Following the runaway success of their initial Disney+ slate – Wandavision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye – Marvel television returns for the first installment in their second wave of shows: Moon Knight, starring Oscar Isaac. Despite enlisting the talents of Oscar Isaac to help bring Marc Spector/Steven Grant to life, a charismatic lead actor isn’t enough to elevate Moon Knight beyond mediocrity – from pacing to dialogue to direction, the series’ first four episodes feel like little more than run-of-the-mill Marvel fare, bringing nothing new or exciting to the table.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Moon Knight follows mild-mannered British museum gift shop attendant Steven Grant, who suffers from severe insomnia and sleepwalking – frequently waking up in unfamiliar places with no memory of how he got there. When Steven suddenly begins hearing voices in his head and experiencing inexplicable supernatural phenomena, he realizes he’s merely an alternate personality of vigilante Marc Spector, who fights crime under the mantle of the Moon Knight, thanks to the help of an Egyptian god named Khonshu. With the help of a mysterious young woman (May Calamawy) who claims to be Marc’s wife, Steven navigates his shocking new powers (and alters) while trying to uncover the motivations of shady religious fanatic Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke).
To its credit, Moon Knight – unlike all four of Marvel’s previous Disney+ shows – makes no attempts to remind the viewer that it takes place in the established Marvel cinematic universe, nor does it use familiar names or characters to get the audience on board. The series stands entirely on its own two feet as a solo supernatural mystery – and though it’s more than likely that Steven/Marc may end up crossing paths with a few other superheroes down the line, it’s refreshing that the show doesn’t immediately go there off the bat, and instead allows the audience to get to know its new characters first before tossing them in with the rest of the Marvel mix.
Where the series struggles, though, is making these new characters worth following, caring about, or getting to know – a task which may seem inherently easy considering the protagonist of the series has multiple personalities housed in one body – but that still remains bizarrely elusive for the show’s writers. Instead of delivering a single, well-established protagonist (as the show’s first episode attempts to do with the alter Steven Grant), Moon Knight flounders when it comes to divvying up screen time and narrative focus between alters, resulting in a muddled structure that doesn’t lend itself well to creating a fleshed-out arc for either personality.
Of the personalities initially introduced – Steven Grant and Marc Spector – Steven is initially positioned as the series’ protagonist, and the character with which we spend the most time in the first four episodes. Despite the offputting sight of Oscar Isaac with a British accent (one that will likely stir up plenty of online debate), Steven is the series’ most dynamic character, and without question the most charming of the bunch. Bumbling, soft-spoken and entirely lacking in confidence, he’s a refreshing change of pace from Marvel’s baker’s dozen of cookie-cutter quip-heavy protagonists.
Instead, we get to know Steven not just as an endearing, gentle personality, but also as a victim of the havoc that Mark Spector/Moon Knight wreaks in between vigilante sessions – it is genuinely upsetting to watch Steve repeatedly wake up confused, disoriented, and borderline terrified at the sight of blood on his hands in a city he’s never even been to. Despite his unique personality disorder, Steven is without question one of the most grounded, relatable protagonists that Marvel has put to screen – which makes things all the more frustrating when the series abandons trying to take him seriously after episode two, and repositions him as second fiddle to the smooth, swashbuckling American Marc Spector.
Where Steven is a unique, easy-to-root-for personality among Marvel’s tireless catalogue of heroes, Marc Spector is utterly unmemorable in contrast – a poor man’s imitation of quippy, confident heroes like Matt Murdock or Clint Barton, but without the depth of character. In contrast to Steven’s refreshingly meek, humble demeanor, Marc is exactly the type of self-assured, borderline cocky hero that we’ve come to expect from Marvel, which creates an admittedly clear divide/dichotomy between personalities, but that makes Moon Knight as a series exceedingly less interesting whenever Marc is in control of their body.
Though Isaac is at his most compelling when playing up the more tragic elements of Steven’s character, his raw talent alone isn’t enough to push the lackluster dialogue and aimless direction into something interesting – and his performance whenever Marc is in control of the body is without question the weaker of the two. While Marvel likely didn’t intend for Isaac to carry the show on his lonesome, it’s clear that the script is structured in a manner that won’t allow his performance the room it needs to breathe – any significant choices he makes in his performance are promptly steamrolled by the customary Marvel need to get the plot jumpstarted.
The one tie to Marc’s mysterious former life is his wife Layla (Calamaway) who shares her husband’s quip-heavy dialogue and go-go-go attitude. Layla, like so many Marvel women who’ve come before her, suffers from underwritten female love interest syndrome, and functions less as an actual character with feelings, and more as a device for which to move the plot along – either by delivering large chunks of exposition or being thrown in jeopardy as a motivator for Marc/Steven.
Rounding out the cast is Ethan Hawke as wolf in sheep’s clothing Arthur Harrow, a zen, cult-like leader and former host of Khonshu who is out to get Steven/Marc for his own nefarious purposes, and use their unique powers to help bring about a mass cleansing of all wrongdoers on planet earth. Just as Oscar Isaac’s raw talent wasn’t enough to elevate the character of Marc Spector, neither is the mere casting of Hawke enough to make Harrow a compelling villain – and though his motivation and power set is interesting, the most intriguing elements of his personality are only ever hinted at and then swiftly moved on from – like the series’ opening shots, which feature Harrow filling his shoes with crushed glass a-la Saint Maud.
If you’re just looking for your standard fix of a caped crusader beating up CGI monsters and gun-toting thugs while you wait for Marvel’s next movie, Moon Knight will likely suit your tastes just fine, but for audiences that are looking for a unique and dynamic approach to one of the more unorthodox heroes in Marvel’s repertoire, Moon Knight is a disappointment. Though not entirely without merit, the uninspired direction and dialogue put Moon Knight squarely in the middle of the Marvel pack, though Oscar Isaac’s turn as Steven Grant is one of a few saving graces.
Moon Knight begins airing exclusively on Disney+ March 30, 2022.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios