed at a lot of Khonshu’s dialogue. And I loved the look of Khonshu — absolutely perfect.
- I was bowled over by how cool Moon Knight’s costume looked. Moon Knight has always had an awesome costume, and they have done a spectacular job in translating it to the screen. I love Marc’s version of the “classic” Moon Knight costume (I love how they made it look like a mummy’s wrappings), and equally perfect is Steven’s version of the “Mr. Knight” suit. Both are fantastic!! (I loved the explanation they gave for the use of both costumes, with Steven at first mistaking what Marc means by a “suit”.) I particularly liked Moon Knight’s white, glowing eyes — a nice touch. Also super-cool: seeing Moon Knight’s cape form the shape of a crescent moon when he leaps! Awesome!
- I loved the depiction of Taweret, the hippopotamus-headed Egyptian goddess who guides souls into the afterlife. I could watch her flicking little ears forever. And Antonia Salib’s cheerful voice for her was so perfect!
- I think the series made a mistake with its very first scene, that pre-credits sequence in which we see a man (who we’ll soon learn is Harrow) crushing glass to put in his shoes. Even though we don’t see any blood or anything like that, I found it incredibly distasteful, and not an audience-welcoming way to start the show. (Also, I found it terribly distracting as, whenever Harrow appeared on-screen in the first few episodes, all I could think about was that he was walking around with broken glass in his shoes. Ugh.)
- How great was Oscar Isaac in the scene in the premiere in which a devastated Steven tries to order a fancy steak? He’s also amazing in the scene in the Alps with Harrow, when Steven tries to give the scarab back to Harrow but his body won’t obey him. I love the way Mr. Isaac’s body-movements really feel like his arm is out of his control!
- I love the whole wild action sequence with the truck-chase in the Alps in the premiere. I love the editing in which we keep skipping over the moments in which Marc takes control. It gives the chase a wild and original rhythm and also a fun comedic (and scary!) energy.
- I like that, when Marc tells the story of his first near-death encounter with Khonshu, he refers to his C.O. “Bushman”, saying it as a last name (as opposed to the silly — and racist — supervillain name it was in the original comic stories).
- It’s a tragedy that the actor Gaspard Ulliel, who played Anton Mogart in episode three, has passed away. (Mr. Ulliel was fine in the show, though I wish the show had better explained who this character was and what his backstory was with Layla.)
The series’ weakness for me is that I often felt the plotting was unclear; as if important exposition had been skipped over. There were a few too many times when I didn’t understand why characters were doing certain things or where they were. (Beware some SPOILERS in the next two paragraphs.) For instance, we know that Harrow is trying to find Ammit’s tomb; that’s why he needs the scarab. But how is Harrow’s archaeological adventures in Egypt connected to his cult followers in the village in the Alps? Or in the section of London they seem to control? Once Harrow gets the scarab, why does it take him several episodes to find Ammit’s tomb? How is it that Marc and Layla are still able to find it first? I have other questions, too. What happened to the scarab? Why did Harrow leave it on Marc’s chest? (Because he didn’t need it anymore?) Why do the Egyptian gods all need/want human avatars? What is the connection/relationship between the gods and the avatars? (In the finale, when Khonshu fights Ammit and Moon Knight fights Harrow, the battles seem to be connected, but I wasn’t clear whether, if Moon Knight beat Harrow or vice versa, that would automatically mean their god would win/lose as well.) Why don’t the other Egyptian gods even bother to take two seconds to investigate Harrow after Marc & Khonshu bring them the claim that Harrow wants to free Ammit? How was Harrow later able to defeat ALL the other avatars/Egyptian gods? (How could he have been more powerful than all of them combined?) Why does Marc step on a bird skeleton that looks like Khonshu in the flashback to what happened to his brother when they were kids? (Was Khonshu involved in Marc’s life even back then?) What was up with the zombie that Layla and Marc encountered in the tomb in episode four? Where did that dude come from?? How was he connected to Harrow? (He seemed to be murdering Harrow’s men; did Harrow know about that and was he cool with it?) After the other Egyptian gods imprison Khonshu in stone, we see that LOTS of other gods have also been similarly imprisoned — what happened to that story point? (I’d thought we’d discover that the remaining gods have been conspiring to get rid of their enemies.)
In the finale, what happened to Layla after the big fight?? I couldn’t believe the series didn’t give us a scene with Layla at the end. Is she still an avatar? Does she still have superpowers? Has she gone her separate way from Marc/Steven? (She’s still married to Marc, right??) Also, are there any global repercussions for all the people that Harrow and Ammit murdered in Cairo in the final battle? (That, plus the appearance of giant battling Egyptian gods, feels like an Avengers-level event…) I’d have also liked to have better understood the nature of the Marc/Steven partnership at the end. Whose life were they living? I was a little surprised to see them back in Steven’s London flat, still chained to the bed. I did love the teaser of a post-credits scene, picking up the thread of the hinted-at third personality, and bringing in the Jake Lockley character from the comics.
That tease seems to suggest we might get a second season of this show. I hope we do! I really enjoyed Moon Knight. At six episodes, the series zipped right along and didn’t overstay its welcome. I would love to see Oscar Isaac back to further explore this character (and to dig into this new third personality!!), and I’d particularly love to see more of Layla, either as an ass-kicking archaeologist or an ass-kicking super-hero. Or both.
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