Marvel’s ‘Moon Knight’ handles a complex disorder with clarity and delicacy

     The latest Disney+ series to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Moon Knight,” has so far released half of its six episodes, leaving off on a cliffhanger. While there are plenty of similarities to other MCU content, from the fight scenes to the character tropes, “Moon Knight” is a refreshingly different take on a hero for its exploration of dissociative identity disorder.  

     Oscar Isaac flexes his range as he takes on two personas simultaneously: first as the nervous but charming archaeology enthusiast Steven Grant, and then as the classically rugged and cynical action man Marc Spector, who has become the “avatar,” or physical persona, of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu (F. Murray Abraham).  

     In fundamentals, the show feels very similar to a classic action romp, combining the dramatic music and fight montages of a comic book movie with the Egyptology theme of “The Mummy.” It is Isaac’s handling of DID without cheapening the difficulties the personalities experience that makes the world of “Moon Knight” worth exploring. 

     The exchanges between the timid Steven and the determined Marc create a complex dynamic between the two men trapped in the same body. Isaac beautifully switches between the two, honoring them both as well-rounded and distinct characters with different backstories.  

     It takes a talented actor to have chemistry with himself, and Isaac’s performance is extremely compelling as he captures not only the characters’ arguments and differences but also their mutual confusion. It is further implied that we will see him embody another personality.  

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     Steven also serves as a lens for the audience of the bizarre situation that is any superhero storyline. He reacts to the brutal violence, the high-speed car chases, the villain, the love interest and the jaded hero sharing his body with a mix of fear, embarrassment and personal integrity.  

     He begs Marc to choose the non-violent option in any given situation and occasionally stops the fighting by trying to convince everyone to get along. His subversion of the continuous action is refreshing to watch and saves the story from feeling the same as any other Marvel movie or show.  

     The editing and cinematography handle the transitions between characters and control the audience’s understanding with clarity, using rapid transitions and jump cuts between scenes where either Marc or Steven lose control of the body. 

     During the first two episodes, I wondered why the show cut just before the fight scenes as Steven appears a frame later covered in blood. By the time we understand what his situation is, sound cues, rapid cuts between moments, Isaac’s distinct characterization and vocal shifts make it clear which personality is at the wheel at any given time.  

     The show is further rounded out with an intriguingly subtle turn from Ethan Hawke’s character, Arthur Harrow, who has a villainous plan yet shows a surprising amount of compassion for Marc/Steven’s state.  

     Hawke’s calm presence comes across as creepy, particularly when he allows the illusion of that calm to shatter. During the third episode he delivers an almost gentle speech to the council of other avatars, denouncing Marc Spector as unwell and claiming that Khonshu is taking advantage of his mental confusion.  

     The audience understands that he is only bringing this up to further his own plans, but the statement still rings true. 

     I have a harder time with Marc’s wife Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy), mostly because her characterization seemed to fall into the love interest category with some half-hearted attempts to give her more agency. 

     She spent most of her time either being irritated with Marc for walking out on her or trying to act devil-may-care in a way that felt less authentic and more like the writers were checking a feminism box. Her best interactions were with Isaac as Steven, as Steven’s shy and awkward demeanor brought out some underlying softness in her character.