You can always spot the movies that influenced Marvel projects. Sometimes they're obvious — Hawkeye is basically an homage to Die Hard — and sometimes they're a little more sublimated or obscure, like the Russo Brothers' infamous claim that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was inspired by the '70s espionage thriller classic Three Days of the Condor. Moon Knight, the latest Marvel series on Disney+, has the most unlikely cinematic influence of any Marvel product yet. There are the obvious ones — the Indiana Jones franchise, with its globe-trotting archeological adventures, is an admitted influence on the tomb-raiding Moon Knight — but there's also clear inspiration drawn from legendary independent filmmaker Paul Schrader, the serious-minded screenwriter of Taxi Driver whose two most recent films, First Reformed and The Card Counter, star Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac, respectively, who are the leads of Moon Knight.
Schrader's films tend to be psychological character studies of alienated men on the fringes of society. Taxi Driver, of course, follows Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, as his mental state deteriorates. First Reformed is about Ernst Toller, an alcoholic Protestant pastor undergoing a crisis of faith who is radicalized by climate change. Schrader's films are morally nuanced explorations of heavy spiritual and social issues that usually have ambiguous endings. They are about as uncommercial as theatrically released cinema gets. So you might be wondering how Moon Knight could possibly try to subsume Schrader's style into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The answer, obviously, is that it doesn't work. Moon Knight is a messy hodgepodge of ideas that don't cohere.
Moon Knight is the story of Steven Grant (Isaac), an alienated man (his introductory music cue is Englebert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love") who works as a clerk in a museum gift store in London and has mental health issues, Dissociative Identity Disorder, specifically. Steven has dreams that are so vivid he has to chain himself to his bed to keep himself from sleepwalking. Dreams where he's a highly trained killer and where he sees visions of a god with a bird skull for a head who talks in F. Murray Abraham's voice. In short order, he finds out that these are not dreams at all, but reality, as he shares his body with Marc Specter, an American mercenary who's the human avatar of the ancient Egyptian god Khonshu. Khonshu is an avenger of justice, and enacts his divine retribution through Marc. He wants the old gods to be worshipped again, and his goal is to make that happen. And he is not to be trusted. He's a manipulator who's prone to throwing temper tantrums if he doesn't get what he wants. The avatar is Moon Knight, referred to throughout the series as "the suit," a superpowered, supernatural manifestation of Khonshu's power in Marc/Steven's body.
Khonshu's former avatar is Arthur Harrow (Hawke), a cult leader type of figure who has moved on to serving a new Egyptian goddess with even more punitive ideas about justice. Marc/Khonshu and Harrow are after the same mystical object, and Steven finds himself in the middle of it, because he can't get away. So he and Marc have to try to figure out how to coexist as two consciousnesses in the same body. Marc is good at fighting, while Steven is better at solving mysteries using his knowledge of Egyptian history. Joining Steven/Marc on his quest is Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy), who has a history with Marc but turns out to have more in common with amateur Egyptologist Steven.
As a show, Moon Knight struggles with identity issues of its own. It wants to be a character study of a complicated man, an action-packed, horror-tinged adventure, and a mind-bending psychological thriller where you're never sure if what you're seeing is real. It's most successful as action-adventure. The fight scenes and visual effects are up to Marvel's usual standard, and as promised by MCU mastermind Kevin Feige, it's tonally darker and more violent than any other MCU movie or show so far (or at least on par with Daredevil's). It's the only MCU project where Paul Schrader could even enter the conversation as a comparison.
But it's impossible to do a Paul Schrader-style character study without deep characters, and Moon Knight doesn't do the work of even establishing who Steven Grant and Marc Specter are, let alone what makes them tick. Moon Knight is perhaps the most obscure Marvel character to get their own project to date, and he hasn't been previously introduced in the MCU. Most viewers are coming to him cold. And the show does no origin story work, choosing instead to drop viewers in and let them figure out what's going on. The problem is, the show doesn't do much to make us care about either Marc or Steven. All we really know about Steven is that he's a lonely vegan who doesn't like when Marc is violent, and all we know about Marc is that he's a tortured man with a lot of secrets. Through the four episodes (out of six) sent for review, we don't learn anything about Marc or Steven's backstories or beliefs or desires beyond love (for Steven) and protecting his wife (for Marc). He's a cypher who doesn't even get anything projected onto him. And the action becomes repetitive as the show spins its wheels and avoids explaining what's going on. There's a lot of "Oh, now he's Marc, oh, now he's Steven, oh now he's Marc," over and over again. Midway through the fourth episode, the show takes a turn that explains a little bit more about what's going on with Steven and Marc while raising many more questions. No spoilers, but people who watched Legion — FX's impressive X-Men-adjacent series about another superhero with mental health issues — will feel a little bit of déjà vu.
It remains watchable thanks to the performances of Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. They're two of America's greatest actors, and it almost goes without saying that they're excellent. They don't do anything we haven't seen them do before with better-written characters, but Isaac does the tortured-soulful routine he perfected with Inside Llewyn Davis and finds some heart and even a few laughs in Steven/Marc. He's equally believable as a socially awkward bookworm and a mercenary. Hawke, meanwhile, unsurprisingly is the best part of the show. Harrow is introduced putting broken glass into his sandals while one of Bob Dylan's Christian songs plays, a potent image Hawke came up with himself. Hawke plays Harrow like he played his other recent great characters, climate change activist Ernst Toller in First Reformed and militant abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird, as an idealist who sincerely wants to make the world a better place but has violent methods that complicate his message. Harrow doesn't really have complexity — this is Marvel, after all, where good guys are good and bad guys are bad — but Hawke plays him as if he does.
The weak link is May Calamawy, unfortunately. Calamawy is miscast for her role. Calamawy, who is excellent on Ramy as the title character's sister Dena Hassan, is in her mid-30s but looks much younger and has only had one prominent role before this. She lacks the gravitas the co-lead action heroine role requires. Since the show does so little to build character, it would have been helpful to have an actor whose presence signifies a certain type of character the way Isaac and Hawke's presence does, and Calamawy doesn't have that kind of history with the audience. Combine the miscasting with a shaky British-ish accent, and Calamawy's performance doesn't work at all.
Marvel fans who just want something darker than usual may get a kick out of Moon Knight for its startling violence alone, but everyone else will be wondering what the point of it is. It doesn't obviously fit into the larger MCU, though presumably that connection will be made sometime in the last two episodes. There's a lot riding on those last two episodes. Maybe they will wrap up this story in a way that makes sense and positions Moon Knight for bigger, better adventures in the future, but through the first four episodes it's not worth the journey to get wherever it's going. The first two thirds of this six-episode season is a vague story that takes a long time to go nowhere. There's not enough character for a character study and not a clear enough plot for a satisfying thriller. It's supposed to be a mind-bender, but it ends up a head-scratcher. It would have been better if Marvel had just hired Paul Schrader to write and direct it.
Premieres: Wednesday, March 30 on Disney+ (one episode per week)
Who's in it: Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, May Calamawy
Who's behind it: Writer Jeremy Slater, directors Mohamed Diab and Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, the Marvel machine
For fans of: Marvel, darker superhero series, the idea of Oscar Isaac doing a British accent
How many episodes we watched: 4 out of 6