New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: OSCAR ISAAC ELEVATES A COMPLICATED “MOON KNIGHT” MINISERIES

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a host of other writers and artists who made Marvel Comics what it is today owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The famed 19th-century author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde obviously inspired all those superheroes with dual personas created by Lee, et al. at Marvel Comics. Now, one of their most literal interpretations comes to Disney + streaming in a six-episode series entitled MOON KNIGHT. It’s based on the 1975 comic book by Doug Moench and Don Perlin about a former soldier with multiple personalities who fights evil forces both real and supernatural. He’s a dark and complicated character and so is the series. A little too much so.

There’s a lot of the same sort of VENOM dynamic going on in the troubled soul that is Marc Specter (Oscar Isaac). He’s a regular bloke who happens to have a violent alter ego itching to get out, only in Marc’s case he’s unsure why. Marc doesn’t realize his mental condition, affected by war in the Middle East, and thus, he blithely goes on with his life assuming he’s only a working-class Brit toiling at a museum in London. However, whenever Marc feels stressed, he blacks out and wakes up in strange places, unaware of how he got there. Even worse, Marc starts hearing voices and seeing visions nagging him to embrace who he is.

One of his visions is that of a doppelganger, the merciless ex-mercenary named Steven Grant that Marc was in a former life. Steven is the genuine personality and he wants control of his body back. As if that’s not enough to rattle Marc, a supernatural vision keeps pestering him too in the form of an ancient Egyptian god named Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham). The skeletal specter wants Marc to prevent an ancient amulet from falling into the hands of a mystic named Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke).

Harrow’s men chase after Marc, convinced he possesses the amulet and soon enough blood starts getting spilled and bodies pile up. It’s dark and violent, though watching Marc panic at the mayhem provides a humorous counter to such gloom and doom. And when he’s cornered, about to become a casualty himself, Steven takes over. Ultimately, Marc ends up in the Middle East again where he fully embraces the mystic powers he’s inherited, including an all-white superhero cape and cowl.

The episodes available for screening were chock full of breathless action, sharp special effects, and the A+ production values you’d expect from Marvel and Disney.  Isaac gives it his all, playing multiple characters, doing various accents, and bounding about all over the place like a human pinball. (He hasn’t done this much huffing and puffing since he hot-footed it all over the third act of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.) Hawke makes for an insinuating and sinister villain in support, and a spunky May Calamawy makes a strong impression as Marc’s love interest Layla.

If showrunner Jeremy Slater is at fault for anything it may be staying too loyal to the very complicated source material. This show is dense and complex, with enough twists, psychological ruminations, and mythology to cram one’s head almost as full as Marc’s. The show has some tonal problems too, mixing the dark violence of VENOM with the cheeky humor of SPIDER-MAN. And some of it ends up particularly silly like when Khonshu starts cracking wise almost like he is Marc’s sidekick in a buddy comedy.

As the show continues, I hope it slows down to catch its breath and simplifies some of the mystic mumbo-jumbo. Watching the discombobulated Marc/Steven fight for control is a lot of fun, but having them constantly have to explain the knotty plot is asking for the moon.  

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