'Moon Knight' review: Oscar Isaac can't save middling Marvel Cinematic Universe excursion
Courtesy of Marvel/Disney+
A beloved character in the comic book realm but unknown to passive Marvel watchers, the studio’s newest limited series “Moon Knight” runs on fumes despite a dedicated and welcome presence from the indispensable Oscar Isaac. Having already mined the vaults for C and D-list characters, Marvel continues to be in a post-Avengers slump when it comes to delivering compelling characters. Remember when “Iron-Man” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” weren’t considered A-list and then Kevin Feige changed the status quo by giving filmmakers some leash when it came to compelling narratives? Those were the days!
“Moon Knight” is probably the most obscure character to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since “Ant-Man” which explains the six-episode Disney+ treatment as opposed to a big-screen one. Marvel also provided reviewing press access to four episodes, an unprecedented move suggesting they aren’t sure of the hook of the show either. In addition, it’s without question the ugliest of the Marvel bunch with generic screensaver backgrounds and Ethan Hawke, making his MCU debut as the show’s antagonist, looking bored out of his mind.
Created in the 1970s by Dough Moench and Don Perlin, “Moon Knight” has a loyal fanbase eager to see this character get the live-action treatment and I hope it works for them, because it left me cold. Most of the problem stems from Marvel’s struggles to adapt the character into something or someone that makes cohesive sense. He’s got multiple personalities, is a mercenary-turned superhero, and a descendant of an Egyptian god but also parkours around London as if he’s a vigilante? Sometimes it works (thanks to the commitment of Isaac who easily maneuvers between an English and American accent), but it stalls when trying to explore the deep mythos of the comics and throws in curveballs related to mental illness that are headscratchers.
The series begins from the perspective of Steven Grant, a lowly museum gift shop employee living a secluded life in London who doesn’t know about his alter egos but is prone to blacking out in the middle of the night and waking up in exotic locations with no recollection of how he got there. One day, he awakens in the Swiss Alps with blood on his hands and an army of thugs chasing after him. Sleepwalking? Eh, not so much. Credit to Marvel for tweaking the hero’s journey mantra in these early sequences-keeping the audience just as much on the prowl for answers as Steven goes from a nobody to the Moon Knight (or Marc, the other dueling personality). Apparently, this has been happening for a while and watching Isaac go through several Jekyll and Hyde transformations-making both a convincing nerd with no friends and bulky hero ready to rip heads off without hesitation-briefly gives “Moon Knight” some luster.
No surprise to anyone who enjoys the character, but “Moon Knight” works best when it stays connected to the dynamic of those intrinsic personalities punctuated by crisp voice-over work by F. Murray Abraham’s Khonshu, an Egyptian ruler using Steven Grant as an avatar for his bidding. These brief asides offer a reprieve from the usual mechanics of the Marvel formula, but it’s not long before the digitized fight sequences and grueling pacing become routine. Even the arrival of Hawke’s villainous Arthur Harrow, avatar of Ammit, the main adversary to Khonshu, doesn’t spark much enthusiasm beyond seeing a respected performer trying to understand why they chose this, of all the projects in development, as their entrance into the studio’s fold. Perhaps he knows something we don’t.
There’s little tension in the plot which hinges on Egyptian lore and the resurrection of Ammit (Harrow is literally trying to release the beast) plus a side quest involving Marc’s wife Layla (May Calamawy) comes up empty handed. It’s obvious series creator Jeremy Slater had to find a tone within the framework of the carefully curated MCU canon, unlike his “The Umbrella Academy” that’s known for off-the-cuff antics and camaraderie among the cast; the brawls and fight choreography in “Moon Knight” all feel stuck on autopilot, never leaning into the cheekiness of the character’s split personas enough to wiggle around (or really justify) a scene where Steven is driving a truck through the alps while “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” blares.
At least by the end of episode four “Moon Knight” gave me something to wrap my head around, finding a darker aspect of the character both eerie and fascinating. Tough to gauge how the series can build on that silver of momentum as only two remain unseen. Sure, greener pastures could be awaiting Steven, Marc and Khonshu in the MCU’s blueprint, but the mundane plotting and overall presentation doesn’t exactly provide a boost of confidence.
The first episode of MOON KNIGHT debuts on Disney+ Wednesday, March 30th with additional episodes dropping weekly.