A promising new entry to the Marvel canon that would work better as a self-contained movie.
(Moon Knight premieres on Disney+ on March 30th. Four episodes out of six were screened for review.)
The first four episodes of Moon Knight reveal two things.
First, none of this would work without the tremendous Oscar Isaac. But that’s hardly a surprise.
While the rest of the cast is good, none measure up to his subtle, heartbreaking, and nuanced performance. It sidesteps all of the potential landmines, even as it dances to the same rhythm as the colossally awful Cruella from last year. That’s mainly thanks to Isaac, who never allows for his mentally ill protagonist suffering from dissociative identity disorder to turn into a joke.
Second, Moon Knight should have been a movie. Not because it’s particularly cinematic, though a few key scenes impress, but because there isn’t enough content to warrant six hours of runtime.
It’s still good, but it’s also surprisingly aimless. Everyone involved knows they’ve got something special on their hands, but those hands are tied to make way for another franchise first. This leaves a promising show underdeveloped and over-explained.
Marc Spector is Steven Knight. Steven is Marc. They’re two sides of the same coin, though only one is aware of the other. Steven is a mild-mannered insomniac with poor people skills. Marc kills people for a living when he isn’t stealing priceless artifacts. He’s also the living avatar for the god Khonsu, a deity of ruthless judgment. Think The Punisher meets Big Bird.
One day, Steven wakes up in a place he doesn’t know. People are shooting at him. There’s a golden scarab in his pocket that he hasn’t seen before. A crazed cult leader (Ethan Hawke), who acts as Judge Judy and executioner, is on his tail.
How he got there and how he escapes fill up most of the first two episodes. They’re also some of the most fun the otherwise muted series has. An early-on car chase is easily top-tier Marvel, at least on television, and Hawke makes for a great foil to Isaac’s jumpy energy.
The series spins plates far too much for its own good. By episode two, it already begins to sag. Too many scenes involve people explaining things to others who should know them already. Every potentially intriguing backstory gets a long, drawn-out presentation first. The rare few times we get to see the mythic in action stand out instead; setpieces of awe-inspiring romanticism, where gods can alter the universe itself.
Then there’s the eponymous Moon Knight himself. A mix between Batman and Deadpool, though half as interesting. Visually, there’s a lot to love from his half-moon cape to the ludicrous moon-shaped weaponry. But we only see scant glimpses of him in the first four episodes. None of which are particularly fun.
Then there’s Layla (May Calamawy), who carries the energy and action of the series effortlessly. She’s a brilliant addition to the dynamic, but the show has no idea what to do with her.
Sure, the argument is there that this is only their first outing. We’re learning as we go, like Steven. But for the first time, it’s the normal alter-ego of the superhero that’s more interesting. As Steven and Marc, Isaac gets to play it both broad and subtle, balancing between action hero and Mr. Magoo, and it’s a delight. He shines at every opportunity afforded to him, which makes the superhero portions feel, well, tired. We’ve seen all this before.
But when Steve gets to witness his beloved ancient Egypt come to life for the first time? That’s magical. Or hearing an ancient god lament the thousands of years he’s witnessed alone under a sea of stars? Beautiful. There are singular moments of Moon Knight that are among the best Marvel has produced. It’s just a shame they’re wrapped in a dime-a-dozen series that keeps skidding at the start line.
Comic book properties have their limitations, and to enjoy them is to acknowledge and live with those shortcomings.
But Marvel is now going into its fifteenth year. They’re the most successful studio in history. They can do anything they want with their property. Yet they always return to the same old dichotomy but never subvert it.
Once again, Hawke’s character is just an evil version of Isaac’s. You can tell where all of it is going before the first episode is out. A potentially incredible sequence involving ancient gods coming together for judgment turns into the direst courtroom drama.
Moon Knight is a series that sets itself up for greatness that actively then self-sabotages things in the process. The result is both impressive and frustrating. A more cynical viewer can even tell why it pulls back in the scenes it does. That’s reserved for another future property. Can’t have two at the same time.
It’s never truly bad. But it is inconsequential. It’s a stellar showcase for a talented actor who everyone already loves. Neither of which is a bad thing, but with this pedigree, you’d think there was more to it by now.
Maybe it’s just poor first impressions. Perhaps the final two episodes knock the whole thing out of the park. Maybe there’s a film underway and all this is a training run for the real thing.
One can hope. Because a cast and crew this talented deserve better.