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Review: Moon Knight is a darkly complex superhero origin story with a soul

Moon Knight in full costume
Enlarge / Oscar Isaac is a tormented man with multiple personalities who becomes the avatar of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu in Moon Knight.

YouTube/Marvel Studios

Can anything good ever come of gods interfering in the affairs of men? That’s the underlying conundrum posed in Moon Knight, the latest spinoff series in the MCU’s Phase Four, and in the case of the series, the answer is a resounding yes. Starring Oscar Isaac as a tormented man with dissociative identity disorder (DID), the series has more in common with the Netflix Defenders series than with recent Marvel fare like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. But instead of taking place in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, it’s telling a unique superhero origin story rich in symbolism and Egyptian mythology.

(Some spoilers below for the comics and the TV series. Any major reveals are at the very end, and we’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)

As I’ve written previously, in the comics, Marc Spector (aka Moon Knight) is the son of a rabbi, marked at a young age by the Egyptian moon-god Khonshu to be the god’s avatar on Earth. But Khonshu is a supernatural entity with many aspects to his nature—and also exists out of phase with normal time and space—so forging a psychic connection with the human Marc harms the man’s mental health.

Marc develops DID, eventually becoming a mercenary. He is hired by the ruthlessly amoral Raoul Bushman for a job, in which the latter kills an archaeologist who has uncovered an Egyptian tomb. Marc saves the archaeologist’s daughter, Marlene, leading to a major fight with Bushman. Marc loses the fight and is left for dead, but the locals carry him into the tomb and leave him in front of a statue of Khonshu. Khonshu revives and heals the dying Marc.

Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac) discovers the existence of another personality.
Enlarge / Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac) discovers the existence of another personality.

Marvel Studios/Disney+

When Marc returns to the US, he channels all the money he made from being a mercenary into fighting crime as Moon Knight, recognizable by his silver cape. He has four other distinct identities in the comics: a billionaire businessman named Steven Grant, a taxi driver named Jake Lockley, a suited consultant named Mr. Knight, and a little red-haired girl called Inner Child. Showrunner Jeremy Slater has kept the broad outlines of the origin story in place for the series, with a few key differences.

The first personality we meet is Steven Grant—not a billionaire, but an awkward, mild-mannered British dude who works in a London museum gift shop and yearns to share his knowledge of Egyptian history and culture as a tour guide. His professional and romantic prospects are dim because he is plagued by blackouts. He even goes so far as to chain himself to the bed at night but still frequently regains conscious awareness in unfamiliar surroundings.

Marc Spector (also Isaac) is the primary personality, a former mercenary who now serves as the avatar of Khonshu. May Calamawy plays Marc's estranged wife Layla El-Faouly.
Enlarge / Marc Spector (also Isaac) is the primary personality, a former mercenary who now serves as the avatar of Khonshu. May Calamawy plays Marc’s estranged wife Layla El-Faouly.

Marvel Studios/Disney+

One of those blackouts sets the show’s events in motion. Steven wakes up in the Austrian Alps and finds himself in mid-confrontation with Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), a charismatic cult leader who demands that Steven give him an Egyptian scarab he happens to be holding. A mysterious force prevents Steven from doing so, while a voice inside his head laments that “the idiot” is in charge again. Steven blacks out again and finds himself covered in blood, with the bodies of Harrow’s men all around him. Yet more blackouts and a car chase ensue. Let’s just say that blacking in and out while driving at high speeds on a narrow mountain road—with heavily armed evil henchmen in hot pursuit—is not a safe means of travel.

It’s a highly effective opening to this series because we share Steven’s disorientation and confusion as he tries to understand what’s happening to him. Eventually Marc Spector, the mercenary persona, reveals himself and explains that he is the avatar of Khonshu, an outcast among the Egyptian gods for his crusade against humanity’s injustices. (F. Murray Abraham voices Khonshu, while Karim El Hakim physically portrays him.) Marc is estranged from his wife, Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy), the daughter of an Egyptologist who was murdered by mercenaries.

As for Harrow, he was once Khonshu’s avatar but switched his allegiance to the Egyptian goddess Ammit, who is imprisoned by the other gods. She’s even more radical than Khonshu, judging the hearts of human beings for the good or evil they will do, not just the sins already committed. The scarab will reveal the location of Ammit’s tomb, so Harrow can release her and let Ammit exact her judgment on the world. Marc and Steven must figure out how to share the body and work together to foil Harrow’s plan with Layla’s help. Oh, and there just might be a third personality lurking in their shared body who only emerges when things get really bad.

Cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) worships the Egyptian goddess Ammit, who will judge humanity based on future sins.
Enlarge / Cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) worships the Egyptian goddess Ammit, who will judge humanity based on future sins.

YouTube/Marvel Studios

Slater proves himself to be a gifted storyteller, weaving all the threads of this complicated narrative into a seamless whole while exploring themes of identity and recovery from trauma. Bonus: The entire series is beautifully shot, with terrific set and costume design. It’s the classic mythological voyage of the hero in many respects, right down to the journey to the afterworld, but much of that voyage takes place inside the mind(s) of Marc and Steven. That kind of internal psychological journey can be difficult to portray in a consistently engaging way, but Slater successfully pulls it off. I particularly appreciated the skillful symbolic use of mirrors throughout to convey a fractured self.

Much of the credit for the show’s success is also due to Isaac’s riveting performance. He seems to effortlessly flit between two distinctive personalities, complete with unique accents and body language, and handles the action sequences with aplomb. Native Brits will undoubtedly cringe at Isaac’s supposedly London accent, but the actor has said he deliberately made it “bizarre and unconvincing.” It’s what a traumatized young boy in the process of splitting in two would consider to be a British accent, so for my money, the choice makes narrative sense.

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