After years of fans waiting, Oscar Isaac has finally joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he’s done it with style. In Moon Knight, Isaac plays Steven Grant, a mild-mannered Englishman who works at a museum gift shop and experiences lapses of memory and loss of time. He soon begins to hear voices and see visions of a strange being haunting him. If that wasn’t enough to adjust to, a man named Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) is pursuing him in search of a golden scarab. Grant will have to come to terms with the experiences he’s having and set out to stop Harrow while assisted by a companion named Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy).
Dissociative identity disorder has always been a difficult condition to adapt to screen because of how easy it is to exploit for drama rather than handle it as a real-world experience. Although Moon Knight avoids relating DID to monstrosity the way the truly offensive film Split (2016) does, it still uses it to create tension and plot facilitation, which some viewers might find troubling. Additionally, many alters refer to the collective set of alters as a “system” rather than a “person with DID” since the person suggests singularity over plurality. In the first four episodes, the show does not fully explore what it means to be in a system but may do so in the final episodes. It’s a step in the right direction for mental health representation, but more work is needed to better capture the realities of systems living with these experiences.
One issue with the first four episodes is that the series does not fully establish its characters and the stakes of their stories. Steven is charming and Layla is sympathetic, but we only know them on the surface. Over halfway through, it still isn’t clear why these two and the other characters around them should stand out as people to invest in, and the situations they find themselves in, though often fantastical, don’t feel as urgent as they should.
The series also suffers from a lack of attention to production design. Unlike WandaVision and Loki which had distinct settings, costuming, and effects, Moon Knight mostly focuses on pedestrian settings without a lot of effort to visually elevate them. While Moon Knight has very nice and contrasting outfits, and the mysterious being’s depiction is interesting enough, this is where the most creative aspects of the first few episodes end. As the series goes on, it does start to play more with special effects, but never quite as successfully as its aforementioned predecessors.
No doubt Isaac is the crown jewel of this series, delivering an endearing and against-type performance. Whereas Isaac is typically known for playing strong, commanding, and sometimes cynical characters (Nathan in Ex Machina, Poe Dameron from Star Wars, and the eponymous character from Inside Llewyn Davis), his Steven Grant is soft, thoughtful, and unassuming. It’s a performance that breaks him out of the mould of his career and lets him try something new and distinct. I’d be remiss to focus on Isaac’s performance alone and not also mention the excellent work of Calamawy as Layla. She has to learn to understand Steven’s condition, and although the mental health representation isn’t perfect, it’s nice to see a character strive to empathize with a mentally ill person.
Although some critics have praised the show for taking a darker and bloodier turn, I am not so convinced. The series sprinkles in aspects of horror, especially in episode four, but never fully commits to that approach. It also lacks the visually dark and appealing design of Netflix’s Marvel shows. Although it’s definitely more violent than comedic series like Hawkeye, it never reaches the bone-crunch of Netflix’s Daredevil. One could argue it doesn’t need to go that extreme, but saying it does feel like false advertising. This isn’t a dark show. In fact, so far, it’s a relatively light one peppered with some intense moments.
It’s also worth noting that the first few episodes do not engage with Moon Knight’s Jewish identity, something that is very key to his characterization in the comics. With two episodes left, there’s room to bring it up, and hopefully, it’s done with respect and significance.
Although Moon Knight is the Disney+ series most unconnected and removed from the main MCU timeline, it may still be required viewing for anyone wishing to keep up with the trajectory of the massive franchise. It’s Marvel’s weakest venture into Disney+ television, overshadowed by greats like Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but may still prove fulfilling for some superhero aficionados, and definitely for Oscar Isaac fans.
Moon Knight is available to stream on Disney+, new episodes air every Wednesday.
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter