The MCU isn’t built for a show like Moon Knight
Marvel’s house style restricts the emotion and the drama, holding back what should be a daring story for Oscar Isaac
Perhaps it is too broad to argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is built for children, but it is definitely constructed in a way that does not exclude them. Despite the MCU’s light geopolitics and frequent pleasant gestures toward the military-industrial complex, the franchise is meticulously constructed to be solidly family-friendly, with generally bloodless action and nothing too terrifying or dramatic. That’s OK for the most part. The MCU might probably be better without its obsession with comic book heroes as paramilitary operatives, and every move away from that (such as Shang-Chi) is welcomed.However, as this week’s Moon Knight demonstrates, the emphasis on four-quadrant narrative can clash with the ambition of the tale of a specific MCU movie.
“Asylum” is one of Marvel Studios’ darkest and most profoundly painful stories. It’s a story about a man’s damaged mind ultimately bursting as he revisits his most terrible memories. It’s tense, dreadful material conveyed with a light touch that may be too light. The terror is regularly interrupted by moments of levity, and there is a reluctance to emphasize the horror onscreen.
This is especially frustrating in an episode as important and intimate as “Asylum.” “Asylum” picks up where “The Tomb” left off, with Marc Spector and Steven Grant (both played by Oscar Isaac) seemingly trapped in a psychiatric ward run by “Dr. Harrow” (Ethan Hawke), who is attempting to convince Marc that the events of Moon Knight thus far are a coping mechanism devised by Marc’s brain. Taweret (voiced by Anotonia Salib), a hippo-like fertility goddess, offers Marc and Steven another option: they’re dead and being judged in the desert afterlife known as the Duat.
Taweret believes that Steven and Marc’s hearts must be weighed on the scales of judgment to determine whether they will remain stuck in the sands of the Duat or travel to a reed-filled paradise. However, the balance of the scales is shifting, just as it was when Harrow attempted to evaluate the two men’s guilt using his own talents. Steven and Marc must collaborate and, in the words of David Lynch, “repair their hearts or perish.”
“Asylum” takes shape with this command, with Marc and Steven traversing the asylum’s hallways to rediscover their joint history. Each door in its white halls conceals a memory, and visiting these rooms allows Moon Knight’s authors to fill in nearly every gap in the show’s background thus far. Viewers are shown how Marc accepted blame for his brother’s murder as a youngster, how his mother became violent and resorted to drinking as a result of that tragedy, and how Marc created the Steven Grant persona, patterned after his favorite movies, to help him cope with that abuse.Marc’s wall between himself and Steven becomes taller as he ages, with Marc suffering all of the anguish. He eventually gets released from the military and goes into mercenary work, while Steven gets to live in foolish ignorance.
As Spector’s team is recruited to attack an ancient excavation, the story develops to the genesis of Moon Knight. His commander, however, has different plans and begins slaughtering everyone, including Layla’s father. Spector crawls to a statue of Khonshu deep within the site, mortally wounded from defending the archeologists, and hears the moon deity appeal for his loyalty in return for a fresh lease on life.
Tonally, “Asylum” swings back and forth between the adventure-story atmosphere of “The Tomb” (Marc and Steven battle sand monsters) and dark psychological horror. (The zombies represent all of the individuals Marc has killed as a mercenary.) Moon Knight is stuck between two masters in this film: the hard, ethically murky narrative of a man battling with mental illness and his own propensity for terror, and the Marvel Studios style of family-friendly action film.
These two aspects aren’t mutually incompatible – something lost in the current ’80s homages of series like Stranger Things is how ’80s masterpieces like E.T. conveyed stories with actual dread, peril, and inner agony, all of which were tough for kids (both onscreen and in the audience) to digest. The Marvel formula, on the other hand, sands off every edge. Marc Spector is Jewish, did you know? In this episode, his family sits shiva twice, and he rips off a kippah in despair, yet none of this influences his character or his outlook. Critics may create headlines centered on Moon Knight as Marvel Studios’ “first Jewish hero,” but what exactly does it mean? Not much in this situation.As with the sex scene in Eternals, there is no sense of dedication to anything substantial. What’s the point of a seemingly intense relationship if it’s reduced to a static view of two expressionless people laying together, prone and virtually inert?
This lack of involvement with a story’s most powerful emotions is odd, especially given Moon Knight’s tenuous connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (In the episode’s most obvious MCU connection, Taweret claims the Duat is only “an” afterlife, adding that the Ancestral Plane, as shown in Black Panther, is lovely.) Under the current MCU framework, Moon Knight’s greatest achievements are watered down to the purpose of somewhat broadening the horizons of the larger Marvel Studios enterprise. The efforts toward portrayal, as well as the interest in darker, more intricate material, are admirable. However, the series should be more focused on the core goal of storytelling: making us feel something.