Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke star in new Marvel series Moon Knight, a show steeped in Egyptian mythology and balancing both globetrotting action and internal drama. And, as Tony Stamp observes, Isaac is doing his best Simon Pegg while Hawke seems to be having the time of his life.
In 2022 the MCU’s takeover of popular culture continues unabated. We just had Spidey(s) busting box office records during a pandemic, following on from the studio’s 2021 slate of four original TV series, each of which followed at least one hero from the movies.
Which makes the new show Moon Knight a slightly different proposition, in that it introduces a brand new character into the Marvel fold. There’s also star Oscar Isaac describing it as “the first legitimate Marvel character study since Iron Man”… which honestly feels like something he shouldn’t have said, being that they’ve been cranking these out for fourteen years now. I can’t imagine Cumberbatch and co. were that stoked about the quote.
That said, six episodes is a generous amount of time getting to know someone, and Moon Knight has plenty of character(s) to study—more than one played by Isaac himself. The less-reported part of his quote to Variety was “maybe this is the chance to do something really fucking nutty on a major stage”, and speaking as someone who’s seen the first four episodes—Oscar, buddy, congrats. You did it.
Marvel movies have recently made a trend of mucking around with memory and withholding information from the viewer (I’m mostly thinking of Shang-Chi and Captain Marvel). Moon Knight continues that approach: in fact if, like me, you haven’t read the official synopsis, you could spend the first episode feeling pleasantly bamboozled as to what the eff was actually happening.
Suffice to say, Isaac plays an American mercenary named Marc, but we meet him as an English museum attendant called Steven. And at this point, we need to talk about Steven.
Much was made of Isaac’s weird English accent when it appeared in the trailer, and all I’ll say is, get ready for a lot of it. The showrunners have gone all in on certain choices around this character: he serves as audience surrogate (he doesn’t know what’s going on either), and as comic relief, and I‘m dying to find out how that second part goes down with audiences.
Since Jon Favreau and Downey Jr set the template on Iron Man, and Joss Whedon carved it in stone in The Avengers, it seems to be a Marvel golden rule that there’s at least one character who makes wisecracks. As crazy as things get, there will be someone, usually the lead, muttering something relatable and funny. Here that’s Steven, who alternates between being the butt of the joke, and taking the mickey out of other (sometimes magically-powered) people.
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I’m not an expert but Isaac’s accent sounds pretty good to me (it’s also a handy way to know who’s who as he plays multiple roles). But he’s doing much more than that. He’s trying to make Steven funny in a British way. That slightly awkward, charming way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s doing Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead.
I also counted three references to Pegg and Edgar Wright’s follow up Hot Fuzz. I’m sure I’m right about that. Just let me have this.
Now, Isaac has made jokes before (I thought he was pretty funny in Star Wars), and recently showed a willingness to be silly on Saturday Night Live when he played a singing meatball. Still, this character and his nervous improv-y energy will be people’s biggest sticking point I think, particularly because we’re meant to align with him rather than the cold, calculating mercenary Marc (but I can’t deny I felt a bit of relief every time Marc took centre stage).
So that’s a lot of words about what’s happening comedy-wise, but isn’t this a superhero show? It is, but Marvel seem to be using the excess runtime to tell a slightly different origin tale than usual. The greater story is tied into Egyptian mythology, and the way it mixes the mundane with the supernatural reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods more than anything. There are fights, and there are monsters, but mostly the focus is on what’s happening in Steven and Marc’s head.
Showrunner Jeremy Slater made a very good Exorcist TV series and helped develop superhero show The Umbrella Academy, and here he’s clearly relishing the (much) bigger budget, and the opportunity to delve into some cosmic subject matter. He’s helped considerably by a few top-tier directors.
Mohamed Diab has made Egyptian drama features thus far, and transitions to special effects rollercoaster seamlessly. His film Eshtebak (Clash) was shot entirely inside a police van, and while Moon Knight is pretty much the opposite (the series shoots off to multiple countries early on), it does feel (intentionally) claustrophobic as Diab works to place us in Steven’s hallucinatory headspace.
Also on board for two episodes are Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the directing duo behind excellent low budget features like Spring and The Endless. You can feel them having a lot of fun creating Moon Knight’s slippery grasp on reality from behind the camera, and like Diab they have a firm grip on the character’s internal drama.
Despite its globetrotting scope, the show so far is mostly a three hander, Isaac bouncing off Ethan Hawke’s bad guy Arthur Harrow, and Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy as Layla El-Faouly.
Her resume is a bit sparse, and Moon Knight seems to be a big step up for her career-wise: it’s great casting and she’s a magnetic presence. There’s clearly been some effort to make her more than just a love interest for Marc (she’s also, as they say, a badass), but Calamawy is doing some heavy lifting to ensure the character pops.
Hawke meanwhile seems to be having the time of his life playing a cult leader whose background intersects with Marc’s. Every line is gravely intoned in Hawke’s post-50 gravelly rumble, and his whole look—long swept back hair, loose linens and sandals—is custom made to draw attention to his eyes, honed from a lifetime of acting to be deeper and more piercing than seems humanly possible. I’m just saying, were he actually a cult leader I’d be tempted to sign up.
The very first scene of the show has him placing broken glass into his sandals, then putting them on and sauntering away. It’s a great introduction, and also a bit of a warning that Moon Knight is more violent than you may expect. The first episode actually toys with viewer expectation by preventing us from seeing any carnage, but we see the aftermath, and it’s quite bloody.
At this point in the series though, the action is more punctuation than the main point. Moon Knight is a mystery show, and I have plenty of questions about what the last two episodes hold. There are moments when it dips into full-on hallucinatory territory, and I was reminded of the psychedelic, superhero-adjacent Legion, but in the end this is an MCU series on Disney+, and never quite goes off the deep end. The wisecracks keep coming.
Regardless, Moon Knight is a blast, expertly paced and entertaining, with some big ideas on its mind. It still feels very ‘Marvel’, and you may not find it funny (even though it’s trying very hard to be), but to the studio’s credit they are trying something slightly new, a mix of the magical and mundane, from the perspective of a slightly annoying Englishman.