Moon Knight exists. Save yourself 4 hours and just read the most recent comic book runs. They’re relatively short, mostly self-contained and are orders of magnitude more interesting than this complete and utter failure of the character.
Bullet Point Review
- Total lack of creative vision, with poor writing, bizarre pacing and a frustrating lack of clarity.
- At times trying to crib from far better properties such as Indiana Jones, The Mummy and Legion, but falling far short of all of them.
- Nothing short of a failure of the titular character.
- Oscar Isaac is excellent, but basically carries the series.
- Supporting cast is simultaneously too small and completely underdeveloped
- Does not deserve a second season but will probably get one, and leaves a lot of dangling plot points.
No Creative Voice
It’s painfully obvious that Marvel are determined to produce movies and shows regardless of creative input, desperate to churn out more precious #Content. I’ll repeat a point I made during one of the episode recaps: they should be opening their vault and inviting directors and writers to pitch them on a specific take for a character and only moving ahead with the project if they like it. Instead they’re seemingly assigning movies and shows with no clear vision to whoever plays ball and the end result is a series like this where the creative team have little to no pedigree whatsoever, bringing bad habits from Netflix etc. Where is the guiding hand of an experienced showrunner?
The show’s biggest problem from my perspective is that it seemingly holds its audience in contempt, viewing the act of entertaining them as a hindrance to teasing out their mysteries. Like Westworld, but worse. I’m not asking to be spoon-fed, but there is a clear middle ground between that and what we got. You can absolutely play with the main character not having a full grasp of what’s really going on, but why does it take until Episode 5 for there to be any attempt at an origin story? Why do we finish the season with minimal understanding of what married life was like for Marc and Layla? Why are there so many instances of characters just going to a place and doing a thing without doing the audience the courtesy of explaining why? ‘The Tomb’ literally has the characters looking for “it”, despite us having no clue what “it” is. Why are you revealing Jake Lockley in the mid-credits scene of the final episode? Most people know to expect a big tease in these spots, but your actual ending should work without it, and if you were to try and argue the culmination of this season’s story was that Marc and Steven fall over while getting out of bed… I would simply shout at you.
Compare all of this to Loki, which dramatically changed the status quo with every episode, but never depended on a mystery box to be an engaging television show. It simply felt like Moon Knight was written as an exercise in writing the most elaborate secrets they could, and then hastily trying to write the in-between parts at the last minute.
Director Mohamed Diab talked a lot about wanting to portray Egypt in a more authentic manner, which is a noble pursuit given how limited American viewpoints are on basically every continent that doesn’t have a predominantly white population. However, even that endeavour falls short, because it amounts to some nice aerial footage of nighttime Cairo and then we’re right back to small sets and green screens. Could we not have Moon Knight engaging in a dramatic chase/fight through these tall neon buildings in the style of Skyfall? Heck, Shang-Chi managed it with Macau, so what’s the excuse here?
A Pale Imitation
The show was clearly torn between two conflicting tones and instead of picking one and leaning into it, they tried to split the difference to the detriment of all of its ideas. This either needed to lean as hard as possible into the psychological stuff that makes us question the protagonist’s perception of reality… or a wacky globetrotting adventure. Trippier or campier. Instead, you end up with a big pile of nothing trying to be everything that doesn’t do any of it particularly well.
Jeremy Slater sure did name-drop a lot of movies, shows and comics as influences, but because of that inability to pick a lane and the general ineptitude of the creative team, they all ended up sounding accidentally hilarious. Evoking Indiana Jones and ‘International Assassin’ from The Leftovers as inspirations for ‘The Tomb’ and ‘Asylum’ is like saying Michael Jordan is an influence on me playing basketball. At least I have the decency to not ask people money to see me play basketball…
I understand why you would look at Indiana Jones and The Mummy when telling a story about travelling to Egypt to explore an ancient tomb, but BOY did they fall short of either of those properties. If this is where you want to live, punch things up and let’s get silly! Give me elaborate missions that Marc pulls off by the skin of his teeth because he switched alters multiple times and had to improvise his way out of trouble in bombastic fashion. Inject some Deadpool style shenanigans if you want! Jeff Lemire wrote Steven Grant as a film producer making a Moon Knight movie and talking about Marvel studios and superhero fatigue! It was great!
Or if you want to go the other way and do prestige TV acid trips to explore Marc’s psyche, rip off Legion. I know I’m higher on that show than most, but it consistently found ways to visually communicate abstract concepts like alternate personalities, trauma response, unreliable memory and psychic battles, all while dripping in well-defined visual aesthetics and editing techniques.
The latter is clearly more where they wanted to be, pushing these aspects in the marketing and probably using the notion of playing multiple characters to land Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. It’s also where Jeff Lemire’s comic shines incandescently, shifting art styles and settings to accompany each of Marc’s alters and his changing understanding of what was going on.
But the reason all of that works so well in the first place is that the comics have consistently made it plausible that Marc IS imagining everything and is just some dude in a costume doing impressive but possible things, talking to an imaginary bird god. Conversely, the show explicitly confirms the supernatural aspects are 100% real early on, so there is zero tension whatsoever when we get to ‘Dr. Harrow’ trying to convince Marc he is a patient that has fabricated the events of the season. We KNOW that’s not true, so it’s nothing more than a temporary hurdle.
They also should have just gotten there faster if it’s what they wanted to do. I’d personally merge the first two episodes and get to ‘Asylum’ much sooner and spend longer there. I’d also try to write the show better in general, but hey, that’s just me.
Most of Marvel’s famous superheroes have already made their live action debuts, and it seems one of their goals post-Endgame is to introduce a new generation of lesser-known characters. Moon Knight fits that bill, with a number of acclaimed comic book runs ripe for adaptation under his belt, particularly in recent years. Moreover, he is just a really cool character; an Egyptian mythology-fuelled gentle Batman knock-off with a nice little supporting cast and dissociative identity that leaves long-lingering questions about whether anything he says is even true. He is equally at home tracking down serial killers as he is hunting vampires.
So if this was your first exposure to the character I fail to see how you would think he was anything other than an enormous dork. The suit design is mostly fine, though I hate that it seems to be entirely CGI, and they did incorporate a decent chunk of his weapons. The problem lies in the execution.
Getting in an early showcase scene for a character to demonstrate their abilities and generally try to style out is Superhero 101 stuff. Moon Knight suits up for four fights in six episodes. The first is an off-screen battle with a CGI jackal monster with us only seeing him landing the last few punches and then walking at camera to look cool. The second is against another CGI jackal monster, which is invisible 50% of the time and barely visible the other 50% because of how Marvel executes its action scenes. The third is a one-vs-many brawl with Midnight Man’s cadre of mercenaries wherein our hero does nothing memorable and ends up impaled by multiple wooden lances before essentially running away. The fourth is a 2-on-1 fight against the main villain – who could barely walk without a cane ten minutes earlier – which he loses. They resolve the last one with another of the blackout gimmicks they used throughout the series. Those worked fine earlier to build tension, but to have the final battle play out that way is weak sauce. Four fights. Two barely visible. One barely won. One essentially lost. Zero cool moments. I don’t think I could make a character look more incompetent if I tried.
I was also personally disappointed by the depiction of the Mr. Knight version of the character. A relatively recent redesign, it trades in the more fantastical caped superhero costume for a baller all-white three-piece suit. Depictions of this version have varied slightly, but in general, this version is more intelligent (dabbling in forensics and detective work), and trades in the Batman style theatrical gadgets for more Daredevil style brawling. His most famous appearance saw him essentially starring in The Raid, brutally battling his way through an apartment complex one floor at a time.
For the show, they chose to assign one costume to each of the personalities, which does make a lot of sense. It’s just that the consequence is that the bumbling, mild-mannered Steven gets Mr. Knight and thus he becomes a slapstick character. He does ‘learn’ to fight for the finale and briefly does some stuff with the clubs, but it’s still making a joke of this popular iteration.
Overreliance on Oscar Isaac
Undeniably, the biggest success of the show was that the uber-talented Oscar Isaac fully bought in, crafting two distinct personalities in Marc and Steven, switching up not just their voices, but their body language. When the first trailer dropped I was perplexed by the faux-cockney accent Isaac was using for Steven, but not only does it work for narrative reasons (he’s doing an impression of a bad movie from his youth), it actually works in general. Isaac fully melts into Steven and you kind of stop noticing the ridiculous voice. It’s weird, but in a good way.
Marc is far more straightforward, a quiet, boring American mercenary trying to protect his wife by pushing her away. Blah blah blah. He’s certainly less engaging than Steven, but his existence provides stark contrast with Steven, and the few times we witness him shift between the two are impressive. It’s no Christopher Reeve taking off his glasses, but it works.
Some of my favourite moments with the battling alters come from their interaction with Layla. She is clearly attracted to a version of the man she loves who is more sensitive, cultured and thoughtful… but to put it bluntly, he’s unfuckable. Sure, Steven LOOKS like Marc, but when it’s time to put the moves on her he completely blows it, and it’s clear she does not enjoy their brief kiss. Likewise, her confusing his amazement about the ancient tomb with a compliment aimed at her was pretty funny. More of this, please!
As I said above, I think they probably used this multiple personalities gimmick to convince Isaac to sign on, presenting him with an acting challenge. And that all comes to a head when we see the fabricated mental health facility. I’m unsure how I feel about Isaac’s work here. The entire concept has been done to death, and him slapping his own head and becoming deranged is… okay? Too much? I genuinely can’t decide.
What I do know is that he does a great job with the two personalities coming to an understanding and reaching out for each other. The reveal that Marc peaced out on his mother’s shiva and left Steven to wander the streets, confused what he’s doing in America and thinking he’s talking to his mum on the phone was brutal, while their reunion and escape from the Duat was heartwarming.
Isaac’s performance repeatedly bails the show out temporarily, but nothing could dig it completely out of the hole the creative team dug. It’s enough to elevate it over The Falcon and the Winter Soldier which lacked this kind of strong acting presence, but that we’re even having that discussion is bleak.
An unfortunate side effect of putting so much of the acting burden on Isaac playing two roles is that it leaves very little screen time for the rest of the cast, which is already too small.
May Calamawy is likeable as Layla, but is missing for a third of the series and gets no proper closure at the end of the season. I’ll keep asking how they didn’t have time for some flashbacks to their relationship in ‘Asylum’ until I get an answer. Good for her becoming a superhero at the end (and the suit arguably looks better in motion than Moon Knight’s), but she’s frustratingly underdeveloped, having to make the most of her minimal material. Again, why weren’t we using her as an audience surrogate to force exposition with Marc and Steven explaining what’s going on to her?
To finally convince the anti-MCU Ethan Hawke to join up and then having him portray a one-note cult leader villain is embarrassing. Like I said, I’m sure they used the dual-roles idea to talk him into it, and I think he’s putting in much better work as the fake therapist than as Ammit’s avatar. He exhibits zero change from episode 1 to episode 6, simply teleporting around the world because the script said so and then vanishing again. The most egregious example is episode 3, where he goes from the dig site to the Chamber of the Gods, then shows up at Midnight Man’s compound to destroy a sarcophagus, then leaves again. And his reason for doing that ends up being for nothing!!! What a waste of one of the best actors of a generation. We won’t even talk about him suddenly being able to fight both heroes at once in the final episode, or being killed off in a mid-credits scene.
Most of the rest of the cast are just providing their voices to CGI creatures, with F. Murray Abraham as Khonshu, Antonia Salib as Taweret and Saba Mubarak as Ammit. I like Khonshu’s design, and they did decent things with him in the first 3 episodes, but I made my issues with not casting an Egpytian actor known in the first episode, and felt they didn’t push the character quite far enough in the back half. Taweret was decently animated and funny for an episode, but that she ends up so high up the cast list is telling. Ammit didn’t look quite as good and ended up a pretty boring character. One day they’ll learn that with the exception of Thanos, these stories work better when the main villain is recognisably a human in a costume and make-up.
Other characters appear for an episode or two, but that’s mostly it. A protagonist with two personalities. An underdeveloped female lead. An underwhelming villain. Three CGI characters. Woof.
If you’re going to keep the numbers so small you have to do MUCH more with them in my opinion. It’s also a bummer, because there were plenty of comic characters that could have been added to inject a bit more life into proceedings. Frenchie’s name appears in Marc’s secret phone. Bushman is mentioned as a partner who betrayed him. Crawley is a living statue. Gena and her boys are nowhere to be seen.
In particular, I think Bushman would have done a lot to fix some problems with the show. By having him working in tandem with Harrow, it would have given Hawke somebody to bounce off every episode rather than requiring him to show up and quietly mock the heroes and then run away again. Bushman as the obnoxious, charismatic physical presence paired with Arthur Harrow, the cerebral expert in the occult. Both would think the other is a fool that they’re using as a means to an end. We’d spend each week wondering who would be first to backstab the other. You’d also essentially give each of the heroic alters their own nemesis, as Marc seeks revenge on a figure from his past that can put up a hell of a fight, and Steven locks wits with Harrow’s intellect.
I don’t know if Midnight Man was originally intended to have a larger role before the passing of Gaspard Ulliel, but his involvement feels like a complete waste of time in hindsight as some kind of past with Layla was mentioned and then he just vanished, hurting both characters and pissing away 20 minutes of screen time.
Finally, I would liked some/all of the Ennead’s avatars to be recognisable faces, even if they’re just character actors, and for them to have a larger presence. Instead, they ended up looking like idiots for blindly trusting Harrow only to later get offed by him in short order. Give me their frustrating philosophical debates and delve into why they’ve had a break-up with our plane of existence, please.
I don’t think I’ve ever found one of these rankings easier, as about half the show was really bad, so episodes 3, 4 and 6 go straight to the bottom of the pile. The finale was by far the worst of the bunch, compounding all the problems present in earlier episodes and tacking some boring CGI fights on top and tying a bow on it with an unsatisfying ending.
‘The Tomb’ is only marginally better than ‘The Friendly Type’ in my estimations, so I could be talked into flipping them. I just figure the few teased minutes of ‘The Asylum’ at the end of Episode 4 elevated it a smidge.
Speaking of ‘The Asylum’, it was the only episode I found engaging from start to finish. It still had plenty of faults as I highlighted in my review, but it was clearly the real meat of the show and made them think they ‘Really Had Something Here’.
‘The Goldfish Problem’ was Very Okay, spending its entire time building intrigue and letting Isaac go HAM with his portrayal of Steven Grant. But the atrocious looking Alps section knocks it down a peg.
That just leaves ‘Summon the Suit’, which did a few things better than episode one, and a few things worse. In my initial review I said I enjoyed it more, but I no longer think that’s the case. As I’ve said more than once, they should probably have found a way to merge these two together.
- ‘The Asylum’ (Episode 5)
- ‘The Goldfish Problem’ (Episode 1)
- ‘Summon the Suit’ (Episode 2)
- ‘The Tomb’ (Episode 4)
- ‘The Friendly Type’ (Episode 3)
- ‘Gods and Monsters’ (Episode 6)
The most obvious material to work with in a second season is the third alter, Jake Lockley, Khonshu’s remaining hyper-violent servant, with some degree of Marc & Steven vs Jake & Khonshu shenanigans. I am intrigued to see if he gets his own version of the suit, but don’t want to see this be the crux of an entire season of television.
Unfortunately, Harrow and Ammit are ostensibly dead, and Midnight Man’s actor passed away so we’d need a whole new slate of villains for our heroes to punch. Moon Knight’s rogues gallery isn’t the deepest, but the likes of Shadow Knight, Stained Glass Scarlet or even the Living Pharaoh are all possible but unlikely. After name-dropping Raoul Bushman I would sincerely hope he actually appears next time out and that could facilitate some flashbacks and incorporate more supporting characters. There’s also no shortage of other nefarious gods to play with, such as Seth and Sobek.
Moon Knight is constantly linked with Werewolf by Night, who is heavily rumoured to debut in a Halloween special later this year, and the character has also served on the Midnight Sons team who hunt supernatural creatures together. Blade may have been recruiting Dane Whitman for that team at the end of The Eternals, which would fit with Marvel seemingly building several smaller teams instead of a core Avengers.
Ultimately, despite it clearly not being a very good show, it seems to have been pretty popular, and with a talented, in-demand actor signed up as the lead, I doubt they have any hesitations about running it back for a second season. I would just hope for a changing of the creative guard if they do.
This column will return with the start of Ms. Marvel in June.
My MCU podcast, Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey is unfortunately nearly at an end, with myself and Ben Phillips taking a look back at Marvel’s 2021 projects. This week: Hawkeye.
When that wraps, it’s back to There Will Be Movies, as Ben and I look at our 25 favourite films of the 1980s.