Warning: Contains Minor Spoilers!
The title character in Moon Knight has Dissociative Identity Disorder and the story that surrounds him is equally schizoid. He’s never quite sure whether the events that he is experiencing are real, a dream or an illusion and after you’ve sat through all 6 episodes of the latest Disney+ MCU series, you will know exactly what that feels like. If you’re expecting the usual mix of super-criminals and CGI-fuelled punch-ups, you may be disappointed, because this is a tale of Gods, death cults and mental illness. It’s not your usual superhero fare, but then Disney+ have been quite good at presenting the audience with stories that are a little out of the ordinary; from WandaVision to Loki, they’ve been happy to experiment with form and give us something that is just that little bit different from what we see on the big screen.
I always liked Moon Knight as a kid, he was a different kind of superhero and you’ve got to have some chutzpah to fight crime in an all-white costume. His adventures were a little more adult than some of his contemporaries too and he straddled that glorious period in the early 80s when comic creators were trying to be just that bit more sophisticated, but before the unrestrained excess of Watchmen. In the 90s, I also enjoyed him in Marvel Knights, the sublime but short-lived comic book created as part of an imprint of the main Marvel range that took some of Marvel’s more grown up characters – Moon Knight, Daredevil, Black Panther, The Punisher, Black Widow etc. – and turned them into an unlikely super-group. It was too sublime to live and lasted only 15 issues, but I loved it and I was very excited to hear that Moon Knight was coming to TV.
The series opens with Oscar Isaac playing Steven Grant, a mild-mannered Londoner who works in the British Museum and suffers from an advanced form of sleepwalking, which means that he has to tie himself to the bed to avoid waking up somewhere unexpected. When strange things start to happen in the museum’s Ancient Egypt exhibit, his condition kicks up a gear and he starts blacking out in the waking hours. After a particularly bad blackout, he finds himself in a completely different country, confronted with cult leader Harrow (Ethan Hawke, complete with 90s Rob Newman haircut) who is planning to use the power of the Ancient Egyptian Goddess Ammit to bring to fruition a plan not too dissimilar to that of Thanos in the Avengers movies, but on a smaller scale. But what has all of this got to do with meek museum employee Steven Grant?
Well, it turns out that Steven Grant is only one of two personalities inhabiting his body, the other being American secret agent Marc Spector, who is capable of wielding the powers of the Egyptian god of the moon Khonshu as his avatar the Moon Knight. Spector’s wife Layla (May Calamawy) turns up and initially thinks that Grant is just Spector under deep cover. Grant falls for Layla, who is only interested in his alternate identity and… well, it’s a whole can of worms right there. Grant/Spector and Layla travel to Egypt to try and stop Harrow, who has discovered the tomb of Ammit. It’s from here that things start to get a bit wacky; Spector is shot by Harrow and awakens to find himself in a psychiatric hospital where Marc Spector and Steven Grant are separate people. In a surreal turn of events, they both end up on the barge of hippo-headed goddess Taweret (voiced by Antonia Salib), who is taking them to the Field of Reeds, the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Heaven.
Now, here’s the thing – the Gods in Moon Knight are real. They’re not an advanced alien race that has been interpreted as Gods by our primitive ancestors like the Asgardians or the Eternals – they are actual, factual GODS. Now, this is an interesting turn of events for the MCU, which until now has always taken great pains to steer clear of the thorny issue of religion. You can almost hear the US Bible Belt sitting up in their seats as one at the very implication that there might be any deity other than the Judeo-Christian one. I suppose, if you’re that way inclined, you can suggest that much of the actual interaction of the Gods is in the mind of the mentally disturbed Steven Grant/Marc Spector, but that opens up more plot holes than it resolves. Nope, to fully follow the story of Moon Knight, you have to buy into the conceit that Ancient Egypt was watched over by a pantheon of honest-to-goodness Gods.
You might think from this vague and meandering summary of the plot that the actual Moon Knight isn’t getting a lot of screen time… and you’d be right. The story lavishes a lot more attention on Steven Grant and Mark Spector than it does on their superheroic alter-alter-ego (when Grant is in Moon Knight form, he’s called Mr. Knight, in case things weren’t already confusing enough for you) and he only really comes into his own in the final episode. I said this story was schizoid and it is; the first couple of episodes are a sort of Indiana Jones style international adventure, then it becomes a surreal fantasy brainf**k for a while before finally settling down into something that can be seen as a superhero story in the final episode. Whether you enjoy this whirligig form of storytelling depends on your tolerance for this kind of stuff; I can imagine that some people probably lost patience with Moon Knight around the fourth episode.
Moon Knight has received a lot of praise for its more sophisticated plot, but is it too sophisticated for a Disney+ audience? The first episode has a lot of comedy and it’s tremendous fun; Oscar Isaac is magnificent as Steven Grant and his English accent is flawless, but it becomes a lot darker in some of the episodes that follow. This is easily the most bloodthirsty of the MCU Disney+ serials, with throat-slitting, violent beatings and other stuff that you really wouldn’t want to let your kids watch unsupervised, if at all. I know that Disney+ is not exclusively a family channel and shows a lot of stuff like Pam & Tommy or Pistol that definitely isn’t for kids, but the MCU is a kind of murky grey area, where the shows are certified 12+ or sometimes 15+, but we know there are much younger kids watching and although I’m not saying they should sanitise their MCU content, they do run the risk of becoming uncertain as to exactly what audience they are targeting.
The anchor that keeps Moon Knight from floating away is surely Oscar Isaac, who puts in an extraordinary performance as both Steven Grant and Marc Spector. Grant is all nervous glances and uncertainty, but he never overplays it in the way that some actors might. Conversely, Spector is a traditional action film hero, which is exactly what he has to be in order to make the contrast between them work. It feels churlish to say it, but part of me feels his performance is wasted on TV and they should have put Moon Knight up on the big screen. It would have mean that the story was shorter, but that might have been of some benefit to the script which would have maintained a degree of coherency. I’m not saying that the script is bad, it certainly isn’t, but it feels thinly stretched over 6 hours of television and could really have done with some tightening up. The middle episodes particularly feel as if they’re losing direction somewhat.
I really enjoyed Moon Knight, but I have to be honest and say that it’s not my favourite of the MCU Disney+ serials, but I still enjoyed it and consider it a worthy addition to the canon. If there’s another series featuring the character (and I hope that there will be) then I’d like to see more of Moon Knight himself, for as enjoyable as Grant and Spector are, the man in the big white cloak is really the star of the show. Or maybe we might get a Moon Knight movie? It’d have to be a solo movie, of course, because I really can’t see the character fitting in with The Avengers. However, with the film and TV rights for Daredevil and The Punisher slowly returning to Marvel Studios, is it too much to hope for a Marvel Knights movie…? Yeah, it probably is.
Moon Night is currently streaming on Disney+