The term “Golden Age of Television”, sometimes called “Peak TV”, has been used to describe the shift, in the new millennium, towards higher quality, more grown-up, small screen content. From The Sopranos to The Wire, Deadwood to Breaking Bad, television of the past two decades has often been emotionally, and visually, complex and mature. And, concurrently, the world of cinema became obsessed with franchises and sequels, superheroes and comic books, to the point where, last year, only one film out of the 10 highest grossing of the year was an original property. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that where cinema led, television would follow.
Moon Knight (Disney Plus), a Marvel comic book hero from the 1970s, represents the first foray of this new MCU era into establishing a superhero in a limited series format. Sure, they’ve already had success with Wandavision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye and Loki, but those were all established superheroes spun off from The Avengers. Where Marvel has previously brought its IP to life on straight-to-streaming services (I’m thinking Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil and The Punisher), it’s struggled to capture the lightning in a bottle that makes children (and certain adults) keep going back for more. Can Moon Knight succeed where the others have failed?
Led by Oscar Isaac as the besuited “fist of Khonshu”, it stands a good chance. The series starts with Isaac seemingly playing a British gift shop attendant, Steven Grant (though it’s no secret that Moon Knight’s real identity is an American ex-marine called Marc Spector). His London accent would give Dick Van Dyke nightmares and his dialogue is stuffed with idioms that seem to have been reverse engineered through Google Translate (“laters, gators!”). But the phoniness of Steven Grant will soon make sense, as the voices in his head take over. First, there’s “the little American man living inside me”, who sometimes appears in the mirror as Isaac in full, sexy action hero mode. Then there’s F Murray Abraham as the voice of the Egyptian deity Khonshu, whom Steven/Marc is serving as his avatar on Earth. All making sense?
Every superhero needs its supervillain, and here we have Ethan Hawke’s Arthur Harrow, a religious zealot serving the will of Ammit, a nasty sounding demon with the head of a crocodile, the legs of a lion and the arse of a hippo. In the olden days, supervillains used to be simple. A clown who likes killing people. A bald billionaire who wants to rule the earth. Now they’re all Malthusian shock jocks spouting alt-right talking points. A baddie can no longer just be bad, nor a goodie unconditionally good. Ammit and Harrow are on a Minority Report-esque mission to stamp out evil before it happens. And you know what they say: you can’t make an omelette without murdering a few old ladies and innocent children.
It’s fair to say that superheroes aren’t my thing. Perhaps that’s because I’m an adult in a functioning relationship, or perhaps it’s simply that I don’t have the stomach for protracted low stakes violence (the Earth must always be saved, surely as the tides recede). But Moon Knight, to its enormous credit, solves many of the problems I have with Marvel’s cinematic offerings. Fight sequences last five minutes, rather than 45, and have the goofy, slapstick charm of Naked Gun or Johnny English. Even the core idea – Ancient Egyptian gods doing battle through human avatars, “Area 51, MI6 bonkers bruv” as Steven describes it – has an innate stupidity that the series embraces rather than rejects.
The highest compliment I can give Moon Knight is that it often feels more like The Mummy than The Avengers.