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Though Marvel’s Disney+ originals have often ended up being stolen by new faces — Agatha in WandaVision, Sylvie in Loki, Kate Bishop in Hawkeye — the shows have all been anchored by characters already established in various blockbuster films.
Until now. While Moon Knight has a 40-plus-year history on the comic pages, the so-called Fist of Khonshu is fresh to the MCU, and the decision was made not to yoke him in with a beloved favorite for his Disney+ maiden voyage. The theory, one I surely can’t dispute, is that when you have Oscar Isaac as your leading man, it doesn’t necessarily matter if the wider audience already knows your protagonist’s origins or powers.
Airdate: Wednesday, March 30 (Disney+)
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke and May Calamawy
Creator: Jeremy Slater from the Marvel Comics character
Nor, frankly, does it matter if they know those things afterward, which points to both the appeal and frustration of Disney+’s Moon Knight. The show’s pleasure comes from watching Isaac flex his action muscles, do intentionally silly accents and exhibit a flair for goofy comedy. But after watching four of the series’ six (45-minute-ish) episodes, I think it’s clear that the acting exercise stands out more than masked vigilante Moon Knight, his pair of alter egos or the story’s crash course in ancient Egyptian spirituality.
Isaac is introduced as Steven Grant, presented here an amateur Egyptologist working the gift shop at something resembling the British Museum. Steven, whose exaggerated argot is littered with “bruvs” and “bloodys” and “innits” galore, dreams only of being a tour guide, but he has a problem: His apparent somnambulism is so severe that despite sleeping with ankle restraints and a panoply of deadbolts, he often wanders far afield. How far? One morning he wakes up in a glen in the Swiss Alps near a village overseen by charismatic guru Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke).
Harrow is an acolyte of the Egyptian god Ammit, whose code of justice includes delivering harsh verdicts not on what people have done, but on what they’re going to do. His goal is to bring about heaven on Earth, or something, by unleashing Ammit, probably killing millions in the process, like a pre-crime version of The Snap. Arthur needs a magical scarab to do that and Steven has the magical scarab because, whether he knows it or not, Steven has ties to the deity Khonshu (voiced magnificently by F. Murray Abraham), who is as vicious as Ammit, but willing to wait to punish people until after they’ve committed crimes.
When the Jeremy Slater-created series is in wacky mode, it’s a lot of Isaac blithering amusingly like an American sitcom star playing the Hugh Grant role in an off-Broadway production of Notting Hill, fleeing supernatural creatures amid exhibitions of colonialist relics and flailing his possessed limbs like Steve Martin in All of Me with a CG assist. Think Knight at the Museum.
When the series is serious and Steve is having strange internal conversations with a brash American named Marc Spector — is Marc in Steven’s head or vice versa? — flirting with a mysterious woman named Layla (May Calamawy) and debating ethics and archeology with Arthur, it’s more Moon-ority Report.
All of that, which somehow spoils nothing, doesn’t even mention the show’s eponymous white-suited hero. That’s because Moon Knight barely factors into his own story. The second episode features an absolutely beautiful, heightened rooftop chase scene against the nighttime London skyline, and it’s the one moment that Moon Knight is visually distinctive. But few viewers unversed in the comic lore will be able to tell you after four episodes what he can or can’t do, and his personality, when it’s exhibited at all, is reheated Deadpool.
Isaac makes Steve stammeringly comic and Marc swaggeringly proficient, and for at least the first couple of episodes, the character’s mental illness is conveyed strongly but exclusively through Isaac’s performance and his emerging vulnerability. By the fourth episode, when what seems to be dissociative identity disorder is made more concrete, Moon Knight just becomes a less surreal version of FX’s Legion, no doubt to the benefit of its general accessibility.
Disappointingly, neither Steve nor Marc is presented as especially nuanced, rendering the contrast between them solely a product of Isaac’s interpretation instead of writing. The near-total erasure of the character’s Jewish background from the comics isn’t damning in and of itself, but it’s a thing that could have given the character grounding or an angle more interesting than “Indiana Jones with a cape.”
With Isaac pulling double-duty and playing his best scenes opposite himself — think Scenes From a Marvel Marriage, with Oscar Isaac playing the Jessica Chastain role as well — there isn’t always room for a supporting cast to find traction. If Isaac is channeling a psychologically unsound Indiana Jones, Ramy favorite Calamawy gets to play a decent version of Marion Ravenwood and Hawke is a menacingly placid Belloq, but both roles feel underdeveloped.
Instead, Slater and Egyptian director Mohamed Diab have concentrated on correcting the genre’s stereotype-glutted history of portraying the Middle East. The production substituted Hungary and bits of Jordan for London and Cairo, so “authenticity” is relative, but you can see some genuine interest in place of fetishizing when it comes to casting, the soundtrack and cultural details. Whether it’s the extras, regional architecture or the Egyptian hip-hop needle drops, Diab’s care is evident, even if in bigger-picture Marvel ways — set pieces, stunts and effects — Moon Knight isn’t always memorable. There’s a fun Alpine chase in the first episode, as well as some ritualistic creepiness here and there, but it turns out that a main character who disassociates himself from his own violent actions and a contemplative villain with judgmental forearm tattoos aren’t a good source of adrenaline.
Conceptually, the first season of Moon Knight feels intended less as a TV show and more as an explanation for why viewers would want to watch the character eventually hobnob with Doctor Strange or Blade or whomever. So far, it’s an argument for Oscar Isaac, and not Moon Knight, to join the Avengers.
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