There exists a version of Moon Knight in the streaming multiverse that sees a live-action version of the character anchored by the realism that served as the mantra for the Marvel Netflix shows. In this variant Moon Knight series, the story takes place in just a few alleyways, rooftops, and office buildings. Oscar Isaac’s Marc Spector is a rich guy who wears a makeshift vigilante costume that occasionally has psychologically dissociative episodes. The show then spends an inordinate amount of time reckoning whether these episodes are a manifestation of something more fantastical or maybe just a case of dissociative identity disorder, only for it to be ambiguously revealed in the final episode, alongside a costume.
With Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight, the series not only exhibits a full understanding of the character’s rich and complex history but also unabashedly glorifies its weirdness in spectacular ways. And central to this understanding is the overall vision for the show, wherein series writer Jeremy Slater takes the comic’s superhero idiosyncrasies and synthesizes them with the globetrotting adventures of pulp forefathers. The character, relatively known to be tethered to the cityscapes and underworld of the Marvel Universe as Daredevil would, sees himself traverse the globe in a sweeping adventure of might, magic, and vengeance by virtue of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
To bolster the series’ pulpy adventure sensibilities, directors Mohamed Diab, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead come together to craft the most gorgeous looking images this side of a post-Chloe Zhao era of Marvel Studios. Scenic panoramas of Jordan stand in for Cairo and are captured beautifully. It’s through these sweeping shots that the scope and scale of the show are inspired, immediately surpassing the purported global scope of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Elaborate and ornate sets of ancient Egyptian caves and tombs invoke a true sense of adventure and wonder, showing Marvel Studios’ commitment to immersing audiences in this unseen corner in the MCU.
It’s taken Marvel Studios more than a decade to get to an era of Celestials, dragons, infinite multiverses, time-traveling, and now, divine pantheons. Slater and his team introduce the idea of Egyptian gods walking among mortals through their avatars, a concept so distanced from the alienification of Asgardians in 2011 that the early Thor films feel like embarrassments, and even take it a step further by pitting them against each other in a war to preserve their peace. When Arthur Harrow, an avatar for the imprisoned god Ammit, threatens to unleash his god’s ruthless judgment on the world, the moon god Khonshu strikes one final deal with his avatar, the mercenary Marc Spector, to stop Harrow. Unfortunately for Steven Grant, the hapless gift shop clerk living inside Marc Spector’s head, he knows nothing of this yet is inevitably drawn into this grand adventure against his will.
Such a sweeping premise would not work without an entry point to ease audiences in and Slater makes perfect use of Marc Spector’s alter-ego, Steven Grant, to do this. Slater writes Grant as his own being, autonomous and independent of Spector, which in turn allows Oscar Isaac to treat him as a completely separate character. Much has been said and laughed about Isaac’s British accent in the early trailers and while it’s undeniably funny, it surprisingly manages to be sweet and endearing. Isaac gives Grant such a feeble presence that when the character is forcibly drawn to big superhero action moments, it’s highly entertaining. And when Grant is given his own agency as Mr. Knight as the season goes on, it pays off like a delight.
As Khonshu’s primary avatar and the baseline persona of the character, Marc Spector is ironically sidelined in the four episodes sent to press, with only one episode heavily featuring him as the active persona. And in the handful of times Spector comes to light, it’s played mostly straight by Isaac. Spector is the persona most tied to the mythology of the narrative and has little to do but brood and scowl. For Isaac, Spector might be where he gets to do the least so it never matches the watchability of him playing Steven Grant. Even when Spector suits up as Moon Knight, it’ll be the arresting look of the costume or the comic flair of the fights that will leave audiences breathless, not Isaac. Nonetheless, key moments in the script that allow Isaac as Spector to go broad and bounce back between voices make it a worthwhile performance. Because of it, Moon Knight ultimately accomplishes the one thing its comics haven’t: making you care about the character’s personalities.
Marc Spector’s alternate personalities make up the lack of ensemble but so do Ethan Hawke and May Calamawy. As Arthur Harrow, Hawke’s words beam with constant pain, darkness, and disenchantment. His past is enigmatic; a puzzle waiting to be deciphered and Hawke subdues heavy emotion to maintain the illusion. The text of the narrative does little to obscure the malice in Harrow’s actions yet Hawke’s performance makes you feel indifferent to them. Playing the leader of an ancient doomsday cult, Hawke rightfully channels the terrifying charm that makes real-world cults so alluring. Harrow displays warmth and compassion to his followers while also exhibiting a wealth of understanding about the world as he as experienced it. His convictions are fueled by his vindications which makes his endgame unwavering and righteous. A step is never lost as Hawke performs all these nuances.
Calamawy’s Layla El-Faouly, an excellent reimagining of Moon Knight staple Marlene Alraune, serves as the foil for both Spector and Grant. While Spector is brooding and guarded, El-Faouly is brazen. While Grant is helpless, El-Faouly is efficient. Much of El-Faouly’s characterization is connected to her professional and romantic history with Spector. A renegade in her own right, the character boasts connections to the underworld that help Spector fulfill his deal with Khonshu. Calamawy has the thankless job of cushioning the whiplash from Isaac’s eccentric performances, something she does in stride.
Grace is the word best used to describe Moon Knight’s fight sequences. The scenes lack the intricacy of the Bourne-era of action that modern action films/shows have tried to emulate nor are they concerned in recreating the viscera of Daredevil fights. Rather, Moon Knight displays an affinity for tapping into the iconography of the comic splash page; compositions of Moon Knight freefalling from a building as he throws a crescent blade at a chasing monster and Moon Knight backflipping in slow-motion as he takes several goons out take precedence over shaky-cam action. The lack of intense action may irk fans wanting more choreographed complexities, but the stylized fight scenes successfully establish the character’s pause-worthy screen presence.
With a show as ambitious as Moon Knight, it takes a while for the pieces to fall together. The first episode functions like a glorified version of the trailer as it understandably trudges through the essentials that introduce Steven Grant’s mysterious predicament. The second episode, on the other hand, is quick to realize the full scope of the series. In just under an hour, the episode manages to bridge the gap between the street-level vantage point of the heightened, larger-than-life scope of comic books before dovetailing into a pulpy adventure. As the story continues, the tone of the series nimbly shifts from transgressive character study to unsettling thriller to slapstick superhero comedy to awe-inspiring adventure. The disparate reversals between Mr. Knight and Moon Knight are playfully realized. Much like the character, Moon Knight is a prism of clashing personalities that have no business being together but cooperate harmoniously.
The streets of Marvel have come a long way from sluggish hallway fights, skirmishes with goons in parking lots, and blatant attempts to obscure anything remotely heightened. These days, the MCU has never been prouder of its weirdness and with Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight, the future of street-level characters has never been brighter and more ambitious. Moon Knight is an indelible benchmark in Marvel Studios’ playbook.