Review by C.J. Bunce
The best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe happens when a new writer or director’s vision is something we haven’t seen before. For the movies, that’s merging into the MCU a quirky space fantasy crew in Guardians of the Galaxy, superheroes with restricted powers as in Thor: Ragnarok, or starring a less than super superhero like in Ant-Man. In the TV series it’s introducing a unique, cool style like in Luke Cage or featuring an ex-military antihero with serious drama like in The Punisher. In Disney’s Moon Knight, which is premiering its pilot episode now on Disney+, it’s building an intense, thrilling character who finds that something or someone has taken over his body, and he–and the audience–have no idea why. It’s a mix of ancient mythology, magic, and adventure of the level of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the best of today’s actors creating some truly fantastic and exciting characters. And that’s just the first hour.
Oscar Isaac plays Steven Grant (with a spot-on British accent), a Londoner working an entry level job in a museum gift shop. We meet him sometime after he’s begun to strap himself to his bed at night to keep him from roaming via some form of sleep walking. Is he suffering from some type of psychotic disorder like schizophrenia, or is some other force at work here? Is he a monster like a werewolf? His dreams seem to pull him to other places, and he snaps awake in the middle of scenes that seem like they are part of someone else’s life. Eqyptian director Mohamed Diab delivers one of the year’s best television episodes in the first episode, splicing together Steven’s frenetic existence revealing an exhausted man at the end of his rope.
Then there’s the voice of Salieri in his head–that’s F. Murray Abraham–speaking to him, criticizing him. Are there two people in his head or three? When he finds an old Motorola Razr cell phone in his apartment in a hiding space, it’s full of messages from a woman. When he calls her she refers to him as Marc. Who in the heck is Marc? What would you do if you were in his shoes?
Enter the man who is probably the finest actor of his generation, Ethan Hawke, as a truly creepy cult leader following a mythology that spins around concepts from Philip K. Dick’s “pre-crime” in Minority Report. He wants something. Steven has it.
The backdrop feels like the Universal Monsters tale of The Mummy. The pilot provides a chase scene as exciting as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the museum elements and Steven Spielberg-inspired magical storytelling all add to the Raiders comparison. Why is our protagonist driving a cupcake van? Mythology, dark magic, adventure, and excitement–a great package. And a bonus: if you read the comics perhaps you’ll catch a familiar character hiding in plain sight.
Showrunner and head writer Jeremy Slater (The Umbrella Academy) has unleashed a spectacular vision here. Hopefully the pilot isn’t a happy accident and that we have what could be the best Marvel series coming over the next six weeks (alas, it’s another series with only six episodes). Hopefully the series directors limit the pop music crutch that almost becomes a problem in the pilot, and Isaac continues to refrain from the fast-talking wise guy performance he’s slipped into from time to time in previous roles.
Look for Moon Knight on Disney+, with new episodes airing Wednesdays through May 4, 2022.