Moon Knight ends with a fascinating, worthwhile failure
Adapting Moon Knight could not have been an easy task. Like a lot of characters in the pulp tradition — he first appeared in a comic called Werewolf by Night, after all — Moon Knight’s history is full of elements that clash with modern sensibilities. Its premise of a white mercenary imbued with the power of an Egyptian moon god is classic orientalism; later stories that revealed the character suffered from dissociative identity disorder led to comics that, while sometimes sensitive for the time, would need updating to reflect a contemporary understanding of mental health. And all that is before you start to deal with the already-complex nature of most comic book continuity. The thought of turning all that into six brisk episodes of coherent television boggles the mind. But while shaky throughout, Moon Knight pulled it off, mostly.
Moon Knight’s creative team set their ambitions high: not just to adapt this character’s story from page to screen for the MCU, but also to correct for the pulp transgressions of the source material and center the story around a modern-day Cairo, and modern-day Egyptians, as much as possible. At Moon Knight’s best, the creators pulled this off with fun Tomb Raider-esque flair and big moments that didn’t culminate in your typical superhero fight. At its worst it started to tear at the seams, as its relatively stand-alone nature did not free it from the limits of the MCU.
The result is a series that ultimately feels rushed, like it needed more time. The finale, “Gods and Monsters,” abruptly ends with huge status quo shifts. Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy) becomes the superhuman Scarlet Scarab, and viewers finally meet Jake Lockley, the third persona sharing a brain with Marc Spector and Steven Grant (all played by Oscar Isaac) that’s been hinted at for the entire series. This leaves Moon Knight with pretty huge questions to account for, which is surprising in a show pitched as a miniseries with no clear follow-up planned.
“Gods and Monsters” is mostly preoccupied with bringing the arcs of its three most important characters — Steven, Marc, and Layla — to a conclusion. Marc and Steven now accept each other and amicably share their body/powers after negotiating a new deal with Khonshu, while Layla becomes Scarlet Scarab after entering a more equitable partnership with the goddess Taweret. Of course, the final moments seem to strongly suggest that none of this is that clear-cut; Jake Lockley’s presence implies that Marc and Steven don’t fully have a grasp on their condition. And Moon Knight’s rushed pacing leaves enough room for doubt as to whether it is being intentionally ambiguous in some regards (like the nature of the asylum in the latter half of the show) or simply unclear.
This is an occupational hazard that comes with adaptation work that seeks to correct as well as translate. The ambition and intent of the creators behind Moon Knight seem clear throughout. There are so many scenes that seem like careful efforts to do right by every demographic the story touches: those with mental illness, Egyptian audiences, Jewish audiences, Latinx audiences, comics fans, and so forth. Moon Knight’s six episodes simply do not have enough runway to make any of its efforts land effectively, and the result is a disjointed series with potential for genuinely gripping storytelling mostly reduced to brand maintenance, or the rehabilitation of a “problematic” character into something more appropriate for mass consumption.
One characterization of the Marvel Studios method of storytelling argues that it’s a machine very effective at producing stories that are “not bad,” rather than stories that are “good.” It’s a bit of semantic wordplay that mostly speaks to how effectively commercial the MCU is, with an efficient house style that only really sours when a person reaches their subjective limit. Moon Knight is an odd duck, however. It doesn’t really care about the wider MCU, and even though it hews pretty closely to that house style, there are some deviations. The all-encompassing nature of the Marvel machine can make it hard to gauge whether there is a genuine spark here or a case of any-port-in-a-storm optimism, but there’s an earnestness to Moon Knight that makes the former option more appealing. The hope for Moon Knight, ironically, is in the way it abruptly ends. Things aren’t neat. It’s the rare Marvel project that leaves things weirder than we found them — and hopefully, if there’s more, there will be room to get weirder still.