The first moments of Moon Knight warn you that our protagonist, British gift shop assistant Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), is a little unusual. Granted, “unusual” applies to most Marvel superheroes – Thor is a himbo demigod; Captain America is actually an old man trapped in the body of a younger one; the Guardians of the Galaxy include a talking tree and a raccoon who doesn’t like being called a raccoon — but in Grant’s case, it all feels a bit more dire.
When he comes into his apartment every night, he sticks a strip of tape on the hinges of his door. Then, before going to bed, he chains one of his ankles – not in a kinky way, but more like a confinement. And instead of a rug or slippers, Grant has a moat of sand around his bed.
The disgusting idea of grainy sediment in your sheets and between your toes to the side, the implication here is that Grant knows he’s sleepwalking. Not just the regular sleepwalking, but that he’s more of an uncontrollable werewolf, a danger to him and those around him. Sometimes the precautions don’t work at all. Example: Grant awakens and finds himself in the Swiss Alps without knowing how he got there, chased by henchmen who want nothing more than to mortally wound him.
It is in these do-or-die moments that another voice—baritone, stentorian, possibly American—rushes into his head and tells him to relinquish control. Letting go means blacking out, and letting that other entity go completely Ratatouille with Grant’s body. For example, on the brief moments Grant wakes up, he finds himself at the wheel of a truck driving down the side of a mountain, before being yelled at to get sleepy again.
For most of the first few episodes, Grant finds himself untangling who else is on his mind. Sometimes, when he looks at his reflection, Grant sees an American assassin named Marc Spector (also played by Isaac). There’s also, more ominously, an exiled Egyptian god named Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham) who yells at him. Or maybe Grant is in their head? Perhaps Grant himself is just a construct – something the others need to appear normal.
Grant, Spector and Khohnshu’s psychological puzzle hinges on Isaac’s charisma and achievements. He is known for generating incredible chemistry, with actors like Jessica Chastain and John Boyega in particular, but really with anyone in any role in any genre (including space). Isaac facing him also becomes a huge win. While the script isn’t exactly groundbreaking – Grant is always nervous, Spector is steely, and Khonshu is scary – the show allows its lead to make use of physical performance and deliver scenes that rely so heavily on body language, posture and, at times a goofy comedy.
Every Marvel movie has a moment where it shows you how bad it stinks to take on the responsibility of being a superhero, but Moon KnightThe “whose head is this anyway” gimmick works largely because the show explores how torn Grant’s life has become. The drawbacks of someone like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, or Captain Marvel have always proved fleeting and outweighed by immense wealth, magic, or power.
Grant’s life is lonely and he doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. He cannot maintain friendships because he loses track of time. He can’t get into a romantic relationship with anyone – he can’t even invite anyone to a sleepover because of the non-kinky ankle bandage. It is impossible for Grant to have any meaningful human interaction because he is concerned about the other personalities in his mind.
It’s not hard to read between the lines and see how Marvel is positioning itself Moon Knight to work as an allegory for mental health.
Spector and Khonshu are immensely powerful, but these powers have weakened Grant, leaving him socially isolated. To survive, both as someone living as part of society and as the real henchmen who want him dead, Grant must come to terms with his unique situation. This reckoning is not so different from the way we have learned to talk about mental illness; the way one should identify his or her experience and recognize how it affects their own life. It’s not just an allegory either: The show’s official description explains that Grant has dissociative identity disorder and “memories of another life.” It eventually does that in a rather blunt, extremely telegraphic way. Fans who have seen a previous Marvel-affiliated television show about a hero with multiple personalities will find some of the images unoriginal.
The series is better when it paints with broader strokes, like the central villain Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke). Thanks to the powers of an Egyptian goddess named Ammit, Harrow has the ability to see people’s futures, judge them and, with Amnit’s permission, kill them, all based on their fate. Harrow can be read as a way in which stigma and judgment can harm or make someone feel doomed to failure.
Marvel is praised WandaVision, which kicked off the company’s streaming shows, has been praised for using a superhero’s twisted powers as a metaphor for sadness and depression. Whether or not that show held onto the landing (I didn’t think so), it provided Marvel fans with a way to talk about loss and trauma in ways that had largely obscured much of the studio’s previous stuff.
Like WandaVision† Lokiand hawk eyethe six o’clock or so of Moon Knight have allowed Marvel to explore the psychology of its hero, in ways not possible in a two or two and a half hour movie that they share with other heroes. Although not always successful (see: Falcon and the winter soldier) it’s nice to see creator Jeremy Slater and directors Justin Benson, Mohamed Diab, and Aaron Moorhead given the freedom (relatively when it comes to Marvel) to get a little weird and introspective in ways they couldn’t with a Moon Knight movie.
However, most allegories, especially in comic books, are much neater and easier than real life.
There’s no doubt that in the series, Grant will use his superhuman hand-to-hand combat skills, weapons, and healing suit to protect the world — if not in this season, then in a future installment. Harrow will likely be overcome if not permanently. And Grant will most likely join other superheroes or at least learn to make friends because there’s a whole cinematic world he’s a part of right now.
It will be a bit of a shame if that happens. The moment Grant becomes enviable, when his blessing far exceeds his curse, the allegory ends. I suppose all the heroes will get there eventually (perhaps because of the MCU’s contractual obligations), but if Moon Knight shows us in flashes, it might be more powerful if they don’t.
Moon Knight streaming on Disney+.