Skip to main content

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight
(2022)

(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.


Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was