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Oscar Isaac gets to be a hero, dork, and Egyptian god in Moon Knight

Marvel’s newest Disney+ series operates as a metaphor about mental illness.

In Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac spends a lot of time looking at his own reflection — not because he is a narcissist but because he is troubled.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The first moments of Moon Knight alert you that our protagonist, British gift shop worker 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 a young person’s body; 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 enters his apartment each night, he puts a strip of tape on the hinges of his door. Then, before getting into bed, he chains one of his ankles — not in a kinky way but more like an incarceration way. And instead of a rug or slippers, Grant has a moat of sand around his bed.

The disgusting idea of gritty sediment in your sheets and between your toes aside, the implication here is that Grant knows he’s sleepwalking. Not just run-of-the-mill sleepwalking, either, but that he’s something more like an uncontrollable werewolf, a danger to him and the people around him. Sometimes the precautions don’t work at all. Case in point: Grant awakens to find himself in the Swiss Alps with no knowledge of how he got there, pursued by henchmen who want nothing more than to mortally wound him.

See, here he is again! Looking at his own reflection!
Marvel Studios

It’s in these do-or-die moments that another voice — baritone, stentorian, possibly American — barges into his head and tells him to give up control. Letting go means blacking out, and allowing that other entity to go full Ratatouille with Grant’s body. In the brief moments when Grant does wake up, he finds himself, say, at the steering wheel of a truck careening off the side of a mountain, before being yelled at to go sleepy time again.

For the majority of the first couple of episodes, Grant finds himself untangling who else may be in his head. Sometimes, when he looks at his reflection in mirrors, Grant sees an American hired gun named Marc Spector (also played by Isaac). There’s also, more ominously, an exiled Egyptian god named Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham) yelling at him. Or maybe Grant is in their heads? Perhaps Grant himself is just a construct — something the others need to appear normal.

The psychological puzzle that is Grant, Spector, and Khonshu hinges on Isaac’s charisma and performance. He’s known for generating incredible chemistry, with actors like Jessica Chastain and John Boyega specifically, but really with anyone in any role in any genre (including space). Isaac opposite himself ends up being a huge win, too. While the script isn’t exactly breaking new ground — Grant is always jittery, Spector is steely, and Khonshu is scary — the show allows its lead to tap into physical performance and deliver scenes that rely so much on body language, posture, and, at times, goofy comedy.

Every Marvel movie has a moment where it shows you how much it stinks to carry the responsibility of being a superhero, but Moon Knight’s “whose head is this anyway” gimmick works in large part because the show explores how tattered Grant’s life has become. The downsides of being someone like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, or Captain Marvel are always shown to be fleeting and outweighed by immense wealth, magic, or power.

Grant’s life is lonely, and he doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. He can’t maintain friendships because he loses track of time. He can’t pursue a romantic relationship with anyone — he can’t even invite anyone for a sleepover because of the not-kinky ankle restraint. It’s impossible for Grant to have any meaningful human interactions because he’s worried about the other personalities in his mind.

It’s not difficult to read between the lines and see how Marvel is positioning Moon Knight to operate as an allegory for mental health.

Spector and Khonshu are immensely powerful, but these powers have debilitated Grant, driving him into self-administered social isolation. In order to survive, both as someone living as part of society and the actual henchmen who want him dead, Grant needs to come to terms with his unique situation. This reckoning isn’t that different from the way we’ve learned to talk about mental illness; the way someone might need to identify their experience and acknowledge how it affects their own life. It’s not just allegory, either: The show’s official description explains that Grant has dissociative identity disorder and “memories of another life.” It eventually tackles that in a rather blunt, extremely telegraphed way. Fans who watched a previous Marvel-affiliated television show about a hero with multiple personalities will find some of the imagery unoriginal.

The series is better when it paints with broader strokes, like central villain Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke). Thanks to the powers of the Egyptian goddess Ammit, Harrow has the ability to see people’s future, judge them, and, with Ammit’s permission, kill them, all based on their fate. Harrow could be read as a way stigma and judgment can inflict harm or make someone feel destined for failure.

Marvel’s acclaimed WandaVision, which kicked off the company’s streaming shows, was lauded for using a superhero’s warped powers as a metaphor for grief and depression. Whether or not that show stuck the landing (I didn’t think so), it presented Marvel fans with an avenue to talk about loss and trauma in ways that a lot of the studio’s previous stuff had largely glossed over.

It would behoove Oscar Isaac to turn around because every now and then he gets a little bit lonely.
Marvel Studios

Like WandaVision, Loki, and Hawkeye, the six hours 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. Though 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 (relative when it comes to Marvel) to get a little weird and introspective in ways they couldn’t with a Moon Knight movie.

Most allegories, though, especially in comic books, are far tidier and more facile than real life.

There’s no doubt that the series will find Grant harnessing his superhuman hand-to-hand combat abilities, weapons, and healing suit to protect the world — if not in this season, then in a future installment. Harrow will likely be vanquished, if not permanently. And Grant will most likely join up with other superheroes or at least learn to make some friends, as there’s an entire cinematic world that he’s now a part of.

It’ll be sort of a shame when that happens. The moment Grant becomes enviable, when his blessing far outweighs his curse, that’s when the allegory ends. I suppose all heroes get there eventually (perhaps because of the contractual obligations of the MCU), but as Moon Knight shows us in flashes, it might be more powerful when they don’t.

Moon Knight is streaming on Disney+.

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