‘Moon Knight’ review: Raiders of the lost identity
By Mike Hale
The hero of the new Marvel Comics series, “Moon Knight,” has a superior costume. It’s a cool, bullet-absorbing white suit with a billowing cape and eyeholes that shine like milky spotlights. It makes him look like a luminescent Batman. And he refuses to wear it.
His wife, who has an abundance of common sense and very little patience, yells at him: “Summon the suit! Summon the suit!” But he just dithers or pouts or stares at her blankly while the bad guys close in.
There could be a lot of things behind this costume avoidance, including a general move in Marvel’s television shows away from superhero business-as-usual and toward something with a little more, if you’ll excuse the phrase, psychological realism.
With “Moon Knight,” which premiered Wednesday on Disney+, it also has to do with concept and casting. The show features a relatively minor Marvel hero, created in the 1970s, whose defining character trait is what is now known as dissociative identity disorder. In the four episodes (of six) available for review, he is most often Steven Grant, a mild-mannered clerk at the British Museum gift shop, and occasionally Marc Spector, a deadly former mercenary and earthly avatar of a justice-seeking Egyptian god.
They are, of course, opposite halves of a symbolic whole: brains and brawn, peace and war. But the show generates most of its drama and humor, and a number of its visual effects, from their inability to coexist. Visible to one another as reflections, they bicker and trade insults, Steven abhorring Marc’s violence (even when violent action is called for) and Marc ruing what he sees as Steven’s weakness.
As they try to stop a sanctimonious bad guy from resurrecting a rival Egyptian deity, enduring chases, desert treks and crunchingly violent battles, they grudgingly trade off possession of their shared body. The show’s favored move is for Steven to give in just in time for Marc to save both them and their archaeologist wife, Layla El-Faouly. But it takes the direst circumstances for the suit to be summoned, turning the human protagonist into the magically powered Moon Knight.
And that’s where the casting comes in: reflecting Marvel’s ability to attract top-flight talent, Steven and Marc are played by Oscar Isaac, and who wants to wrap Oscar Isaac in computer-generated mummy bandages, no matter how nifty they look?
There are a lot of issues swimming around in “Moon Knight,” including its treatment of ancient Egyptian culture, its presentation of its Middle Eastern milieu and its depiction of its hero’s mental health issues. But as a drama, it’s built entirely around the Isaac vs. Isaac cage match, which supplies fair to middling action and sentiment and consistently satisfying laughs.
It’s characteristic of the Marvel Disney+ shows that the ability of the performers exceeds the inventiveness of the crew — writers and directors seem to be hired for competence rather than distinctive vision. Jeremy Slater (“The Umbrella Academy”), the show’s creator, and its director, Mohamed Diab (Egyptian features “Cairo 678” and “Clash”), are only fitfully successful at combining psychological drama, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” desert adventure and superhero origin story.
A little more flair would help paper over the cracks; as it is, events and relationships aren’t easy to parse and characters’ actions (especially Steven’s) can be inconsistent. It probably didn’t help that nine writers are credited on the six episodes.
You also could wonder how much focus was spent on navigating the hazards of orientalism and ableism present in the original material. The credits include consultants for Egyptology, Judaism and mental health as well as three general consultants from a company that promises on its website to “flag potential concerns and provide advice on how to avoid or mitigate risk.” (No Islam consultant is listed; the focus on ancient Egypt mitigates the risk of dealing with the country’s predominant contemporary religion.)
We don’t know what the consultants’ input was. But on-screen, presenting Cairo in a new light (in interviews, Diab has said this was a priority) seems to consist of making it look like every other world capital. A scene featuring Gaspard Ulliel, who died in January, uses what appears to be an Arab form of jousting as background exoticism; when the characters venture into ancient monuments and archaeological sites, the dangers they face are of a familiar silver-screen variety.
None of that increases the viewer’s pleasure, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish it, either, and you can always focus on Isaac’s nervous fidgeting, shy stubbornness and dodgy accent in his scenes as Steven. (Convinced of his Britishness, Steven refers to Marc as “the little American man living inside me.”)
And Isaac has heavyweight support: Ethan Hawke plays Harrow, the villain, and F. Murray Abraham is the voice of the god, Khonshu, an arrogant and self-righteous loudmouth who appears to his avatar as a disjointed skeleton topped by a floating ibis skull.
The show’s best moments belong to Abraham, who delivers helpful advice like “Kill him! Break his windpipe!” in hilariously stentorian tones. But the character we like best is the highly capable Layla, who gets to be the action star while Steven and Marc snipe at each other; May Calamawy, who plays the rebellious sister in “Ramy,” gives Layla an appealingly irritated insouciance.
The makers of the show are not unaware of the “Raiders” comparison — Steven watches a movie called “Tomb Buster” whose title is rendered in the same sloping style. And while it’s unfair to wish that every desert or jungle adventure could be directed by Steven Spielberg (or Robert Zemeckis, or J.J. Abrams), “Moon Knight” won’t stop you from doing so.