Moon Knight is about justice and vengeance. It is about childhood trauma. It is about mental illness. It is about free will. It is about superheroes using their fists to stop bad guys—although there is less of that than you might expect. If you think that might be a lot to cram into six, forty five-minute episodes, you would be right. The latest Marvel entry, available to stream on Disney+, is a hopeless mishmash of underdeveloped themes that nevertheless remains entertaining throughout its run thanks to competent dialogue, attentive character building, and strong acting from each of the principals.
In the world of Moon Knight, the Egyptian deities are real—at least, we think so: stay all the way to the end of the finale to draw your own conclusions. They have difficulty affecting the realm of human affairs directly, and most of them do not want to, anyway. The two that do want to take a hand in the human realm are Khonshu, the god of the moon (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), and Ammit, the goddess who devours the souls of the unworthy dead (voiced by Saba Mubarak). These gods act through human champions called “avatars” who receive certain powers and abilities from their patrons.
Khonshu and Ammit are locked in a never-ending doctrinal conflict over the way to deal with evildoers. Khonshu seeks to punish those who have committed evil acts, while Ammit seeks to weigh the hearts of everyone and to uproot those who will do evil in the future. Khonshu’s avatar is Marc Specter (Oscar Isaacs), who suffers from dissociative identity disorder brought on by massive childhood trauma. Ammit’s avatar, Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), formerly served Khonshu but now blames his former patron god for inflicting pain without any means of preventing or healing it. Since being cast off by Khonshu, Harrow has turned to seek a way to revive Ammit, whose depredations against the human world the other gods abominated, leading them to the decision to imprison her. Khonshu and Moon Knight stand in his way.
Many of the enjoyable character complications come from the avatars’ relationships to their patrons. Is the relationship entirely consensual? Is Khonshu a worthy master? Are his goals good? Are they good for Marc? The actors’ performances, especially those of Isaacs and Hawke, are crucial to keeping the viewer’s interest and attention. It turns out that Marc is a suitable avatar because of his mental illness, which somehow—the exact how is not explained—makes it easier for Khonshu to work through him. Is Khonshu taking advantage of Marc? Is he helping? Perhaps a complicated mixture? Moon Knight has more moral subtelties than most Marvel offerings, which allows a little more interest beyond fist fights and special effects.
When we meet the hero, he is inhabiting a persona called Steven Grant, who is a quiet, awkward, lonely Egyptophile who works in the gift shop of his local museum, but often wakes up in strange places covered with bruises and cuts. It turns out (spoiler alert) that those are the moments when Marc’s persona re-asserts itself as he charges off to act as Khonshu’s agent of vengeance against various evil-doers. The separate personalities provide a wonderful canvas for Oscar Isaacs’ talents; Isaacs is equally enthralling playing both the nerdy, timid Steven and the confident former mercenary, Marc.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most compelling parts of Moon Knight aren’t the action scenes, which seem fairly workmanlike, but the process Marc/Steven goes through working through their past. There is something impossible, Moon Knight seems to say, about someone who is himself broken and immersed in guilt to act as an appropriate vessel for justice. Marc/Steven’s journey to work through mental illness, especially its cause, involves the confrontation with a horrifying past that includes submerged childhood abuse and guilt, and its resolution is the condition for any possibility for Moon Knight to enact justice and save the day.
The problem with the series, however, is that the various parts of the show are so underdeveloped that it is hard to make sense of them in terms of the whole. For instance, several scenes lead one to believe it is very important for the audience to realize that Marc Spector is Jewish. But nothing is ever made of his Jewishness. At the very least a series that took seriously that Marc is Jewish might be led to grapple with the incongruity of a son of a Rabbi serving an Egyptian god. It is hard to see the inclusion of Marc’s Jewish roots as anything other than reflective obeisance to the current Hollywood obsession with “representation,” a sort of virtue-signal that in this case ends up seriously detracting from the storytelling. If Marc is Jewish, then it should matter in the story, just like it matters in normal Jewish people’s lives. What does Marc’s mental illness have to do with his mission to enact justice? What does his childhood abuse at the hands of his mother have to do with his penchant for fighting? Is he really just a killer, or is he actually serving a more noble purpose? It is hard to say—not because those topics are in themselves difficult (which they are), but because the series does not have enough substance. Its thematic reach exceeds its grasp.
The main conflict between the Khonshu and Ammit is also far too rushed. The series treats the conflict as a kind of backdrop or given that justifies the series’ conflict. After all, Spielberg spent a whole feature film, Minority Report—itself an adaptation of a full-length novel by Philip K. Dick, developing that theme. But the anticipatory administration of justice is too strange and weighty a theme not to receive more detailed treatment. There are seeds of a very interesting moral puzzle, but they are never given the time or space they need to grow into something worthwhile. By the end, the viewer is supposed to take the side of Khonshu, but the barest reference to “choice” is too thin a reed to support the weight of judgment.
Hawke is excellent as the strangely sympathetic Arthur Harrow and May Calamawy steals every scene she is in as Marc’s wife and fellow adventurer, Layla El-Faouly.
It should also be said that Moon Knight delves into some pretty dark topics, especially in the fifth episode, “Asylum,” which is well-composed and thematically serious, but also horrifying, so parental discretion is certainly advised. A final note is that, unlike other MCU phase 4 offerings, Moon Knight is minimally woke, and so it can be enjoyed, for the most part, without fear of intrusive political messaging or culture war sorties.
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