Disney's Moon Knight overcomes Marvel's history of Middle East misrepresentation with enthralling mini-series
When Marvel Studios announced that it was bringing Moon Knight to the small screen I was somewhat sceptical.
This is a comic book hero with a dark backstory, who is as bloody violent as The Punisher so his narrative doesn’t easily fit into the more PG-13 output of the franchise thus far.
He has dissociative identity disorder, a mental health condition that has often been presented pejoratively onscreen, most famously and recently with M. Night Shyamalan’s films Split and Glass.
"While the scenes shot in Ancient tombs and pyramids do have a soundstage look at times, Diab presents a thriving backdrop of Egypt that marries tradition and modernity with cityscapes, ululating and selfie-taking on riverboat rides, as well as street parties and bustling markets"
Plus, Moon Knight is one of the many comic book heroes whose powers derive from Ancient Egypt but no discernible Egyptian, let alone MENA characters, factor into his storyline other than the bird faced god he derives his abilities from.
Thankfully, under the direction of Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab, this six-episode series has provided one of the most intriguing and effective character studies of the MCU to date without sacrificing the swashbuckling action and adventure fans have become accustomed to – or maligning the Arab community in which much of the story is set.
Oscar Isaac is a major factor in what makes this series click though the criticism of not casting a Jewish actor in the role is warranted even if the Latin-American star avoids the usual white hero portrayal.
As the earthly avatar for the god of the moon Khonshu, Moon Knight must prevent cult leader Harrow (Ethan Hawke) from awakening another Ancient Egyptian god and sending human souls to the underworld before it is their time to die.
But the hero doesn’t have one secret identity, he has two, and Isaac shifts between the personalities of bumbling gift shop worker Steven Grant and solemn mercenary Mark Spector, with precision, and sensational comic delivery.
In the early episodes, Steven is the identity first introduced, unaware of his super-powered alter-ego, and the pacing allows for the plot to slowly unfold without giving too much away too early.
Even the bad Cockney accent grows on you, making more sense as the series progresses, but this is less an origin story more a filling in the gaps narrative.
Sharp cuts, use of reflection and blackout moments help to articulate the dual consciousness in one body as well as arouse unease and mystery.
It’s also a smart way to remove the more barbaric violent acts committed by this flawed hero to the periphery so as to keep the series more family-friendly compared to Netflix’s more brutal Marvel output.
That’s not to say Moon Knight pulls its action punches. There are some well-choreographed and captured fight sequences dotted throughout with Isaac displaying keen hand-to-hand combat moves which he voraciously delivers.
"Moon Knight doesn’t entirely avoid the Orientalist trappings of the comic book, but Diab’s assured direction succeeds in delivering a Marvel series with a curious voice, a phantasmagorical aesthetic and an unfolding narrative that never feels bloated or exploitative"
It also leans heavily into the darker, horror subject matter underscoring the mystical events, with the unassuming Steven escaping demonic creatures in one terrifying museum sequence and later trying to avoid the frightening Khonshu in a chilling corridor scene set in a storage unit before he’s caught up to the reality of his alter-ego.
The ominous lighting, often clinical production design and insightful camerawork that switches between extreme close-ups and empty spaces just waiting to be filled by something evil, is a nod to the classic Hollywood monster features.
But a decidedly contemporary and surreal spin that turns up a notch by episode four, offers an eerie and exciting asylum thread of Moon Knight’s comic book journey.
From this point, head writer Jeremy Slater and his team delve into the true origins of the hero’s dissociative identity disorder. It’s a testament to the script and Isaac’s deeply moving performance that humanity remains front and centre of a backstory defined by childhood trauma and how the mind might fracture to survive.
Yet this isn’t simply the Oscar Isaac show. As a villain, Harrow might be a bit one-note and lacks real depth or probing into his motivations as a character but Hawke is always reliable.
He intellectualises him through his subtle, quiet delivery that avoids the more bombastic stereotypes of evil leaders associated with the genre. Small but substantial supporting performances from Lucy Thackary as Steven’s manager and Antonia Salib as the hippo-faced god Tarawet, offer humorous respites to the ominous tone alongside Isaacs’ barmy double act.
Then there is May Calamawy who enshrines love interest and archaeologist Layla El-Fahouly with an uncompromising authenticity and heart. A character written for the series to replace the typical white American damsel in distress from the page, Layla is a shining beacon of representation for Arab women that has so far been avoided in the MCU.
She is a female sidekick who holds her own, holds herself and Mark accountable for how they navigate the world and Calamawy is a determined, endearing performer whose chemistry with Isaac is utterly believable.
"Layla is a shining beacon of representation for Arab women that has so far been avoided in the MCU"
Over the six episodes, Layla evolves and grows just as much as Mark does, culminating in a high-octane finale that hits all the key blockbuster notes expected from a Marvel joint while pushing the husband and wife to their limits, offering a foot-stomping payoff with the promise of even more superheroism in their future.
Calamawy’s casting is one of many ways Diab has presented the MENA world beyond the typical Western cinematic cliches of exotic women, yellow filters and Arab bad guys.
While the scenes shot in Ancient tombs and pyramids do have a soundstage look at times, he presents a thriving backdrop of Egypt that marries tradition and modernity with cityscapes, ululating and selfie-taking on riverboat rides, as well as street parties and bustling markets.
The soundtrack features a wealth of Arab artists and musical genres, from the Arab trap of DJ Kaboo to the Maghreb pop of Ahmed Saad and dulcet tones of Najat Al-Saghira, alongside Bob Dylan and Englebert Humperdinck needle drops.
Composer Hesham Nazih brings all the cultural elements together in an orchestral score layered with Arab strings, human voices and throbbing base tones which capture the chaotic existence of this troubled superhero.
Diab also cast MENA actors to play vital roles, though F. Murray Abrahams’ American and Salib’s posh English accents are somewhat jarring to hear coming out of the mouths of Egyptian gods.
Moon Knight doesn’t entirely avoid the Orientalist trappings of the comic book, but Diab’s assured direction succeeds in delivering a Marvel series with a curious voice, a phantasmagorical aesthetic and an unfolding narrative that never feels bloated or exploitative.
It provides enough time, space and diverging plot points for character exploration at an enticing pace. I’m intrigued to see what and who comes next in this horror-infused diversion from the typical MCU playbook.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint