This review originally appeared in the North Texas e-News.
Marvel’s Phase Four of its cinematic and streaming universe has so far wholeheartedly embraced the unfamiliar and occasionally strange. While the blockbuster franchise has previously stuck sometimes uncomfortably close to the comforts of a good Robert Downey Jr. quip or dynamic set piece from Captain America, its “Phase Four” has begun to tread into uncharted waters to oftentimes uneven results. It just so happens that the recently released “Moon Knight” might already have the makings of the franchise’s best execution of the unknown though.
The streaming series is based on a fairly obscure and relatively inconsistently published character from the Marvel Comics lexicon, yet it embraces that background in a surprisingly refreshing way. The show takes us deep into the life and mind of Steven Grant, a meek and perpetually out-of-place museum employee with a fascination for egyptology who also just so happens to physically restrain himself to his bed every night. At least, that’s how the show initially portrays itself.
It doesn’t take long to see that Grant’s problems go just a tad beyond an extreme case of sleepwalking. After falling asleep one night, he’s quickly thrown into a violent and intriguing cat-and-mouse game for an Egyptian artifact all while a mysterious voice in his head berates him and demands he somehow cede control of himself to a man named Marc.
Those familiar with the comics will recognize this Marc as Marc Spector, the traditional protagonist “Moon Knight” with dissociative identity disorder. In the comics, Spector is a brutal soldier-of-fortune or mercenary, a fact which begins to come clear for the show’s viewers as Grant is left in the wreckage of increasingly violent acts when Marc’s personality takes control and the scene momentarily flashes out. By placing the primary focus on Grant however, the show is immediately able to craft a far more unique and compelling story than the alternative however, thanks in large part to an already tour de force lead performance from Oscar Isaac.
Isaac plays Grant with everything he’s got, oftentimes imbuing him with a humor and quirkiness that allows for solid laughs outside of the now stereotypical Marvel one-liners. As the show dips between horror, adventure and mystery, Isaac takes each step in expert stride. One minute, he’s playing up the sappy down on his luck Rom-Com protagonist while the next he’s channeling the nervous, uncontrollable energy of a prime Lon Chaney Jr. for a heart-racing horror beat. It’s the kind of dynamic performance that his parts in the likes of “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Rise of Skywalker” seemed to stifle as he now appears well on his way to crafting a new memorable lead character for Marvel.
It’s fortunate that Isaac is able to so deftly handle the material given to him too as he’s really one of the only characters we get to know in the series’ premiere. In fact, the show doesn’t even give us much of the other facets of Isaac’s performance besides Grant, leaving the bulk of his time as Marc and the Moon Knight to a thrilling, albeit CGI muddled, brief conclusion.
The only other character viewers spend a significant time with is Ethan Hawke’s villainous Arthur Harrow. In almost what’s becoming Marvel tradition, Harrow’s Egyptian deity led plot revolves around a warped and flawed view of how to fix the world. The specifics of it are somewhat interesting, especially if the show later addresses its inconsistencies with real Egyptian lore, but it’s a little hard to wrap your head around in the premiere.
This is partly due to Hawke’s eerie and unwavering calm as Harrow which adds a somewhat unsettling touch to his cult-leader styled character, but occasionally makes him unnecessarily hard to hear, not to mention a little bland. It’s also disappointing to see Marvel craft such familiar motivations for the series’ villain, especially after “Infinity War” and “Endgame” gave the franchise a definitive version of his particular trope. It will truly be up to the acting of the experienced Hawke to make something special out of the role in the coming episodes.
Nonetheless, “Moon Knight” builds an intriguing and entertaining character-driven story in its premiere. Isaac dazzles in both the darkness and light of the lead role while the plot and tone already promise welcome departures from familiar Marvel fare. Despite the fact that the series has yet to show much beyond its initial set-up, the next episodes have the makings of must-see streaming TV.
Spotlight Score: 8/10