How to improve upon Oscar Isaac twirling around in a cape, doing his best to pronounce ancient Egyptian words, and serving rakish Tomb Raider cosplay? With two Oscar Isaacs twirling around in capes, doing their best to pronounce ancient Egyptian words, and serving rakish Tomb Raider cosplay!
There is a lot of incongruity to the Isaac-starring Moon Knight, premiering Wednesday on Disney+. The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe miniseries is hampered from the very beginning by its attempt to distill both a dense comic-book backstory and complicated Egyptian mythology into six hourish-long episodes. But Isaac provides all that’s requested of him, from his silly London accent to his elastic facial expressions to his go-go-go physicality, and if your fetish is a universe in which more than one of him exists, congratulations! What does it feel like when dreams come true?
Moon Knight stars Isaac as a man with dissociative identity disorder whose various selves grapple over control of his body while liaising with Egyptian gods. (If Googling to understand more about this mythology leads you to Alex Proyas’s middling 2016 film Gods of Egypt, keep moving — there’s nothing worthwhile to see there.) In typical MCU fashion, Moon Knight also features a strong female character who helps our hero and a tech-adjacent bad guy pursuing widespread genocide as a way to improve humanity for everyone else as long as they meet his codes of morality. But in atypical MCU fashion, there are no references — at least not yet — to the Avengers, to S.H.I.E.L.D., or to superheroes of any kind.
Without greater ties to those properties, Moon Knight (four episodes of which were provided for review) initially feels more in line with swashbuckling adventure franchises like The Mummy (the ones with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, not the Dark Universe) and Indiana Jones, in which saving the world comes down to translating a manuscript and solving a puzzle. There are missteps throughout, like overly expository dialogue and clunky placement of backstory, but the series’ overall structure evokes a video game with each episode presenting a sort of mini-challenge that our hero must work through before he moves on to the next stage of play. That approach keeps the series moving appreciably rapidly. Who is/are the voice/voices inside Isaac’s character’s head? Is that a zombie jackal chasing him? Where is the sarcophagus he’s looking for? And, uh, what does he have to do to the mummy that’s inside?
To a certain degree, the show’s intended effect is confusion. We first meet Steven Grant as a lonely Londoner who each night locks himself into his apartment, puts tape on the doorjamb and sand on the floor to track his movements, and chains himself to bed. Despite possessing enough knowledge about ancient Egypt to organize and curate his own exhibit (demonstrated in a nice scene with a rude young museum visitor that brings to mind Dr. Alan Grant’s “Show a little respect” in Jurassic Park), Steven’s perpetual tardiness and social awkwardness keep him stuck in the gift shop.
“You’re bloody useless,” his boss says — and when Steven wakes up one night in the Alps, unaware of how he got there, there’s an eerie similarity in how he hears a deep, regal voice in his head calling him a “worm,” an “idiot,” and a “parasite.” While fleeing gunmen, Steven wanders into a bizarre ceremony led by Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), a billionaire dressed in a Talbots discount rack of muted linens with a tattoo of the scales of justice on his arm and a cane that can determine whether someone has done good acts and can live or has done — or will one day do — bad acts and should die. Harrow says he’s operating at the behest of Egyptian god Ammit, whom he hopes to raise from the dead, and he recognizes Steven, but he calls him by the name Marc Spector.
Because, twist! When Steven goes to sleep each night, his body is taken over by an American mercenary whose skills in combat and subterfuge have made him a thorn in Harrow’s side. If that weren’t enough plot for you, Marc is also the avatar for another Egyptian deity, the moon god Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), who has a falcon’s head, carries a gigantic scepter with a crescent on the end, and belittles Steven. Khonshu is hunting Harrow to stop Ammit and using Marc to do it, but Marc and Steven, somewhat inexplicably, share a body, and Steven is unexpectedly conscious of all this and unsure whom to trust — and there’s a gold scarab doohickey they’re all tracking down, and there are not one but two special magical suits, and there’s a council of gods who may be corrupt and definitely seem pretty lazy, and then Gaspard Ulliel appears on horseback to train in mermah, an Egyptian sport similar to fencing. Before viewers can get their bearings, there are zombies spilling out of the Great Pyramid of Giza after performing mummification and exacerbation, and they’re ready to make Marc/Steven/whomever their next victim. For only six episodes, it’s a lot, and the balance is, at its best, tenuous.
Moon Knight acts as a warped prism, surrounding Steven with all these contrasting perspectives and ambitions and letting us watch how they simultaneously infringe upon and fight against each other. Each episode carves out time for each character, providing just enough shading to elucidate what they want versus what they need. Isaac pulls impressive double duty as the affected, dainty Steven and the steely, brusque Marc, bouncing between personas through rolled-back eyes and gone-slack body language. As Marc’s wife, Layla El-Faouly, an explorer who steals back artifacts from plunderers and looters and returns them to their original countries and cultures (à la Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther), May Calamawy is lively and endearing, and a scene she shares with Isaac in which they reminisce over the details of their wedding goes far in establishing their chemistry. (Marc’s fondness for how Layla’s female family members ululated in celebration of their union is a particularly lovely MENA-specific anecdote.)
But as much as Isaac and Calamawy are in gung-ho harmony and Ulliel is effectively haughty in his limited appearance (so far), Hawke doesn’t quite fit. His Harrow is stiff-backed, subdued, and so featureless that he’s neither threatening nor engaging. He somehow just appears everywhere and anywhere to lay out speech after speech on his plans as if Moon Knight is trying to convince us of his ominousness, but all those whispering line deliveries and slightly narrow gazes offer diminishing returns. A late-season vibe shift allows Hawke to venture into a totally different space with his representation of Harrow, but before then, his performance wilts against Isaac’s more frenetic tenor. How to compete against the winking campiness of Isaac snarking as his own reflection, “I don’t care how bloody handsome you are”? You can’t.
Aside from Isaac, where Moon Knight excels most is its distinctive atmosphere and aesthetics. There is of course a ton of CGI and VFX work here, but the visual language is lithe under directors Mohamed Diab, who helmed four episodes (and is Egyptian), and duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who directed two and dazzled recently with the unfortunately canceled Archive 81. The fight scenes are gnarlier and bloodier, smartly integrating Marc’s and Steven’s unawareness of and shocked response to what the other has done with their shared body. Duplications and dualities abound with imaginative lighting and camera placements that broaden our sense of our own singularity and the confines of our reality.
A set piece in the premiere episode rotates around the interior of a bathroom and captures Steven lost amid dozens of reflections in one mirror while Marc stands alone in another. In a later episode, the transition from Isaac falling into a pool of impenetrable, inky black to the soft beam of a golden flashlight is gracefully done. A sequence in which Khonshu spins the night sky backward in sonic-wave bands of shimmering moonlight has groovy vibes evocative of the 1970s era that spawned the Moon Knight character. Those frames are as bold as Diab’s choice to make Harrow’s Egyptian henchmen so winkingly flamboyant (licking knives, sneering lines of dialogue such as “In your face, foreigner!”) that they feel like a tongue-in-cheek repudiation of Wonder Woman 1984’s version of the country, which Diab called a “disgrace.”
The narrative flow jolts and fizzes, the pacing variably gallops and stalls, and character motivations are sometimes gossamer thin, other times overexplained. But Moon Knight makes a case for its watchability through its pulpiness and its weirdness. I never once correctly guessed where the story would go, and it’s frankly a disappointment to remember that, however this all ends, its arc will eventually be subsumed into the predictability of the MCU. Moon Knight is so much more compelling without it.
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