Review of Moon Knight
Slater, Jeremy, creator. Moon Knight, Marvel Studios, 2022.
It is interesting to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe begin to explore the wider cosmologies that undergird the franchise’s framework. Generally speaking, it wasn’t until the introduction of Dr. Stephen Strange and Dormammu’s Mirror Dimension in 2016 and then T’Challa’s visions of Wakanda’s Ancestral Plane in Black Panther (2018) that audiences started seeing how the MCU consists of overlapping dimensions populated by what we would refer to as gods, magic-users, and vast alien entities, combining into a boundless cosmology humans experience through radical shifts in reality. The most intriguing example of the MCU’s cosmological perspective and its relationship to human existence comes with the Disney+ series Moon Knight. The series is also a fascinating exploration of the ways in which humans, emotionally broken and scattered, construct their own identities and realities as crucial survival strategies. Moon Knight’s central conceit, in fact, involves the physical and psychological impact of clashing perceptions of reality—on an intimate personal level as well as a multidimensional universal one.
Moon Knight is fascinating in part because of its cosmological infusion with elements of Egyptian mythology that in the MCU form an actual dimensional plane of reality. The Ennead are the Egyptian pantheon, and include the moon god Khonshu. Khonshu has adopted American mercenary Marc Spector (Oscar Isaac) as his avatar and dispenser of justice—his Moon Knight. Overtly, the series pits Spector/Khonshu against cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke): Harrow seeks to revive the goddess Ammit, who balances a person’s virtues against their sins and directs their posthumous fate accordingly. However, a far deeper conflict is at work, giving the series a much more complex and profound dramatic richness. The show features another chief protagonist, Steven Grant (also Isaac), a humble museum gift shop employee. Before too long, we see Steven and Marc are separate personalities sharing Marc’s body at different moments. Radically different personalities, in fact—Steven is bumbling and nonviolent, Marc effortlessly physical and a skilled fighter. They even appear as Moon Knight differently – Marc as the classic comic book image of Moon Knight (a caped, cloaked Batman-like figure) while Steven is dapper in a snow-white suit.
The MCU’s new emphasis on structural cosmic complexity is skillfully mirrored in the series’ dramatic demonstration of human psychological complexity. It is interesting to note how Steven and Marc both work at self-definition through the establishment of distinct identities—particularly Steven, who until the series’ conclusion strenuously defines himself in opposition to Marc. Convinced of the truth of his own values and personal history, Steven insists on his existence as an independent being with autonomy. His experiences may resonate with viewers conscious of the personal and psychological importance of controlling and defining their own identities and the ways in which they present themselves to the world at large. Moon Knight may not become an icon for gender identity, but his/their struggle with their own sense of being will be familiar to those needing such an icon.
On a grander level, the struggle for the world plays out on two distinct levels in the series. The last episode makes this explicitly visible in the series’ final fight, where Ammit and Khonshu battle each other unseen on one plane of existence while Marc/Steven and Marc’s wife Layla (May Calamawy) fight Harrow and his devotees in the “real” physical streets of Cairo. It is a concrete expression of the ways in which reality is perceived differently at different moments by different people. On an emotional level, however, this struggle for a fair and workable reality is much more poignant in reference to Marc’s character evolution. We find that Marc, as a child, suffered grievous emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his unbalanced mother, who blamed Marc for the death of his younger brother. The traumatized Marc created Steven as a psychological shield to insulate the best parts of himself from his mother’s abuse. The intimate battle at the series’ heart – the work that Marc and Steven do to, if not reunite, then reconcile themselves and their realities to one another—is what gives Moon Knight its emotional complexity. Indeed, this struggle is made most manifest when, during the hallucinatory journey via boat towards the Duat (the afterlife), Steven sacrifices himself to save Marc, leading Marc towards the realization that the two need each other to be whole, that each gives to and supports the other in ways that make them into a full human being together. Marc confesses to Steven, frozen and dead outside the Gates of Osiris, “You are the only superpower I ever had.” Shared realities can give strength and endurance where a single reality cannot do the job.
Moon Knight complicates the issue of perceiving reality by presenting Steven and Marc as holding drastically opposing emotions, worldviews, and life experiences. Which of their realities is “true” if both individuals are experiencing vastly different lives? Moon Knight asks its viewers to question our relationships to the world around us and the complicated connection between mind and body. Of course, that last connection has long been a part of humanity’s relationship to its various conceptions of the divine—when we touch the metaphysical, how much of our experience is tangible and how much an intangible projection of our inner selves? As the series progresses, we see an ongoing deepening of the levels of existence through which humanity moves day-to-day, as well as continuing evidence of the MCU’s new focus on the relationship between humans and the divine, or at least the multidimensional beings identifying as “divine.” (I appreciate, speaking of this, the reveal that Marc is Jewish—the first identified Jewish superhero in the MCU.)
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.