Comics are weird. There’s no denying this simple fact, and there’s no use trying. This fact is universal and can be a barrier to entry for new fans. Sometimes 50 years of lore is a lot to wrap your head around. One of the great strengths of Marvel’s ongoing cinematic universe is that initially, at least, it distilled all that lore into something easier to swallow. Twenty-plus films later, its greatest strength is that when a new character walks onto the screen and says, “I’m a man with split personalities, one of whom in the warrior avatar of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu and I’m here to punish the wicked” most people’s reaction will be “sure, that makes sense.”
Of course, this can also be a flaw –as it is with Marvel’s latest series– in which there is so little explanation that there is almost no reason to care. There is no trial by which Oscar Isaac’s Marc Spectre obtained his powers or much in explaining his back story; he walks on-screen fully formed. Well, half-formed, because if you glossed over it in the previous paragraph, this is a man with multiple identities. This show is, in a word, a lot.
Being a lot isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but while there are many things to love in this series, there are just as many that make it a complicated watch.
As the story opens, Steven Grant is a mild-mannered British man who works in a museum gift shop despite a comprehensive knowledge of ancient Egypt. He sleeps chained to a bed but occasionally wakes up in strange places or has plans he doesn’t remember making.
When he wakes up one day in the middle of a field outside a compound full of bad guys, he starts to put together that something is a little more amiss than he perhaps thought. Steven finally puts together that he is not just one man. Marc Spectre -his alternate identity- is a badass American mercenary who struck a deal with the Egyptian moon god to become a tool for justice.
This is one of the areas of the show that is super clever. The direction and editing of how Marc and Steven trade places, shown almost exclusively from only one of their points of view, works well and puts you in the headspace of whichever personality is currently the protagonist. Oscar Isaac is also excellent and creates two complete characters in very little time. In the first few episodes, some of the best scenes are simply him talking to himself in a mirror.
Ethan Hawke is similarly good and brings empathy to his performance as a villain. While it’s true that Harrow wants to bring about an apocalyptic scenario, his interactions with his followers and Isaacs’s characters are quiet and gentle, and it’s a nice way to play a character that could so easily have been an over-the-top megalomaniac.
And yet, the series sprints through its material such that almost all of it feels underdeveloped. I have only seen the first half of the season, so I am sure answers are coming that will put some things in context (such as which of the multiple personalities is the original). Still, there is no explanation for the source of his mental illness so far. Furthermore, while it causes some interesting conflict in the early episodes, it stops causing conflict as soon as the plot gets moving, and with very little character development for either Steven Grant or Marc Spectre, despite Oscar Isaac doing good work.
Combine all this with some jarring tone changes -it can go from goofy to violent and back again pretty quickly- and some of Marvel’s signature CGI, colour grading, and framing issues, and you have what could be generously be called a mixed bag. I really like Oscar Isaac and I really like Ethan Hawke, but the series failed to grab me.
Where two dozen films’ worth of context will let me forgive some brief explanations of new powersets, it won’t let me ignore them all. I am sure, though, that I am also in the minority and that the show will find its audience pretty quickly. As I’ve said, there is a lot to like in the show, and the lead performance is excellent. Still, it moves so fast that the characters have little time to stop, breathe, and interact. Those are the things I love about Marvel stories: the characters and how they interact and without enough of that, Moon Knight –for me– is just another superhero show.
Marvel’s Moon Knight debuted on Disney+ on March 30th. New episodes follow weekly. I have seen the first three.
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