Disney+’s latest streaming series brings a little-known Marvel character to the small screen.
Imagine if Bruce Wayne, orphaned son of Thomas and Martha, billionaire brooder, disinterested corporate CEO, and his alter ego, (the) Batman, the gadget-obsessed, costumed vigilante, instead worked days at a London museum’s gift shop, suffered from dissociate identity disorder (DID), and wore a white costume and cape, not so random foes and lifelong enemies couldn’t see him coming, but so they could see him coming (same result: fear, flight), and you’d be close to an on-point, if superficial, description of Moon Knight, the latest addition to Disney+’s Marvel-related streaming content and one of the first post-Infinity Saga superheroes (technically, an anti-hero) to join the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as part of Marvel’s Phase Four plan to permanently conquer pop culture worldwide. Spoiler: Marvel already won that battle.
As a secondary or even tertiary comic-book character, Moon Knight isn’t exactly a known commodity outside the MCU. Even among comic-book readers, Moon Knight and his primary personalities, Marc Spector and Steven Grant, have rarely been able to sustain long-term reader interest, but that didn’t stop Marvel’s uber-producer and chief everything officer, Kevin Feige, from tapping the relatively obscure Moon Knight as the next-in-line comic-book superhero to make the jump from the printed page to the not-quite big screen. Calling it a bold, possibly divisive decision might be an overstatement, especially considering Feige and the MCU’s decade-and-a-half long track record, but there’s still some risk in giving the big- or small-screen treatment to a comic-book character that bears some resemblance, however superficial, to Batman and his mythos. One thing they unmistakably share? Iconic or near-iconic costumes, one black (on film), the other white (and/or grey), both unforgettable.
It helps, of course, that Moon Knight isn’t getting his own big-budget, standalone film with all the outsized expectations that implies, at least not yet. It also helps that Feige and his confederates at Marvel-Disney convinced a well-respected actor, Oscar Isaac (no stranger to franchises thanks to Star Wars and the X-Men), to essay the title role and his human analogues, Steven Grant, the aforementioned oddly accented, London gift shop worker, and later, Marc Spector, a man with a mysterious past and an enigmatic connection to Khonshu (voiced by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham), a minor, undistinguished Egyptian deity who gives his human avatar a special set of skills and supernaturally powered, ceremonial armor in exchange for running Khonshu’s errands in the real world. Where one, Grant, is mild-mannered and book smart, specializing in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the other, Spector, fits firmly, unironically into man-of-action mode.
Overall, Moon Knight takes a non-superheroic, unconventional approach deliberately in line with the character’s comic-book supernatural/horror origins. The early episodes, however, take a lighter, more playful take on Grant and Spector’s central crisis: Who gets to share the single body they share. Each initially sees the other as an invader, a foreign element or parasite that must be expunged or eliminated, but like the MCU-adjacent duo of Eddie Brock & Venom, the Grant-Spector dyad have to learn to live together, even if that means finding an equitable solution to their relationship with Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy), an artifact finder and sometime archeologist like her now late father. That light, playful tone finds its clearest examples in an exhausted Grant waking up after Spector’s used and abused their shared body and multiple times where Grant and Spector wrest control of their body at opportune and inopportune times (e.g., in mid-fight, in mid-escape in a van lurching down a long, winding road).
While the Grant-Spector dyad perpetually bicker over who gets possession of their shared body and when, often with Khonshu as an unwelcome interlocutor offering unsolicited advice, the series’s central villain, Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), a low-rent cult leader and religious zealot (insert contemporary social, political, and cultural commentary here), has plans of his own. Those plans include resurrecting a long-gone Egyptian deity, Ammit, not coincidentally Khonshu’s rival in matters of justice, retribution, and vengeance, from her slumber, ushering in a new age where everyone will be judged for past, current, and future sins. Early on, a supernatural compass, a golden scarab, falls into Grant’s hands. Activated properly and it will lead the holder to Ammit’s tomb. So far, so predictable, if, to be fair, well-handled and well-paced by series creator and showrunner Jeremy Slater (The Exorcist TV series, Death Note, Fantastic Four, The Lazarus Effect).
Joining Slater in the endeavor are series directors Mohamed Diab, Aaron Moorhead, and Justin Benson. As cult filmmakers, Moorhead and Benson are responsible for several unique, heady science fiction/horror trips (Synchronic, Spring, and The Endless). The Egyptian-born producer-director Diab boasts a resume filled with award-winning socially- and politically-charged films and TV series, including the acclaimed Amira, Clash, and Cairo 678. Marvel’s decision to include Diab as a key member of the creative team wasn’t just for his experience as a filmmaker, but to ensure Moon Knight handled Egyptian-related ideas, themes, and plot elements with care, sensitivity, and respect.
Moon Knight takes a jarring turn away from psychological drama and Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired action-adventure to full-blown supernatural horror/nightmare fuel in the fourth episode (the last available for review purposes) as Grant, Spector, and Layla encounter Egyptian creatures and monsters inspired by practically every iteration of Universal Monsters’s Mummy series. A turn into reality-warping psychological horror, likely influenced by FX’s long-gone, lightly lamented Legion series, promises to subvert and/or upend previously held expectations about what Moon Knight (the series) represents and how it connects to the greater MCU. Unfortunately, we won’t know if Moon Knight (the series) walks back the implications of the last few minutes of the fourth episode or fully embraces them. Though the latter alternative offers truly surreal possibilities, a reasonable guess would suggest Marvel will take the safer path. Here’s to hoping Marvel doesn’t.
Moon Knight premieres Wednesday, March 30th, on Disney+.