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NOC Review: ‘Moon Knight’ Raises the Bar for What the MCU Can Be

Many new viewers may ask themselves “Who the hell are Moon Knight and Marc Spector?” The protagonist of the titular Disney+ series, Steven Grant, grapples with the same question as he’s swept on a psychological and mythological ride across the globe.

He discovers what is behind his own neurodivergence as he meets the ruthless mercenary Marc Spector living inside him, a cultist leader, a woman from his past he can’t remember, and the Egyptian Gods themselves. Starring Oscar Isaac, May Calamawy, and Ethan Hawke, directed by Mohamed Diab, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, and with a writing team led by The Umbrella Academy TV series creator Jeremy Slater, Moon Knight truly is a series unlike anything the MCU has done before, introducing viewers to a world of riveting mystery, action, and irreverent humanity.

Steven/Marc is someone you can’t help but love as he struggles through the anxieties and sadness that occur as a result of his episodes and fantastically stressful situations. Oscar Isaac is, as to be expected, a mesmerizing tour de force in the leading role You can tell watching that he’s having the time of his life acting-wise, accessing facets of emotional depth and the full spectrum of his range that he’s rarely been afforded in a Disney property. He’s a delightfully anxious mess trying to make sense of his situation, and he is sure to enamor audiences who may find some of themselves in this strikingly unique character. It is frustrating, however, to have no mention of Marc Spector’s canonical Jewish heritage yet, but the show leaves room to explore that core aspect of his identity in the remaining two episodes. Hopefully, it will, and in further stories directly tackle the subject matter as its source material does.

The series firmly grounds you in Steven/Marc’s perspective. With Mohamed Diab, Aaron Moorhead, and Justin Benson’s deft direction, we consistently learn new revelations along with Steven/Marc, making this a character journey in every sense. Like with Steven/Marc, the story skews our perception of time and space. In the first few episodes, the series makes us question the reality of our hero’s experiences. It’s a psychedelic experience to watch, and thrillingly immersive. Is Khonshu (played by a wickedly delightful Fahrid Murray Abraham) even real, or ultimately a figment of Moon Knight’s imagination? Should he give in to Arthur Harrow’s (Ethan Hawke) demands and return to his normal life? The temptations are present, but like all hero’s journeys, it’s about perseverance to do the right thing. But for Steven, that’s not entirely clear, making his journey all the more intriguing.

This is an action-adventure series that, like so many, takes partial place in the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) region. For so long for us people of SWANA descent, we’ve had to deal with Orientalist and Neo-Orientalist popular media, made entirely without our creative input, that appropriates, exoticizes, and otherizes our peoples, countries, and cultures. From Indiana Jones to the SWANA-appropriating Star Wars, to Marvel and DC, Orientalism has been a pervasive plague that further spurs audiences of the Global North to see SWANA people as less human, and their cultural elements for playthings.

The difference between Moon Knight and these Orientalist stories is stark with Egyptian director Mohamed Diab leading the team, allowing sincere reverence and relatability to be present for the Egyptian setting and people. Even though most of Egypt and Egyptians are not the main subject, it’s a significant step up from what we’re used to in Orientalist media, and a hopeful starting point for more SWANA creators and actors to prominently feature in these types of stories.

It’s so refreshing to hear actual Arabic music instead of the typically wordless and Orientalist chanting we get in SWANA set stories. Series composer Hesham Nazih’s score is mesmeric, thrilling, and poignant. Hearing Arabic songs over the closing credits is something I never thought I’d head in popular Western media. Egypt is a real, lived-in place, and not an Orientalist fairyland that Western media has made it and virtually all other SWANA countries for literal centuries. Even though Sabir Pirzada isn’t Egyptian, his inclusion as a South Asian Muslim writer is welcome from the typically Orientalist point of view a white writer might have.

Even the mythic Egyptian Gods feel grounded in the environment set up here. Diab allows Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza to be vibrant with color and (from what I could tell from my screener, at least) no Orientalist yellow filter. While several of the story cadences remain the same that you might find in western Orientalist stories, it’s with a refreshing new outlook that begins to undo that systemically harmful gaze. We’ll see if Marvel stays the course to undo the Orientalism across their various media, and give the storytelling power to other SWANA and AAPI creators who aim to undo it.

Moon Knight offers a new outlook from Egyptian creatives that takes and reinvents those Orientalist comics into something that can tell interesting and compelling stories without othering the people involved. Moon Knight/Oscar Isaac is not Egyptian or SWANA himself, but he and his show are very clearly and directly informed by Egyptian culture past and present, with Egyptians at the helm behind the camera and in front. The series shows the humanity of the Egyptian people through May Calamawy (who is also Palestinian) and her character Layla El-Fouly.

Calamawy is a star on this show. She is fantastic as Layla, conveying so much care, ferocity, complexity, and depth that is rarely afforded to Arab women in virtually any superhero or popular action film or TV. To see a fully developed SWANA woman character should never have had to be so rare (thanks to our predominantly Orientalist media), but Layla is an exceedingly welcome change. Calamawy is consistently luminous in her performance, making her an equal performer to her famous co-star Isaac.

She’s a hero alongside Moon Knight, working tirelessly to stop Arthur Harrow’s plans and she has her own motivations from her past to press forward. The extraordinary adventure they take does not faze her, and she is an invaluable ally who is a core part of this narrative. She’s not simply Moon Knight’s steadfast ally. She pushes back and challenges him, including getting him to be open to help. Layla and Calamawy deserve to be staples in the MCU and be the first of many other leading SWANA characters in this and other film/TV universes. It’s far past time for SWANA actors like, and including, Calamawy to be leading in film, where they’ve had no leading roles, as well as in television.

Ethan Hawke is a puritanical and chilling cultist villain. He invades Steven/Marc’s mind with his poisonous words, making them a more deadly weapon than any physical force other villains have wielded. But he falls into the MCU pitfall of being a strictly parallel antagonist to our primary protagonist. Even Harrow’s ultimate plan feels a bit plain and reductive and could have had much more complexity. There might be room for a compelling twist in the final two episodes, but for now, I doubt it. There are many things that Moon Knight refreshingly departs from, but this is another MCU capitulation that could have bucked the trend instead.

While the psychological and Egyptian elements (with actual Egyptians) are certainly new for the MCU, the promise of a more visibly violent series only partially delivers. We see Moon Knight brutally beat down on henchmen in thrilling action sequences, with excellent martial arts choreography, but much of the promised display of violence happens mostly offscreen. In a vacuum that’s relatively okay, but considering Feige’s promises that the series would “go there” and considering its graphic source material, that does feel like a bit of a letdown. But keeping within its PG-13 rating is understandable, and it does indeed push the rating in new ways for the MCU. But again, it feels like it could do more.

Moon Knight is a fantastic series that raises the bar for what MCU stories can be, while refreshingly standing out entirely from the rest of the MCU. With thrilling action, psychedelic sequences, an embrace of Egyptian culture, and complex characterization from its main cast, it’s a gripping show that brings a grounded, non-exoticized view of the SWANA region and people that more comic-book series should learn from. Steven Grant/Marc Spector’s and Layla Al-Fouly’s journey is just beginning, and I hope we have many more stories with them in the years to come.

Rating: A-

You can watch the first episode of Moon Knight on Disney+ starting March 30 and new episodes every Wednesday.

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