“The Goldfish Problem”
Marvel Studios return once again with an all-new six-part miniseries, exclusive to Disney+, and bringing the comparatively obscure superhero Moon Knight to their Marvel Cinematic Universe. There really are some challenges with sustaining a long-term shared universe of characters: what do you do once you run out of famous characters to adapt, and how do you keep your universe from going stale?
The solution to the first problem seems to be to find characters with a strong and interesting identity that generate good stories. In this case the awkward English gift shop attendant Steven Grant, who discovers that he does not seem to be walking in his sleep so much as violently rampaging across Europe. This opening episode is cleverly styled like a mystery, and with five episodes to expand on what’s introduced here there is no rush to really establish his superhero identity beyond that. The mysterious Moon Knight presents a blend of violence, mental illness, and Egyptian mythology, which is rock-solid grist for the mill: arresting, dramatic, and rich in potential.
Marvel’s solution to the second problem is to present – in this episode at least – a fresh narrative without links to existing Marvel properties or even oblique references to “the Flag-Waver”, “the Big Green Guy”, or “the New York Incident”. It allows Moon Knight to stand up as its own property with its own distinct tone and style – and that tone and style are pretty damned distinct. This is a brutally violent Marvel, more akin to the Netflix series The Punisher and Daredevil than any of the bigger movie franchises. It is also aggressively weird: hallucinatory imagery, sudden jumps in action, and a deliberately obfuscated plot have made this first episode the most original work Marvel Studios have produced in some time. The MCU is the biggest show in town, and despite overwhelming success it is good to see the company stretch themselves and take creative risks.
The series is led by Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke; the former playing Grant and the latter a mysterious religious figure named Arthur Harrow. Hawke is wonderfully unsettling and menacing in a role that feels quite separate to things he’s done before. Isaac smartly works against the dark horror imagery of the episode and presents Grant as a colourful eccentric with a silly English accent. One of the real surprises of Moon Knight is that it is honest-to-God funny, and a good balance is struck between the varying elements. Director Mohamed Diab has done a superb job; and how wonderful is it for Marvel to hire an Egyptian director? Everything fits together and everything feels wonderfully inventive and odd. This is the sort of premiere where it is worth checking out whether you’re a fan of the MCU or not.