Moon Knight Review: Multiple Personalities Are Oscar (Isaac) Worthy
It’s pretty common in reviews of superhero movies and shows, by writers who hate the genre, to come to a point in their prose where a loud sigh becomes practically palpable. “If only the actors didn’t have to put on masks, or use digitally created super powers!” You know, the things superheroes exist to actually do. Here at Superhero Hype, we’re fans of the genre. We live for Thanos snapping people out of existence, Hulk smashing, or Spider-Man catching thieves just like flies. So it presumably means more to say that in Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke are such a pleasure to watch, that their super-stuff does feel like a relative letdown. Which isn’t to say Moon Knight himself disappoints when he’s in costume. It is to say that Isaac himself is a better special effect than all of the digital bandages in virtual Egypt.
Isaac spends most of the first episode as Steven Grant, a mild-mannered Englishman who works in a museum gift shop. In a particularly pointed in-joke, his boss tells him he’s “bloody useless” if he can’t sell merchandise to kids. Putting aside the obvious Marvel meta-jab, it also works as commentary from head director Mohamed Diab. An Egyptian filmmaker who is highly critical of his country’s frequent outdated portrayal in pop-culture, Diab appears to also be slagging the way that Hollywood treats Egypt as useless except as a means to sell pyramid and Mummy merchandise.
Viewers with even a casual relationship to comics know what “mild-mannered” usually serves as cover for. But in the case of Steven, it’s more than just a secret identity. It’s an actual personality disorder, which also masks some actual supernatural abilities. As Steven begins to learn when he finds himself in the path of cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke).
Here’s the brilliance of Isaac, who had little room to act in his previous Marvel Egyptian god role as Apocalypse. He makes Steven so damned adorable that the viewer may not even want him to be anything else. He’s a complete caricature of what Americans think an average English man is, yet his awkwardness is endearing. He is, as he actually says at one point, a “right plonker.” But he’s a plonker to root for.
In a rare move, Disney made the first four of six episodes available for review, contrary to Marvel’s usual aversion to spoilers. There are a couple of likely reasons for this. First, after several multiversal hijinks, it may be to reassure viewers that this isn’t going to be one of those shows that teases major cameos each episode. Its dramatic cliffhangers solely serve its own story. Secondly, it may be so we can report that each of the first four episodes plays like a different genre of mini-movie. What begins as Hitchcock-inspired mistaken-identity thriller ends up incorporating Mummy ’99 supernatural tomb raiding, more Marvel-ish superheroics, and American Gods-style divine comedy.
It’s tough to maintain a tone that changes each week, and yet appropriate for a lead character with a dissociative disorder. Don’t expect full medical accuracy here – his personalities speak directly to each other via mirrors, because that’s just more cinematic. But suffice to say this is the kind of show where Ethan Hawke can believably play a frightening hippie guru expressing infanticidal urges in one week. And then next episode, F. Murray Abraham is voicing a giant, beaked deity who just casually hangs out and makes conversation.
Comics fans probably already know from the trailers that this Moon Knight is a bit of a departure, with a fully supernatural costume rather than practical body armor. And Harrow isn’t really Harrow, as depicted on the page – he’s more like a different character from the comics whose name we won’t reveal here. That’s the sort of thing studios can get away with when it comes to more obscure characters, but may also irritate more hardcore followers of this particular one. The show also has a built-in critique of zealous fandom, in that the bad guys are a cult of personality. Make of that what you will.
But here’s one thing on which to agree: Isaac gives a go-for-broke performance of a powered protagonist with more than one personality that’s comparable to Tom Hardy in Venom. If you liked that, you’ll love this. And possibly cringe over the inevitable Steven Grant/Marc Spector fanfics. There’s little doubt Isaac was inspired by Hardy. As for Hawke in an uncharacteristic major villain role, it’s the perfect undercutting of his charismatic natural self.
Moon Knight thus far does not connect to the larger MCU, and it’s fine if it never does. With actual Egyptian gods poking around, there’s a lot of reconciling to be done with the Eternals and Asgardians to determine just how they fit in. There’s one particular exercise of divine power that makes no logical or scientific sense except as an unnecessarily mass-scale hallucination. It’s easier to not think about how that all works with Arishem hanging around in outer space. Still, the gods herein have a definite Eternals vibe, just as Steven’s dissociation isn’t totally dissimilar to Wanda Maximoff’s mental problems. The only downside to the familiarity is that mummified Anubis creatures now simply look like more bleached-out Deviants.
As for the much-discussed “mature” content, let’s just say this show really gets the maximum effect out of its canopic jars. And regarding Moon Knight’s canonical status as a Jewish man, nothing about his religion has been mentioned yet.
For a TV series, Moon Knight could have fallen into easily predictable Indiana Jones riffs. But thanks to Isaac and Hawke, it transcends whatever it might have been. The point at which episode 4 ends suggests the show may be about to go even crazier than Isaac. But even if it doesn’t, it’s worth your time.
Moon Knight debuts on Disney+ starting March 30.
Recommended Reading: Moon Knight Vol. 1: From The Dead
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