“Moon Knight” is another beginning, in some senses. Taking a post-blip, pandemic-prolonged pause for the cause, after the seminal “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” movies, Marvel’s creators have been setting the stage for the future of their creative, lucrative franchise. They have spent the past few years introducing new characters, developing new story arcs and outlining the next sagas at the movies and on streaming platforms. In “Moon Knight,” they introduce their first new headline character on the Disney+ platform. Not only is “Moon Knight” the first Marvel Studios origin story on this small-screen system, but it breaks ground on a few other fronts. The protagonist grapples with mental health issues as a constant, central aspect of his character. The first Egyptian hero, emerging alongside other Arab and Arab-ish characters on the show, brings necessary, instructive and entertaining new perspectives on and off the screen. Not sitting in a vacuum, despite self-contained storytelling, “Moon Knight” is one of a few new movies and shows with more mysticism, magic and horror from Marvel comics. And, ultimately, the show’s creators add more genres and levels of storytelling as they explore struggles of, within and beyond personhood.
The show runners, writers and actors make “Moon Knight” a good show. They help crystallize a canon for the protagonist. They create captivating — though not always easy or light and sometimes frustrating or unresolved — characters, with issues and arcs to consider in the future. With excellent performances, stunning scenes and intriguing storytelling, “Moon Knight” is smart, funny, confusing and tragic. It has heart, too. Despite some shortcomings, the creators have set up fascinating options for the second season, different spinoff series and/or character crossovers in what is now a Marvel motion picture multiverse.
The title character, Moon Knight, first appeared in 1975. Decked out in a white cloak and silver gauntlets, with an evocative crescent emblazoned on his chest, Moon Knight struggled alongside and against different heroes, anti-heroes and villains for years during the so-called Bronze Age of comics. After 1980, Moon Knight featured in his own comics — usually as the persona of a man named Marc Spector. Although the writers never created a canon, they outlined origins and fundamental features of Moon Knight in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, folks were creating complex protagonists by introducing anti-heroes, coloring characters in shades of gray and introducing darker story arcs. Against that backdrop, Moon Knight truly emerged as a character. Operating as a mercenary, Marc worked for The Committee: a bunch of powerful entrepreneurs who, per usual, had some dubious designs for the world. He went on a mission to North Africa. Others betrayed and killed him. Dead or dying, depending on the storyteller or interpretation, Marc found new life when an Egyptian deity — Khonsu, a moon god — revived him and granted him a magical super-suit that augmented his abilities and protected his body. He also found purpose: Khonsu made Marc his “fist” of vengeance and justice. Marc basically served Khonsu in exchange for keeping his life — and, yes, power.
On the pages, the protagonist adopted different names, aliases and personas: “Marc Spector,” his original name, while still working as a soldier of fortune; “Steven Grant,” appearing to be a billionaire who dabbles in bicoastal elite and globalist activities like producing movies; and “Jake Lockley,” a cab driver who adds some street cred, access, information and influence in different spheres. Comics being comics, the protagonist adopted aliases to make his antics more feasible, imposing structure and creating channels for another quintessential fantasy of fanboys around the world: virtuous, violent hypercompetence. The mercenary fought. The rich man funded things. The cab driver gathered intelligence.
Changing the story over the decades, creators made Moon Knight more complex (and, at times, more problematic and insensitive). The protagonist moved away from being a “Batman Light,” decked out in white, and the worlds he inhabited changed, too. On the pages, the protagonist lived with dissociative identity disorder and the aliases became different personalities, with the three main alters being Marc, Steven and Jake. Usually, Marc was the prime personality (that is, the personality that put the story in motion). The knight started to manifest differently, too: for instance, as the cloaked “Moon Knight” or as a suited-and-booted “Mr. Knight.” In all versions, including now-seminal runs in 2014 and 2016, “Moon Knight” carries on as Khonsu’s fist of vengeance. And he quests in worlds both natural and supernatural, physical and metaphysical, mental and spiritual.
“He had fire in his eyes,” said Ethan Hawke, who plays a villainesque character, musing about how Oscar Isaac, who plays the protagonist, sold him on the show after running into him at a coffee shop. And, thanks to a great creative choice, we see the show through those eyes: Viewers, as Isaac himself told Vanity Fair, “are within the eyes of Steven [Grant] and experiencing these unpredictable events that are happening to him. It’s terrifying and true to the psychological horror of not knowing what’s happening and the slow revelations of the truth.”
Using those eyes — of Steven, rather than of Marc — to define and shape the show, Marvel’s creators make significant changes. Embracing the characters’ low profiles and the lack of a crystallized canon, they make their own story, create composite characters and rewrite other characters in everything but name only. Especially in early episodes, “The Goldfish Problem” and “Summon the Suit,” Steven is the instrument through which the audience experiences the show — disorienting us while blending dark arcs, solid humor and a couple of surprises.
Unbeknownst to him, Steven is a man with dissociative identity disorder and a mysterious, mystic bond to an Egyptian deity. Working as a clerk in an unglorified museum shop, Steven is living in London (not, as in the comics, in the United States). He’s shy, geeky and boyish. Well, he’s a pushover who’s nice to everyone — including folks who deserve a kick in the face or, at least, a snide, rhetorical riposte. But Steven isn’t just nice or weak. He’s kind. He corrects kids, with patience and passion, teaching them some facts and manners while treating them gently and understanding that they’re just kids. He does more than he is asked, sometimes at the expense of doing what is asked of him. He seems to have plenty of time for people, none of whom have time for him, and even stops along the way to take people’s pictures, cheer on romances, and do little things that depict his desire to connect with and help others.
Struggling with (what he and we believe is) a sleep disorder, Steven creates a ring of sand around his bed and chains his ankle to the frame every night. He has trouble sleeping, at all or well. So, he stays busy by reading, messing around with a Rubik’s Cube and calling a hotline. And yet Steven must be sleeping or entering into half-states. He flits between aspects of experience that seem real and dreamlike. He can’t account for hours upon hours — maybe even days upon days — of his life. He ends up in situations that make no sense and fly in the face of his evident meekness. As he gets in and out of trouble, which he does not remember or comprehend fully, we imagine that Steven just needs a little more rest. In the mornings, Steven wakes up, unshackles himself, and enters a life of mundanity. Tired and listless, Steven drifts through his days at work. He sells jujus at the gift shop; he wants to sell experiences at the museum. He is asked to focus on the job he has now; he keeps interjecting, passionately rather than ambitiously, in areas related to the job he wants. In one particularly funny and relatable scene, Steven tries to fix the museum’s (asinine!) marketing materials — only to be told, basically, to shut up and eat his sandwich. His supervisor is cruel, dismissive and hilarious. His work buddy, a checked-out security guard, isn’t really a buddy; he doesn’t even remember Steven’s name! And his best, maybe only, friend is a man masquerading as a gilded statue — suffering silently through Steven’s aimless summaries-as-stories on Egyptology 101 and noisy chewing.
Well, something is wrong. Steven is losing his sense of reality — or, at least, that purportedly physical aspect of reality evident on this plane of existence. He loses track of time, forgets people and ends up in weird places — not sure what is a waking day, a sleeping dream or some strange half-state that we neither sense in the moment nor understand later. Moreover, and crucially, Steven also notices that markers of his life are different and that people have different perceptions and recollections of recent days (or maybe months). Steven’s pet fish is different. Checking up, he meets people who insist that he bought another fish. Steven is puzzled. But it isn’t all necessarily bad. A saucy — yes, saucy — co-worker treats him like some charming rake. He is horrified and confused, rather than pleased, assured or even just curious. She asks whether they’re still on for steaks even though Steven, a vegan, does not eat meat and, a woefully outmatched conversationalist, is clearly not capable of just walking up to someone, flirting and asking them out. Steven ends up confirming the date out of yet more conflict avoidance, counterproductive people-pleasing and fundamental uncertainty! Waiting at a restaurant, Steven basks in his own insecurities, fears and (truly sad) desperation. He frets that the woman has stood him up, only to discover — after calling her to figure things out — that she is upset with him for letting her wait alone in a restaurant. She claims he is days late calling her back — and that he is the one who stood her up. Confused, as we are, Steven doesn’t know whether this is a result of his apparent sleeping disorder or something more complex (say, mental health), sinister (say, dark magic), or both.
Already impressive, Isaac dazzles as Steven in these scenes. He inhabits the character, making us feel what he feels even as we feel sorry for the guy. Alone, somewhere he only went to be with someone else, Steven the vegan listlessly orders the best cut of meat — once again a passive participant in his own life — instead of getting up and walking home. He falls into despair, in public. Only then does Steven go to his apartment to mope, eat chocolates and soothe his soul. Here, in what may be a self-parody of his own performance, Isaac makes us laugh at the misery we’ve just been crying about.
It’s sad. It’s hilarious. And it’s about to get weird.
Somewhere between steakhouses and gift shops, the protagonist enters a new mode of existence. He spends the rest of the season straddling the natural and supernatural, the normal and paranormal, the hilarious and the horrific, and the (supposedly?) sacred and (delightfully!) profane. In doing so, he meets and collides with others: a glorified, pseudo-hippy cult leader, the specter of a skeletal deity, a mystery woman who believes herself to be his wife, and so on. Together, they make “Moon Knight” a multidimensional adventure doubling as a character-based story.
The protagonist appears in the Alps (or some idyllic, in-dream caricature of the Alps). Not knowing how he got there, or whether he is awake or dreaming, Steven dips in and out of violent fights and frantic flights while a voice — booming in his head — pushes him to hand control of his body to a mysterious “Marc.” (Note: These scenes are fun.) Stuck in this chaos, Steven encounters Arthur Harrow: a cult leader, with a couple of psychic and magical twists. He also starts having a messy dialogue, and other interactions, with the booming voice in his head: Khonsu, the moon god of ancient Egypt.
Hawke plays Harrow: disorienting, entrancing and sinister. Harrow is charming, seems warm, even comes off as gentle at times. Even so, the man is just off: He has an unmistakable darkness flickering in his eyes. He is deeply misguided. And he’s also incredibly annoying: Basically shuffling around in glass-laden shoes, Hawke nails Harrow as a warped beach bum doubling as a hippie-cult priest who once found himself by traipsing around India — projecting supposedly serene wisdom, extreme escapism and childlike simplicity all at once. As Harrow, Hawke is at his best setting up, playing off and shining with other performers in intimate scenes. For instance, as Harrow and Isaac’s protagonist interact, they each reveal themselves to be more complex than apparent. While responding to and struggling with Harrow, Steven reveals that he really isn’t some hapless rube — and, thanks to the two actors, does so without undue, cheap, corny, dramatic flair. (Marc, too, starts to show that he isn’t just some asshole with a unique set of skills and a 1,000-yard stare.) They dance a bit, too. Harrow, smart enough to restrain his evident designs for Steven, pushes and prods the protagonist to talk. Harrow coaxes, cajoles, bullies Steven; he, subtly and unsubtly, undermines the man he then presents himself as helping. And, when all else fails, Harrow either browbeats, threatens and attacks Steven or appeals to his deeper desire to help others — sensing, astutely, that Steven sometimes values that more than helping himself. And yet, Steven holds his own. While he’s still bumbling around, much to our frustration, Steven stays true to himself. He doesn’t surrender the things that Harrow wants. Sure, the protagonist is lonely, clumsy and innocent. Yes, he’s also desperate. And, yes, he’s struggling mentally, physically and spiritually. But Steven isn’t an idiot. Indeed, he has a strong moral compass, good instincts and, yes, a spine.
Khonsu makes Moon Knight his fist of vengeance in the TV series as in the comics. F. Murray Abraham is splendid, garnering an Emmy nomination for his voice work on the show. (The late Chadwick Boseman won the award for his work on another Marvel show: “What If … ?”) A Syrian American who won an Oscar portraying (a caricaturized) Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus,” Abraham again shows why he has been great on screens and stages for five decades (even as Dar Adal on “Homeland,” an oddly overrated show). Bellowing his lines in “Moon Knight,” Abraham enlivens the birdlike, skeletal specter of the powerful, petulant and quippy Khonsu. While Khonsu may seem morally complex, mostly because other deities are worse, Abraham embraces the absurdity of it all. Divine, overawing and scary to Steven, Khonsu is a fun proxy for an audience wishing Steven would do more and a useful bullshit detector when it comes to Harrow. (Speaking in barbs, roasts, threats and explosive metacommentary, Abraham’s Khonsu also comes off like an overpowered Lebanese gramps who has guzzled a bottle of Araq, grabbed a megaphone mid-baptism, and announced an impromptu, arm-wrestling tournament behind a church. Like said gramps, he somehow expects everything and nothing from this avatar. In one breath, he calls Steven a meek-minded, weak-willed worm; in the next breath, he demands that Steven strut around dispatching villains like they’re bugs. “Kill him!” he thunders, riotously overdelivering the line, urging Steven to handle Harrow the hippie-priest. “Break his windpipe!”)
Beyond the humor, Khonsu helps drive and enrich the story. As Khonsu’s voice quivers and cracks, rises and thunders, soothes and settles, the creators of “Moon Knight” reanimate an ancient Mediterranean sense that deities may be as petty as they are powerful. Also, Khonsu pushes Steven and the show forward once we have gotten the basics down. Terrorizing Steven in dreamlike metaphysical visions, the deity chases him into the streets and into the arms of a woman — Layla — with a pivotal part to play. Understanding Harrow’s plot, Khonsu also pushes Steven from London to other places on Earth, planes of existence and phases of storytelling. After all, “Moon Knight” isn’t — and wasn’t promised to be — just a show about London’s “wrong ends, mate.” They need to leave London. But where are Steven, Marc and Khonsu going next? Dunking Steven and the audience in derision, Khonsu bashes the stupid question (made doubly dumb, really, because it comes from an otherwise hyper-observant, meticulous Egyptologist): “Where do you think?”
May Calamawy is the breakout star of “Moon Knight” — on and off the screen. She crushes the show. And, as evident in her interviews and those of colleagues, she does so by pouring much of herself into the role of Layla.
When we meet Layla, she is (or believes she is) the protagonist’s wife. Riding around London on a moped looking for Marc, a man who demanded a divorce and then disappeared, she almost runs over Steven as he stumbles into the street while fleeing another apparition. The characters collide. Layla has no clue why her “Marc” keeps pretending that he’s called “Steven.” And Steven has no clue why this woman is so familiar and frustrated with him. Hopping on her moped, he clings closely — somehow timid and familiar, fearing both the road and the rider. Steven soon discovers that Layla may just eviscerate him worse than Khonsu ever would. Understandably, Layla believes her husband is playing coy or dumb. As she learns and sees more, Layla struggles to process her (possible) husband’s (apparent) inconsistencies and (dedicated) commitment to his tale. She peppers him with questions. What’s with the weird English accent, “bruv”? How are you living in such a nice apartment? Are you cheating? Are you talking to your mom, ya habibi? (Habibi = Dear. You read New Lines. Figure it out.) Responding, Steven seems sincere enough. Indeed, he comes across like a man who is desperate to be believed and understood. With every answer, he makes Layla listen more, understand less and react more intensely. His accent is his accent. OK? He has reconnected with an estranged mother. In fact, he loves talking to her! Hence the apartment, by the way. And he’s not out getting laid. Please, huh?
Wandering through this apartment, Layla helps the audience flesh out some things. Now able to chime in thanks to mirrors and reflective surfaces, which in the show allow Steven and Marc to face off, Marc also helps color in some blanks. A few things are clear: Marc and Layla have, or had, a connection, chemistry and history. Oddly enough, though, Steven and Layla are compatible — or, judging by Layla’s reactions, seem more compatible than her and Marc were. Steven is a bookworm and passionate about Egyptology; Layla clearly knows her stuff, teasingly grilling him about it all. Steven reads French poetry; Layla spots her favorite poet’s work. Meanwhile, Marc seems like the sort of guy who’d bust someone’s head open with a book and call that poet a “cheese-eating surrender monkey” or “frog.” Steven is sensitive to a fault; Marc is a vigilante sheathed in a sphinx, whose rare flashes of emotion (so far) have been sullenness, frustration and rage. Even so, Layla is not assured by this romcom compatibility. She is confused and hurt. She must be. Here she is, in some city, in some nerd’s fever dream of a bachelor pad, staring at a man who has abandoned her, cloistered himself in an apartment owned by an estranged mother and (privately, no less) contorted himself into the sort of person who wants to pursue her (not his) passions. Weird.
Between raised voices and arched eyebrows, Layla and Steven continue their instantly intimate conversation — hers with a man she no longer recognizes, his with a woman he has somehow known his whole life. Sensing that her husband is struggling with something, regardless of whether he’s leading a double life, Layla demonstrates a dawning understanding and patience that she holds throughout the show. She doesn’t abandon Marc/Steven as Marc seemingly abandoned her. And while she may not believe Marc or understand this so-called Steven, she doesn’t shut down or expel them. They all stay in each other’s lives enough to keep the conversation — and, of course, the show — going.
In that conversation, Calamawy really becomes Layla and starts to steal the show. While she’s great in the action-adventure scenes, Calamawy is at her best when given the time and space to act. With Isaac and Hawke, she makes “Moon Knight” a show about characters — and, well, character. We care and wonder about the people more than the (still-fun) quest, even at the height of ostensibly (but, frankly, incongruously) grand struggles over the world. We find ourselves fixating on personal and interpersonal struggles, not the dances of deities and deranged visions of some beach bum with a magic cane.
Having prepared extensively, Calamawy is convincing as Layla annihilates adversaries. But the best scenes are intimate, specific and personal.
As Steven and Layla argue, with the former stumbling and the latter interrogating, Calamawy occasionally takes a pause for the cause, listens sensitively or cocks her eyebrow in disbelief — only to question him all over again. Calamawy demonstrates dexterity and subtlety here that she carries throughout the show. Expressing the universal in specific ways, she lets in general audiences and folks from smaller communities without missing a beat. She first does this while deploying an unmistakably Arabic gesture that friends and romantic partners understand immediately: the arched eyebrow, accompanied by a pause for effect. “Shoo?!” (“What?!”)
Readying for a return home, Layla and a skilled mystery woman have a specific sort of conversation — laden with expectation, prodding and defensiveness — that folks in diasporas around the world have from time to time. Chasing Steven and Marc, adventuring in her own right, Layla is (quietly) terrified about something unspoken: the return from an exile abroad to an exile at home. Dealing with an older woman, Layla at once rejects and accepts what her elder is saying — confirming the premise of a question by denying an evident answer. She rejects the woman with her words; she acknowledges her with her voice. Quiet, Calamawy as Layla has questions written on her face. Is Egypt still Egypt? Will it look, sound and smell the same? Is Layla still Layla? Will she feel the same, feel differently, feel anything at all? Will they, Egypt and Layla, not just Marc and Layla, recognize each other? What if she returns and feels … nothing?
Taking a boat on the Nile, Layla surrenders to her surroundings — much as any returnee would after shattering through anxiety, disquiet, cacophonic greetings and an off-screen catcall or two. She’s now home and having a moment of peace — maybe even enjoyment. Smiling easily at strangers, Layla shares a moment of familiarity with her intermittently manifesting husband. People play music — or the displeasing noise of “mahraganat,” the Egyptian sonic love child of folk, electronic and hip hop music. (Yeah, get off my veranda.) Families do all the things families do on the Nile (or any west Asian or North African city’s corniche, square or boulevard). Layla and Marc show us, and remind each other, why they were together in the first place. Even in their friction, they make sense together.
Above all, Calamawy and the crew that brought Layla to life do something that is as important as it is interesting: They leave the right things out. They don’t taint their storytelling by vicariously self-fetishizing in the eyes of others. Nor do they find their senses of self, esteem, validation and purpose by claiming a corner of culture (at once acting like blinkered townies who exclude others in their possessiveness while, inadvertently or not, confining and imprisoning themselves to that self-same corner of America, Europe, the world or whatever culture). While Layla and Calamawy are Egyptian women (and are celebrated as such), the character and artist are refreshing, necessary and instructive because they explore her personhood — not this or that aspect of it, be that aspect assumed or assigned. Layla is Layla: an Egyptian, a woman and a person. She’s not, on one extreme, Layla the Egyptian woman: a contemporized cartoon of Cleopatra, with some thick, blue-hue eyeliner and gold veil, smelling vaguely like orange blossoms, lavender, rosewater. She’s not, on another extreme, some sanitized, cultureless girl-boss automaton mirroring the violently hypercompetent Bondses, Bournes, Joneses of cinema — as if there is, and can be, only one way to survive and thrive. And she’s certainly not some lazy, illusory compromise character in which writers just collect and combine tropes and call it “complexity”: Khaleesi-cum-Karen, Fairuz-de-Coachella, Sepia-Skinned Tomb Raider, the Immigrants’ Child Spy and the like. She’s a woman, a person, with complex connections to and feelings about another person (the protagonist) and a place (Egypt, her home even as it is an arena for escapades), and their surprisingly dark and messy juxtaposition in her life (watch and see). And she shows, rather than explains, a truth that is easy to understand even if it isn’t easy to apply: Sometimes, the art in art is leaving things out.
After their two-episode introduction, Marc and Steven really start rolling across aspects, planes and modes of existence. They begin their quest in the third episode, “The Friendly Type,” and reach peak action-adventure in the fourth episode, “The Tomb” — with a stunning pivot toward the end of this mid-season arc. They leap from London to Egypt. They trade control of their body. They fall into a complicated love triangle with Layla. They race against Harrow. They grapple with gods, from Khonsu, their patron-captor, to other more powerful deities of ancient Egypt. All the while, they take on henchmen and drift in and out of waking dreams, mystical planes, and a so-called asylum — possibly a physical domain or an afterlife, and in any event a waystation of sorts. And they wander through their own past(s), consciousness(es), and soul(s).
Marc, Steven and Khonsu enter an Egypt that serves as a battlespace, treasure trail, sacred garden and a prison all rolled into one. Layla follows, smuggling herself into her motherland after years away. On one level, “Moon Knight” becomes an action-adventure tale in these episodes set in Egypt — unfolding much like “Indiana Jones,” “The Mummy” and “Tomb Raider,” without most of the tropes, lassitude or asininity. (In addition to using “Indiana Jones” as initial inspiration, the team include a similar movie in their show during a dramatic revelation about childhood imprints and influences on Steven.) On another level, “Moon Knight” becomes a psychological, emotional and spiritual mystery drama. Steven and Marc engage in more disorienting exchanges with Harrow, or different versions of him, during a part of the show that is brilliant and frustrating (because, frankly, the show’s intentional, smart, dramatic pivots and obfuscation dovetail with one bit of choppy editing and the curse of Marvel-Disney framing of these streaming shows).
Unsure if he’s dead, dreaming or reemerging, Steven finds himself in a psychiatric ward. Having just clashed with the protagonist in the waking world, Harrow appears again as Dr. Harrow: a psychiatrist trying to help Steven with what now seems an unconventional sense of reality; a villain trying to manipulate information out of him; or, well, who the hell knows at this point! On the one hand, Steven may have been in the ward with Harrow during the entire show. Everyone and everything are eerily familiar: The staff are goons from previous episodes; different totems are scattered around decoratively; and expressions, mannerisms and winks connect this “asylum” to the experiences shown in other episodes. On the other hand, something’s just wrong — again. After all, what sort of psychiatrist walks around in an office full of ancient Egyptian artifacts? Why, pray tell, is this doctor so interested in the same stuff the other Harrow cared about? And why is he still giving off unmistakable hippie-priest vibes?
Discovering that they’re dead, or at least in a waystation between life and afterlife, Steven and Marc stumble through three planes of existence while reconciling aspects of their respective and combined past(s) and questing to find a harmony of the heart. They meet Taweret: a goddess who helps facilitate passage into an afterlife, as in the myths of some eras of ancient Egypt, appearing here as a reified hippo-lady played by the delightful, electric Antonia Salib. (An Egyptian-British actor, Salib is an invisible and indispensable part of the show — just like Abraham is as Khonsu. She voiced the part and did the motion-capture work, too.) While she plays by the rules at first, fearing the retribution of other deities and being somewhat of a stickler herself, Taweret is clearly rooting for the protagonist(s). Ultimately, she helps them out (departing from her designated role while, maybe just maybe, fulfilling her deeper purpose among the gods). Through a soppy, sloppy conceit regarding the fabled Field of Reeds, the “heart” of the protagonist(s) serves as a proxy for personhood, forgiveness, acceptance and redemption.
Once again, the personalities of Steven and Marc arc toward each other — behaving differently, at least on the surface. Steven presses forward, resembling his previous self in his curiosity; Marc drags his feet, uncharacteristically frantic or even panicked while trying to stop Steven from uncovering some truth that only he seems to know or sense. And then they find themselves by discovering or remembering something terrible.
“You’re not meant to see that,” Marc says to Steven, in this smart, tragic and hopeful penultimate episode. “That’s the whole point of you.”
With those words and some surrounding scenes, the creators of “Moon Knight” reveal and resolve a great deal about the events and experiences depicted in their show — and the deeper lives of the protagonist’s distinct personalities — while also leaving us with more questions for the future. “Moon Knight,” here, is stunning and stellar. (In this layered substory, straddling the end of the fourth episode, “The Tomb” and most of the fifth episode, “The Asylum,” the writers rely heavily on comic book materials from the mid-2010s while creatively integrating their own composite and original elements into it all.) Basically, we may share without spoiling, the relationship between these personalities is not what Steven — and by extension the audience — has come to believe. Aware of childhood traumas, Marc has been protecting Steven from truths about their respective and shared origin, emergence, development and status as personalities. Marc and Steven have lived their lives separately; Steven, more than Marc, has been oblivious to aspects of their existence and experience. Suffering recent trauma, itself rooted in and retriggering that of his childhood, Marc returned home a couple of months before the events depicted in “Moon Knight” and began grappling with long-suppressed emotions. In some devastating scenes, in which Isaac again demonstrates that he is somehow still marvelous and underrated, the characters and audience discover why and how the personalities began to collide and interact during the show itself. Marc is protective, even if he overdoes it; Steven is innocent, even if he feels instrumentalized. In turn, the show reframes itself to reveal, explain and expand on once-confusing aspects of earlier episodes — now made more meaningful and, generally, more understandable and sympathetic.
Now, to survive and maybe thrive, Marc and Steven must understand themselves and each other more fully. The personalities must find a harmony of the heart, not just the mind. They may redeem themselves, by redeeming each other. And they may accomplish this by making a choice: to try. Creatively and dramatically, “Moon Knight” sticks the landing in “The Asylum” by imbuing its multidimensional adventure quest with touching (though, sure, sometimes saccharine) character work. If Steven or Marc carried their own burdens, each an instrument of assertion or innocence, they now — as in a seminal panel from the comics — share the good, bad, beautiful and ugly of personhood. They are all Moon Knight.
No show is perfect. While great, “Moon Knight” falls short on a few fronts.
For starters, the show struggles with the same problems plaguing most Marvel Studio productions on Disney+. Needing to be a crisper movie or a longer series, Moon Knight either tries to do too much with given time and resources or fails to allocate adequate time and resources for what creators planned to do all along. The show is choppy, at times, within and between episodes. At the end of the fourth episode and the opening of the fifth, the creators of “Moon Knight” compound their story’s necessary and intentional disorientation, obfuscation and mystery with poor transitions and odd pacing.
“Moon Knight” also falls short of some of its creators’ self-declared standards. While their portrayal of Egypt, Egyptians and Arab folks is generally accurate and authentic, the latter being a bit more subjective and intimate, they introduce Egypt in a scene that isn’t that different from basic (problematic or not) cinematic introductions of the place — or, really, anywhere with warm weather, ancient ruins and magical artifacts masquerading as historical relics. Here, the omni-passing Isaac languishes — as self-medicating Western mercenaries do — in an unkempt, ornate and palatial room while gazing out at the pyramids (pan the camera, now!) as an unseen siren (cue the music, now!) serenades us with a vaguely Arab woman’s wails. Terrible? No. Revolutionary or revisionist? No, again.
Although the creators did a great job (with less time and money than other Marvel productions), Cairo just isn’t Cairo at times. Of course, Cairo is just one of those cities that is impossible to replicate elsewhere. Paradoxically, Cairo is both a realm unto itself and the beating heart of a cross-continental civilizational domain — a megalopolis that absorbs everyone and everything while somehow being repressed by a military clique as well as being lively and cacophonic while stale and sanitized in other ways. Nitpicking aside, something approximating Cairo appears in a Marvel creation. And, importantly, the creators of “Moon Knight” put the place on par with New York, London and other locations in the Marvel multiverse: Cairo is an arena for gods and heroes, yet it is also a home for people doing basic things and characters contemplating return (rather than, say, running around in angry, dirty, mindless mobs a la the cartoonish, fun “Indiana Jones” or purportedly accurate, utterly asinine “Homeland”).
In showing Marvelized mundanity, the creators reconcile their multiverse’s tropes with a specific desire to bring Cairo to life. Families eat food at a table; some super-suited person breaks stuff and leaves before they’ve processed the destruction. People amble through markets; a mercenary fights thugs, jumping from roof to roof and toggling from personality to personality. People shop and deities dance, waging comical grand struggles near pyramids that are part of the cityscape — not ornaments littering some nebulous desert, stripped of any particularity and then recolored with a couple pseudo-Bedouins who lack every amenity except what the hero needs at the climax. A girl talks to a woman, a would-be victim meeting her savior. “Are you an Egyptian superhero?” she asks. “Yeah,” Layla answers. While that dialogue isn’t as natural as in equivalent scenes in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” it’s still fine for the world of Marvel. Here, boys mimic Iron-Man during battle. Here, servers stare at Captain America rather than flee for their lives. Here, kids take selfies with Professor Hulk while talking smack to Ant-Man. Here, men chirp at Spider-Man as if he’s just another dude cruising the block. Here, in this Cairo, girls ask questions. The scene is a simple example of why such shows can and must exist. It’s as exciting for girls off screen as it was for that girl on the screen, allowing them to imagine themselves just as boys have for generations: heroes.
Almost none of the Arab-ish men are intelligent, effective or compelling. Indeed, only one such character seems like a real person: the Cairo cabdriver, whose chippy exchange with the protagonist is funny, smart and so authentic that it must have hurt anyone who has had the distinct honor of testing meters, negotiating fares and participating in de facto depositions while sitting in traffic in that behemoth of a city. The other Arab men — in the Egyptian military, Harrow’s paramilitary posse and a Cairo gang — and contrary to the lazy consensus of self-styled spokespersons of the so-called community, look menacing, holler loudly and are pummeled by the protagonist’s fists. Now, notwithstanding liberal sensibilities and pseudo-leftist sensitivities, not every show has to do everything for everyone all the time. And, frankly, some self-styled stewards of the so-called culture need to acquire the capacity to be critical and enjoy the show. After all, adventurers are adventurers. Like any protagonist, anywhere, Marc just needs to kick ass in Cairo and move along. (Plus, he took it easy on that one kid on the roof — slapping him, instead of busting his head in. Then again, is slapping an Arab man during a fight worse than punching him? Never mind.) While nothing depicted is offensive, the show’s creators have set their standard and sold the show in part by urging others to consider whether, why and how they may improve the depiction of some persons. They, not the audience, have elevated “Moon Knight” on that basis. And Marvel and Disney+, not the average consumer, are out here making virtues out of their belated development of stories featuring folks who aren’t all-American paragons or Nordic gods. So, they may consider doing more to meet that standard without unduly jeopardizing a creative endeavor.
The last episode of “Moon Knight” is a mixed bag, reflecting the show’s specific limits and broader problems with Marvel products on Disney+. If the first episodes are intriguing, the Egypt episodes are exhilarating and the “Asylum” substory is riveting, then the last episode is rushed, anticlimactic and unresolving — especially if it is a series finale rather than a season finale. (Marvel’s architects have not announced a second season, yet. They have, though, announced other shows connected to the “Moon Knight” lore, for instance, “Werewolf by Night.” Several creative choices, including the protagonist’s blackouts and a post-show credits scene, are impossible to critique without knowing if “Moon Knight” will, in Marvel parlance, “return.”) The run time is inadequate: about 35 minutes for the episode. The episode’s chief villain isn’t compelling. Although Ammit may have terrorized people in some myths, she (through no fault of the artist) distracts us from other, better stuff during the show. The big battle is yet another Disney+ disappointment. While costumes, visual effects and sets in “Moon Knight” are beautiful, elegant, powerful and haunting, the effects in the last episode were average at best and distractingly bad at worst.
Layla saves the last episode. While Steven and Marc quest, Layla struggles with trauma, loss and identity in the later episodes; resolves or accepts some issues; and, transforming, surprises folks in the finale. She takes on Harrow, increasingly unhinged, mystical and servient to Ammit — a villain goddess who, apparently, eradicates evil by punishing people who commit crimes or who will commit crimes in the future. Layla also fends off Khonsu, who wants her as his new fist of vengeance to replace the capable (and dead?) Marc and hapless (and dead?) Steven. And she struggles with doubts: her own, above all regarding her husband’s life and father’s death, and those that Harrow and Khonsu also seed, cultivate and exploit.
Becoming something new without losing herself, Layla must confront and overcome the old. Right on cue, she and Harrow meet. Acting out a scene that was scripted late, Calamawy and Hawke produce a powerful sequence that culminates in a simple, authentic and effective expression of identity, grief and frustration (yet another example of how these actors have combined human universality and sociocultural specificity in the show’s best scenes). Speaking across a cavernous distance, yet feeling as if they’re locked in a closet, Harrow and Layla push each other in a riveting scene. Layla almost breaks for the first time. Having carried Steven, whose haplessness is as useless as it is endearing, and tolerated Marc, whose inaccessibility is painful, Layla finds herself facing everyone’s demons, alone, in the dark. Even the enemy has abandoned her, now.
She shrieks. And then she rises.
Rejecting those who are trying to subordinate her, like Khonsu does Marc, or manipulate her, like Harrow does Steven, Layla teams up with another Egyptian deity: Taweret. Although cute and cheerful, Taweret is still a deity capable of imbuing her own “avatar” with power. Layla, here, shows why she is probably the most balanced person in the show — and, along with Steven, the most morally sound. Capable on his own, while being agile, fearsome, and almost invincible as Moon Knight, Marc still wilts to the will of others like Khonsu. Serving a petty deity, Marc also tyrannizes himself, Steven and Layla with self-loathing, fear and inadequacy masquerading as coldness, dispatch and assertion. Increasingly capable and confident, Steven still can’t hit the broadside of a pyramid with a shotgun or fight his way out of a playpen. But Layla is different. She doesn’t allow Harrow to manipulate her, either by using her existing doubts or planting new ones. She rejects Khonsu’s predatory offer of power, while never really needing him to find purpose. And, during an emergency but not under duress, she chooses to partner with (rather than submit to) everyone’s favorite anthropomorphized hippo-goddess.
Layla becomes the Scarlet Scarab. She helps save Moon Knight and set things right, just as she saves an uneven finale from itself. In so doing, Layla emerges as the show’s only true hero.
“Moon Knight” is earnest, creative and intriguing. Refreshingly, its creators bring more character-based storytelling and remind us that everyone struggles in some way. And they remind us that everyone needs help, just as everyone may help someone else — and, maybe, find themselves in the process. The protagonist put it best when meeting Harrow and showing, well before others support him, and even as the audience wonders if he’s merely a pushover, that he is strong when it counts and in all the ways that matter: “I’m not broken. I just need help.” The show just has heart.
“Moon Knight” is good, even great, in many spheres. The actors ace their roles. Isaac dazzles, in a show he was passionate about from the beginning. Great in his own right, Hawke performs generously alongside others. Calamawy arrives as a star, with a bright future — and, perhaps, a turn as the central protagonist of her own Marvel show. Terrorizing and hilarious, Abraham reminds everyone that he’s still a force — and earns an Emmy nomination, to boot. And Salib is charming, funny and sincere, shining through all the graphics and late-stage action. The people behind the show deliver, too. The writers are creative, authentic and sensitive. The production design pops, with every episode full of color, detail and symbolism. The folks clearly cared about getting things right regardless of whether they were providing physical representation of pyramids, museums, cityscapes or visualizations of states of mind, aspects of reality and planes of existence — all superb, all unique. They sincerely try to do right by different folks on and off the screen. Mahraganat aside, the music is great, too: from the opening, set to Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” to snippets of Warda, remixes of Umm Kulthum, and solid new score, the show has a familiar song or new tune for everyone.
“Moon Knight” may be defined by potential more than anything else. Here, it most deeply reflects some paradoxes of Egypt, neighboring states and societies, and peoples in these places. After all, potential may be painfully paradoxical: the curse of the unfulfilled and the blessing of the possible, somewhere between what we imagine and what we may actualize. While the show struggles on a few fronts, its shortcomings are opportunities for the creators to explore and possibly resolve issues in another season — perhaps, given the complexity, with eight episodes. As the characters, show and Marvel motion picture multiverse have demonstrated, good things may take time. Here’s hoping that the show’s team will receive and accept an opportunity to continue the story. Here’s hoping that Moon Knight, and others like Scarlet Scarab, dance with deities on our screens again.