Director: Mohamed Diab
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, May Calamawy
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe shows thrive on the duality of their heroes. Take WandaVision, in which the protagonist Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) assumes the character arc of an antagonist when her grief spirals beyond her control and inadvertently hurts the people she’s meant to protect. Or Loki, in which the female version of the Norse god from a parallel timeline instinctively understands his vulnerabilities, only to exploit his weaknesses by the end. Or even The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, in which the mantle of Captain America is passed on to a Black man, but not before it’s established as a symbol of White supremacy. Moon Knight, the latest of the Marvel DisneyPlus Hotstar shows, is the most pointed, and literal exploration of the inherent duality that comes with being a superhero. The six-episode show is at its most compelling when it trains its focus on the ways that unresolved trauma can splinter and wound a person, but frustratingly spends vast stretches flattened out by the choice to play up its conflicts for laughs.
Moon Knight’s protagonist, museum gift shop worker Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), suffers from dissociative identity disorder, which manifests in him having an alternate personality that he remains largely unaware of when the show begins. As Steven, he’s framed as the awkward, clumsy romcom protagonist that’s only one makeover away from turning his life around. He’s perpetually late to work, browbeaten by a demanding boss and fumbles when he’s around the colleague he has a crush on. His alter Marc Spector, on the other hand, is a mercenary more reliant on brute strength than bookish knowledge. The push-and-pull between Steven and Marc, who initially only remains on the periphery of his perception, stretches the show in opposite directions, fully committing to neither tonality. Their personality clashes render the material chaotic as the show keeps undercutting its tense stakes with a humour that doesn’t always land.
One of the ways in which the show depicts Steven’s disorder is to zoom into his face whenever he’s in a particularly tight situation — the consequence of Marc’s profession — and zoom out a few seconds later to reveal that his alter ego has taken care of it. These cutaways keep audiences as out of the loop as Steven feels but never effectively convey his sense of disorientation. While the broad strokes of Marc’s violent methods are implied, the lack of detailing makes each resolution feel like little more than a series of convenient cop-outs. Even at its most thrilling moments, the series feels constrained by its enforced lightness. A frantic mountainside chase is set to a jarringly jaunty score. A scene of Steven running down a dimly lit hallway is set up to be suspenseful, but its impact is diluted by the rapid switching between back-and-forth perspectives and his exaggerated expressions of fear. A man eventually discovering that his body has been committing heinous acts of cruelty while his mind has been asleep is a gut-punch of a discovery, but Moon Knight breezes through these revelations, only pacing them out until it can punctuate them with the next punchline. The show eventually travels to Egypt, but still can’t distance itself from conventions of MCU storytelling.
Early episodes suffer from an initial heavy reliance on Steven’s perspective, relegating the more charismatic Marc to the sidelines of brief voiceovers and glimpses in reflective surfaces. As the two begin to work together, however, what emerges is a tender thread about a man who’s constantly told he’s broken realising that the two distinct halves of himself are what make him complete. This ties Moon Knight to the larger trend of MCU show protagonists discovering who they are, from themselves. (Consider Loki defining his sense of self-image in the first episode of his show. Or Wanda saying she doesn’t need Agatha Harkness to tell her who she is.) The standout episode 5, in which Marc and Steven excavate the full extent of the trauma that tied them together in the first place, offers them a chance for self-reflection in the most literal sense, surrounded by mirrors that reveal their deepest hurts. The episode also offers Isaac the showcase for his finest performance in the show yet, playing men with identically stooped shoulders, sunken eyes and sweat-slicked hair, yet conveying how each one’s baggage has weighed them down in distinct ways. The show leans into the heaviness of Marc and Steven’s condition without diluting it with comedy, but a more even series wouldn’t have taken four episodes to get here in the first place. The end of episode 4 blurs the lines between fantasy and reality Legion-style, leaving Marc, and by extension the audience, in doubt over whether what they’re experiencing is real makes for a much more immersive experience, challenging expectations instead of simply setting them. How much more compelling would the show have been if it had been framed as a thriller from the beginning?
Over episode 5 and 6, the more confounding aspects of Moon Knight click into place, including the jarring theatricality of Steven’s British accent. It’s a design that makes the latter half of the show just as rewarding as the first half was frustrating. No show is obligated to show its hand early on, sure. But by holding all of its cards close to the chest till the very end, Moon Knight’s early episodes feel inert in comparison to the thrilling last stretch, its revelations relying too heavily on the show withholding information, instead of inviting viewers to want to find out more. That the latter portions seamlessly blend the grounded story of a man trapped within his own mind with the more fantastical tale of a man trapped in service to the Egyptian god Khonshu (F Murray Abraham, in a compelling voice performance) only underscores the sloppiness of the first three episodes. Ethan Hawke imbues his character, Arthur Harrow, with gravitas even as the antagonist’s motives remain flimsy. May Calamawy, as Marc’s wife Layla El-Faouly, adds tender dimensions to a fraught backstory, but it’s telling that even by the end, the most emotion the show can muster is only through interactions between two characters played by the same actor. As uneven as Moon Knight is, Isaac remains its strongest asset throughout.