HEAT VISION

How Marvel's 'Moon Knight' Can Explore Mental Health

In the comics, portrayals of the superhero's dissociative identity disorder have not always hit the mark.
Greg Smallwood/Marvel Entertainment
In the comics, portrayals of the superhero's dissociative identity disorder have not always hit the mark.

The deep cut Marvel character Moon Knight is getting his own Disney+ show, as revealed at D23 last week. Though it's always a challenge to bring a superhero to the screen, Moon Knight comes with an extra layer of complexity, as his powers are connected to the mental health struggles of his alter ego, Marc Spector.

First introduced in Werewolf by Night No. 32 by writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin, Moon Knight began his Marvel Comics career as a villain turned ally to Werewolf by Night before becoming a hero in his own right in later issues. Though his origin features a magical Egyptian deity, much of Moon Knight's tenure as a caped crusader has been defined by his battle with dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has three separate personalities, each with distinctive traits and identities.

Created in 1972, Marc Spector's struggle has often been used as an exploitational tool rather than a true exploration of what it's like living with DID. When it comes to bringing the character to the screen, it's an aspect that needs to be dealt with in a thoughtful and authentic way.

Depictions of people with mental health struggles in pop culture have often been problematic, with exaggerated and dangerous representations of mental health used to shock and scare. 

Moon Knight's origin misunderstood the nature of DID. It assumes that Marc Spector can make the choice to create two alternate personalities: Steven Grant, a Bruce Wayne-esque stock market millionaire who funds Marc's time as Moon Knight, and Jake Lockley, a street-smart and sometimes violent everyman cab driver from New York. There's also the more complicated matter of Moon Knight, who is just an alter ego and not an alt-personality. It's unclear whether or not Spector previously suffered from DID or whether it was something that happened when he was given his superpowers and became the vessel of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu, who also inhabits Marc's mind and occasionally his real life.

As the character finally heads to the small screen, how can Marvel Studios make a series that explores Marc Spector and his DID in a nuanced and complex way without falling into the tropes of the past? It can start by looking to recent TV superhero shows that have been doing the same.

The timing of the Moon Knight series announcement comes in the wake of FX's Legion and DC Universe's Doom Patrol, both of which offer up different visions of heroes with DID. Legion creator Noah Hawley's take on Charles Xavier's son David Haller (Dan Stevens) used its platform to put forward a complex, nuanced and challenging look at the hero whose powers have long been illustrated and defined by his struggles with mental health. Over three seasons, the show dissected the idea of what it means to be a hero or a villain and — although it was by no means a perfect exploration — it tried to elevate the tropey subject matter to present a different idea of what a superhero show that deals with mental health could be.

DC Universe's ambitious and strange Doom Patrol took this one step further by taking a character whose past has been plagued with problems and presented a thoughtful look at living with DID. Though Crazy Jane is an extreme caricature of DID, the creators of Doom Patrol and actor Diane Guerrero crafted a performance and character who had almost complete agency over her life and powers despite her fight with DID. Jane got to go on a journey throughout the series, one of self discovery and self acceptance. Viewers got to see her in all of her super-powered forms while gaining a connection to the woman at the center and understanding why she manifested the personas at all.

Moon Knight can learn from these by crafting a character who isn't defined by his mental illness but instead lives with it, who can use it to his advantage but who also has to deal with the day-to-day realities of having multiple personalities.

Of course, like Legion and Doom Patrol, the Moon Knight series will likely lean into the extreme and supernatural, but that doesn't mean that it can't also offer a thoughtful look at the mental health issues the titular hero struggles with.

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