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Inside Beat

Some new phases for Marvel in ‘Moon Knight’ shine, while others are eclipsed

"Moon Knight" is imperfect, but it ushers in a new type of story that Marvel is willing to tell. – Photo by Moon Knight / Twitter

“Moon Knight” premiered earlier this year in March with less of a bang and more of a whimper. Despite this, over the course of its six-episode run, it not only proved itself as a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's menagerie of stories but also cemented itself as the first of a new wave of superhero cinema.

The first season of “Moon Knight” follows Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), an awkward, unassuming British man who works in a museum gift shop and has a penchant for Egyptian mythology.

Over the course of the first two episodes, Steven begins to realize that the intermittent blackouts he suffers are actually a result of his undiscovered dissociative identity disorder (DID), as his alter, the ex-mercenary Marc Spector (also played by Isaac), takes over control of their body.

To make matters more complicated, Steven discovers that Marc has dedicated his life to being an “avatar,” a human embodiment of a god’s powers, for Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon.

This revelation of sharing a body with another person, combined with the acts of violence Marc has committed in his servitude to Khonshu, understandably results in immense conflict between Steven and Marc.

Beyond the internal battle that Steven and Marc have with each other, there looms the growing threat of a traditional Marvel villain: Arthur Harrow. Arthur was Khonshu’s previous avatar, before Marc, and has since devoted his life to freeing the goddess Ammit, whose goal is to rid the world of corrupt beings before they can commit their “evil” acts.

At surface level, “Moon Knight” checks all the boxes of the tried and tested Marvel formula. It introduces a flawed and reluctant hero, with moral responsibility thrust upon them. It pits said hero against a villain who is their antithesis and who has a deeply flawed sense of morality.

It features quick-paced, intricately coordinated action sequences against nameless, expendable antagonists. It flaunts questionable CGI characters and a flashy third-act fight scene. The list goes on.

Yet, “Moon Knight” is a refreshing addition to the universe, for several reasons. For one, it doesn't require its viewers to have any prior knowledge of the growing catalog of Marvel films and TV but rather is a standalone story introducing a brand new cast of characters.

As the universe becomes increasingly complex, it also becomes more difficult for new characters and stories to stand on their own two feet. “Moon Knight” refraining from associating with the larger universe allows the viewers to fully immerse themselves in this story regardless of whether they are previous fans of the franchise.

The show’s portrayal of DID also makes for an incredibly complex dynamic between the two protagonists (Marc and Steven). Combined with Isaac’s acting prowess and charisma, this sensitive — though only somewhat accurate — portrayal of DID brings the audience to understand and empathize with the main characters, rather than fear or feel alienated from them.

The intricacy of the relationship between Marc and Steven culminates in episode five, “Asylum,” which brilliantly melds reality, fantasy and flashbacks to drive Marc and Steven to acceptance and love for each other.

This episode cements Marc and Steven’s relationship while simultaneously fortifying their individual characters to the audience. Even more interesting, though, is how the episode toys with Marc’s and Steven’s individual mental states, hinting that they might not be such reliable narrators after all.

But what makes this show especially promising, and perhaps serves as a glimmer of hope in the tired-out superhero genre, is at the soul of its story. Namely, it is the fact that the Moon Knight isn't truly painted as a “superhero” at all but rather as a victim. Marc, and by extension, Steven, suffered childhood trauma followed by persistent abuse and neglect and later became victims of manipulative relationships as slaves to Khonshu.

This power dynamic is conveyed in that Marc’s relationship with Khonshu isn't one of unerring loyalty but rather reluctant obedience and outward indignation. Similarly, Steven exhibits fear and resentment toward Khonshu. Furthermore, they utilize their powers not of their own volition but out of necessity and force and often in self-defense.

Ultimately, this takes the concept of the “reluctant hero” to the next level because what “Moon Knight” portrays isn't an acceptance of responsibility but rather the shirking of that responsibility. It doesn't convey a loss of superpowers as a tragedy but rather a liberation. It takes a nuanced look at what it means to be a “superhero” and emphasizes that being a crime-fighting judge of good and evil doesn't necessarily make you a savior.

This take on heroism being something undesirable is important as Marvel begins to tell more delicate stories of morality.

Phase four of the universe has been characterized by flip-flopping themes of heroism and villainy: “WandaVision” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” saw a hero dangerously succumb to grief; “Loki” saw a villain rewritten as a protagonist; and “Spiderman: No Way Home” attempted to help its villains rather than defeat them. In “Moon Knight,” there is no real hero in the story at all.

Unfortunately, the show falls a bit short of really exploring the complex ethics that it introduces. While Marc and Steven challenge Khonshu’s definition of what is good (that is, killing people who commit wrongful acts), they never question his definition of evil.

Arthur’s and Ammit’s philosophy of killing the sinner before they can commit the sin is indisputably portrayed as wrong, and Marc and Steven always aim to defeat Arthur in spite of their reluctance to be Khonshu’s avatar.

What “Moon Knight” would have benefited from was a true contention of Marc’s and Steven’s morals: a consideration of the merits of Arthur’s philosophy.

Had the show generated more sympathy toward Arthur, it could have told a deeper story that drew upon the internal and external conflicts between Marc and Steven, and one that further blurred the line between heroism and villainy. This could have been a long-awaited breakaway from Marvel’s template formula, something truly innovative and thought-provoking.

Marvel’s “Moon Knight” seems to have been a bit of an experiment to test its audience. Introducing a largely unknown character to the mainstream without the support of previously established cinematic heroes is already daunting.

Adding on to the task of effectively portraying dissociative identity disorder, exploring Egyptian mythology and balancing an ethical dilemma complicates this task even further. It could very easily have been executed poorly.

Though Marvel chose to play it safe and steer away from a darker, more nuanced interpretation of the story, the success of "Moon Light" could pave the way for future superhero stories that aren’t so cut-and-dry — stories that trap the concepts of good and evil into the same body so that they learn to live with one another.

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