Moon Knight Review: Oscar Isaac Singlehandedly Saves This MCU Show

If there is one strength Marvel Studios has flexed in the last 15 years, it's in shrewd casting throughout the majority of its films and shows. Even when the MCU became, at least on the surface, weirder than what a traditional superhero story seemed to offer, it had its stacked and largely charming ensemble to serve as beacons. Over the last year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been as focused on bringing streaming originals like "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," "Loki," and "WandaVision" into the fold, as these stories with recognizable characters drive the unending, infinite plot through each of the upcoming phases. So in some ways, "Moon Knight," premiering on March 30, is a major risk for Disney+ and the MCU. Here, finally, is a streaming show that doesn't have the benefit of a familiar character at the forefront. But what "Moon Knight" does have is a familiar face, as it represents another casting triumph, even if the story isn't quite as impressive.

It's just as easy to call "Moon Knight" something like "The Oscar Isaac Show," because that's very much what this is. Through the first four episodes made available to critics (out of a total of six, each airing weekly on Disney+), the man on screen in nearly every scene is the immensely talented and charismatic Isaac. Though this is neither Isaac's first rodeo with Marvel — unless you have forgotten about his work in "X-Men: Apocalypse," and who would blame you for that? — nor the larger Disney entity, he's more than game to play a strange pair of characters whose awareness of their surroundings only expands over time. Initially, Isaac is seen as the hopelessly nerdy Steven Grant, a nebbishy gift-shop worker at a London museum with a fondness for Egyptian antiquities. He's desperately dorky, seen talking to his offscreen mother as often as he tries and fails to flirt with female employees, and ... almost as often as we see him wake up in his dingy flat, chained to his bed by his ankle. But that isn't the oddest thing, as when Steven seems to fall asleep and then wake up days later with no memory of how he got to where he is. And even stranger is the fact that he's hearing voices, both of an imperiously large and creepy Egyptian deity (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), and of an American man who sure looks a lot like Steven and tends to don a white, full-body suit of some kind to fight evildoers.

But that, as is revealed over the first few episodes, is because Steven is but one personality of a man named Marc Spector, an American mercenary who dons the eponymous mantle of Moon Knight at the behest of Abraham's booming-voiced deity Khonshu, as part of some warped deal between Marc and the god. Where Steven is almost outlandishly goofy — his British accent is better than, say, Dick Van Dyke in "Mary Poppins," but only because Isaac is all but winking at the audience with his British slang — Marc is taciturn, vengeful, and violent. The novel way in which that latter realization is visualized in the premiere — when Steven wakes up in a strange village overseen by a mysterious cult leader, only to blackout and wake up again amidst a pile of very recently murdered people — is more fascinating, especially for those of us whose familiarity with Moon Knight is nil.

A mystery without a solution

As was the case with both "WandaVision" and "Loki," aside from the casting, what works mostly in this show's favor (so far) is the sense that its mysterious buildup is compelling. The flip side is that in the case of both of those series, the buildup was more satisfying than the eventual payoff, and Marvel has held off on sharing the last two episodes of "Moon Knight" so far, making it impossible to know if the full story is as intriguing as it tends to be at the two-thirds point. There is, inevitably, a woman involved, in the form of Marc's ex-wife Layla (May Calamawy), who doesn't realize at first the extent of the secrets Marc has been hiding. But the real draw here is Isaac, even more so than the antagonistic counterpart, the aforementioned cult leader Arthur Harrow, played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke's character is clarified as disturbing from the outset, in a pre-title scene where he calmly and ritualistically breaks a glass only to put the shards in his shoes before donning them for ... reasons. Hawke is one of his generation's best actors, but Harrow is a bit too one-note and dour, at least so far.

Isaac at least has the benefit of doing something similar to the weird blend of horror and dark comedy evinced by Tom Hardy in the "Venom" sub-franchise of the Marvel entity. "Moon Knight" has plenty of flashes of terror — before we understand who Khonshu actually is, he's just a freakishly big ... thing with a floating, talking skull — a good chunk of the series is played for grim laughs. (Once we do know who Khonshu is, he serves as a riff on Venom here, in that he shows up as another offshoot of the hero's psyche.) And as much as horror comes into play, there are plenty of moments here, especially in the third and fourth episodes, that call to mind both Stephen Sommers' 1999 remake of "The Mummy" as well as the film it riffed on, Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." There's one particular fight scene that recalls the truly hilarious bit where an exhausted Indy shoots a daring swordsman in the streets of Cairo as opposed to dealing with his dexterous fencing. 

Except this time, Marc/Steven gets into a protracted fight scene — it's like the inverse of that scene, and only goes to highlight that one perversely odd problem of the MCU is how often its action scenes feel stripped of suspense or true energy. Mohamed Diab, and Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead — who serve as the show's directors — are far more effective in bringing to life the mysterious elements of who Marc Spector and Steven Grant are, how much they know (or don't know) about each other, and how their dissociative personality disorder functions. If "Moon Knight" has a strength outside of Oscar Isaac, it's in the way the directors throughout the opening four episodes play up the strange case of Marc and Steven for both laughs and intrigue.

It hasn't yet been a decade since the single best performance Oscar Isaac ever gave, in the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis." In that film, you may recall Isaac plays a fiercely talented and fiercely stubborn folk musician in the early 1960s. At one point, Llewyn travels to play for an iconic producer, delivering an impassioned solo performance only to be bluntly informed "I don't see a lot of money here." It's an act of fate that both of the actors in that scene — Isaac and F. Murray Abraham, as that blunt producer — are now together again, in a way, in "Moon Knight." We're a long way from two actors in a proudly independent, low-budget film about what it's like to refuse your artistic principles, to seeing them in the latest Marvel oddity. "Moon Knight" is agreeably interesting, because Oscar Isaac is as well cast here as he was in that Coen Brothers classic. But it's still bracing to think how much things have changed, for actors like him and Abraham and Hawke, and the MCU, and culture, in just one decade. This show, like the rest of us, is just lucky that Oscar Isaac cares enough to try so hard.

"Moon Knight" debuts exclusively on Disney+ on March 30, 2022.