(SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.
To be fair, a more uncompromising sensibility was one of the boasts from Kevin Feige, alongside showrunner Jeremy Salter and director Mohamed Diab (episodes 1, 3, 5 and 6), and there are duly lashings of blood, a surfeit of stabbings and coterie of creatures that look like Alien: Covenant rejects scuttling about the place. Another boast, on Diab’s part, was Moon Knight’s respect for Egyptian culture and depiction thereof. But since this is a superhero yarn, one that at no point shot in Egypt, applies an MCU spin to any genuine elements of Egyptian mythology, and spends most of its supposed time in the country in stereotype ancient tombs and arid deserts – rather than a normal place with normal human beings, as Diab put it – I think one can safely put that down to spin.
Along with, let’s face it the instant insulation against accusations of cultural disrespect that come with employing an Egyptian director and Egyptian-Palestinian second lead (May Calamaway). Conversely, this means you’ll find some hoop jumping to legitimise Latino actor Oscar Isaac playing a Jewish character (obviously, this approach is, by and large, deeply silly, but if you’re going down the identity politics route, you need to be consistent or bury yourself, and Disney consistently succeeds in the latter).
It seems the comics character, invented in 1975, wasn’t immediately pegged as suffering from DID/dissociative identity disorder (nor was he Jewish), but it quite quickly became a staple. This being a product of the ’70s, with the rise of profiling and serial killers (if not immediately named as such) as a phenomenon, one engineered by the CIA and its cult tentacles, along with possession as a cultural touchstone (chiefly thanks to The Exorcist – also linked to the military/CIA via its author), such ideas could probably suggest themselves to creator Doug Moench quite comfortably without anyone explicitly pouring poison in his ear, but it still seems remarkable how neatly all the elements line up.
The series ditches the playboy-philanthropist side of Steven Grant, the alter to whom we’re first introduced, on the grounds of inviting unwanted Batman/Bruce Wayne comparisons; he is now a Frank Spencer-esque uber-nerd, equipped with a decidedly strangulated London-ish accent. While of exhaustible appeal, Grant’s a reminder that Isaac can actually deliver an arresting performance, in contrast to the mostly stolid turns we’ve seen since he’s become a name actor; for the contrast, witness how utterly forgettable Steven’s “real” self, ex-military mercenary Marc Spector – who agreed to become Moon Knight, the avatar of Egyptian moon god Khonshu – is. Indeed, while Isaac’s as technically accomplished as they come (see his numerous scenes performing against himself), he lacks the magnetism of a real star player, and by the second episode, even Steven’s OTT beta-personality is wearing thin.
Really, Isaac should have brought his Steven Grant performance to a Disney remake of Condorman. Although, Calamawy’s the one who ends up with wings, when her character Layla is transformed into the Scarlet Scarab (“Are you an Egyptian superhero?” some young scruff asks her, just to remind us we can chalk that one up for the MCU fighting the good representational fight).
Despite its more outré designs and ideas, Moon Knight quickly devolves into the very familiar. Its first episode works well, carried along as we are by Steven’s wave of confusion, and the fifth, descending into Marc’s psyche, is a welcome detour (albeit, it’s clearly taking its cues from Legion, which spent whole seasons in that surrealist mode), but elsewhere there’s too often a feel of MCU autopilot.
Khonshu: I only punish those who have chosen evil.
Ammit: So do I, only I don’t give them the satisfaction of committing it.
Ethan Hawke’s Arthur Harrow is an ex-Khonshu avatar, and the main (human) antagonist. While Hawke’s a good fit for a creepy cult leader, this is, when it boils down to it, not much different to the formula tactic of making the bad guy equal and opposite to the hero (see Abomination vs Hulk, or Stane vs Iron Man, et al). Arthur is resuscitating goddess Ammit – so the ultimate adversary is of the reptilian variety – whose invidious position is based on judging the guilty before they’ve done anything damning (this derives from mythological Ammit judging if the heart of the party concerned was pure).
The idea, obviously, being to make Khonshu seem semi-reasonable by comparison (Taweret, meanwhile, who will make Layla her avatar, comes with hippo features, minus the pendulous breasts of her mythological counterpart, presumably because they might have been a little too Meet the Feebles). Khonshu gets to be voiced by F Murray Abraham. Which, on the one hand is a boon, as he’s engagingly arch, but on the other, the tone reminds one rather of Venom.
Arthur: I’m curious, do you think that Khonshu chose you as his avatar because your mind would be so easy to break? Or because it was broken already?
As I understand it, the comics indulged debate on the nature of Marc’s DID, and whether they – Grant and Lockley manifested during childhood – were genuine or Khonshu-inspired; the latter would also claim he created a psychic connection with Marc when he was young. If we substitute Khonshu for your typical MKUltra perpetrator (as illustrated in Stranger Things), that sounds about right. Here, Marc stumbles across Khonshu in the desert, and he proves ideal material for the possessing force. MKUltra seeks childhood trauma as a prerequisite for “entrants” (if not taking in those who have suffered it, and per some testimony, ensuring families in the programme initiate/perpetuate it). That Marc then graduates to the armed forces couldn’t be more perfect, in stark contrast to his claim “Turns out going AWOL in a fugue state gets you discharged from the military”. Although, tellingly, he will promptly secure a job as a mercenary from his ex-CO.
A caveat on the Khonshu = mind control programmer. Obviously, the series presents programmed Marc as actually receiving messages from an Egyptian god, while many of those discussing MKUltra and the activity of security agencies (Cathy O’Brien, Miles Mathis, Mike McClaughry) tend to the position that any supernatural or occult element is simply a layer of manipulation. Which itself may just be a layer of manipulation...
We’re witness to Marc’s trauma as a child, inflicted by a mother who blames him for the death of his brother; as such, the abuse is physical/psychological and does not include the alleged standard MKUltra sexual component (but then, this is the MCU). As Marc explains to Stephen of incidents of abuse “You’re not meant to see that. That’s the whole point of you… you’ve got to lead a happy, simple, normal life, you understand?” (this is the perspective professed by O’Brien; the alters aren’t meant to interpose on the trauma-inducing experiences or they become ineffective).
I’m reluctant to give Disney – woker than woke, so even if they’ve been taken in hand, it appears to have been actively to stoke the flames of its own self-immolation – credit for shedding light on this subject with any serious mindedness or sobriety, particularly when “helpfully” suggesting “for information on mental illness visit NAMI.org” (the majority of its funding comes from big pharma). Indeed, the show finds Marc returning to “rescue” Steven from the Duat, so perversely suggesting he isn’t whole without the schism of his alter (one might argue he can’t be anyway, because there is also Jake, unbeknownst to him, but dramatically, this is shown to be a triumphant moment).
Perhaps the message is that Mark needs full integration and “deprogramming”, but it still hits a discordant note. Of course, any superhero requires a level of alter (ego), so it would be counterintuitive to make him better. The genre has successfully inverted the essential negativity of the concept to make it seem virtuous (while the tradition has its more upbeat literary antecedents like the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Zorro, the troubled masked hero seems directly related).
The play between the struggling personalities occasionally strays into Me, Myself and Irene territory, with Marc screaming “You love my wife? I’ll throw you off a cliff!” at Steven. It also reminded me of Innerspace – which I’d never read as a MKUltra riff before, and I’m not convinced it bear scrutiny, but it does feature the military performing experiments that result in the psychological (and physical, at points) transformation of a very average man. I note too that, in the parallel universe of Ultimate Marvel (circa 2000+), Marc was part of the super-soldier programme, which might be as close as Marvel got to such territory.
Moon Knight is more polished than the initial trailers suggested, and I quite liked some of the basic design work – Moon Knight, Mr Knight, bird skull headed Khonshu – even if I can’t see a good reason for summoning Mr Knight during an altercation, not when you can call on Moon Knight. Ultimately, though, there’s little of sustained interest here, beyond the MCU dipping its toes overtly in MKUltra territory. It’s not unKhonshu-nable, but it’s fairly inessential.