Superheroes are in the business of delivering justice. But what does justice look like, and can violence be just? The new Disney+ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Moon Knight series tries to address those questions and gets so confused in the first four episodes available for review that the series just about collapses.
Moon Knight is complicated and difficult to summarize without spoilers. But in broad outlines, Moon Knight/Marc Spector (Oscar Isaac) is the avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu, who has tasked him with smiting evildoers. Khonshu tends to smite without much mercy or discrimination, and Marc sometimes wonders whether unending brutal violence is the best way to handle iniquity.
This dilemma is not unusual in superhero narratives, which frequently reflect, more or less seriously, on whether the genre’s commitment to the uber-violent spectacle is congruent with its commitment to the good.
For example, the superpowered Jon Kent in the comic series Superman Son of Kal-El, wants to deal with structural injustices like climate change and immigration policy rather than just thumping bank robbers. He consistently tries to handle villainous threats without violence; he defeats an antagonist with apocalyptic fire-based powers by giving him a hug. Other characters in the comics over the years—like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, and Grant Morrison’s Animal Man—much prefer talking to punching, and even at times reject violence outright.
Spider-Man in No Way Home doesn’t go quite that far, but he is horrified when he learns that to defeat a passel of villains, he’s going to have to send them to their death. Instead, he tries to develop ways to neutralize or heal them of mental illness. Essentially he ends up performing medical procedures on several villains to “heal” them of their criminal proclivities.
Holding someone down and operating on them for their own good, as Spider-Man (Tom Holland) does to the villainous Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), raises ethical issues of its own. But the movie at least seems seriously committed to the idea that goodness means helping everyone—even criminals—rather than just punching antagonists until they’re unconscious or dead. To be good in No Way Home means caring about even bad people, and even people who hurt you.
[The following contains mild spoilers for episodes 2 through 4]
Moon Knight is much more confused. Marc expresses some discomfort with his role as Khonshu’s bloody enforcer, and sometimes this is presented as a core theme of the show. But then at other times it isn’t. In one particularly unfortunate sequence, the bird skull-headed Khonshu (voiced by Murray Abraham) encourages Marc to torture a young Arab man, who looks to be in his teens. Marc does, and the guy dies. But this isn’t a major dramatic turning point. Instead, it’s treated as a joke and an opportunity for a cute quip.
The series’ alternatives to punching the snot out of bad guys also aren’t well thought through. The antagonist of the series is Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), a soft-talking guru who served as Khonshu’s former avatar. Harrow rejects Khonshu’s path of violent revenge—by planning to raise an Egyptian deity who will judge people and kill them before they have a chance to commit a crime.
The choice is between harsh revenge and a kind of spiritual Broken Windows profiling of potential perpetrators. Should the supercops break bones and even murder perpetrators without trial after said perpetrators commit a crime? Or should they murder perpetrators before they commit a crime? Neither of those sounds like a great approach.
There is one other option on hand. For uncertain reasons, Marc’s body is occupied by another separate personality named Steven, a mild-mannered British gift-store clerk and amateur Egyptologist. Steven hates violence. When he’s in control of the body, he tends to run from conflict. When he’s not in control, he nags Marc and begs him to stop hitting people.
Again, though, the show through its first four episodes doesn’t really present Steven as being a principled and thoughtful critic of violence, like Spider-Man in No Way Home or Jon Kent. Instead, Steven’s just a timid coward without much in the way of fighting skills; he’s comic relief. When he occasionally hijacks the body mid-fight, it invariably causes problems rather than solving them. More, it interrupts fight scenes which are part of the genre pleasures you’re there to enjoy. Nonviolence comes across as a tedious plot complication, rather than as a real path for the character or the series.
It’s possible that the series sorts itself out in later episodes and comes up with something interesting or challenging to say about those core superhero issues of justice, violence, and goodness. So far, though, the shuffling between Steven and Marc for control of Moon Knight’s body mirrors the series’ confused and vacillating approach. The plot glitches and staggers along from an interrupted fight scene to an interrupted fight scene, mildly protesting that Khonshu’s vigilantism is ugly and awful while presenting all other possibilities as worse and then signaling that it’s all a joke and doesn’t matter anyway.
This does, arguably, reflect the incoherence at the core of a lot of superhero narratives. Are goodness and extreme violence really compatible? Does justice exist without accountability for the people who claim to dispense it? It’s hard to answer those questions with an enthusiastic “yes” in real life, but superhero narratives depend on the affirmative. Moon Knight tries to reconcile the disconnect, and comes apart at the seams. There’s a certain honesty there, even if it's not much fun to watch.
More From Wealth of Geeks
- Review: ‘Moon Knight’ Succeeds With Dark and Gritty Storytelling, But Fails With Mental Health Representation
- ‘Moon Knight’ Cast and Creators Talk Costumes, Filming Locations, and Marc Spector
- Netflix’s Marvel Series Were Gritty, But Far From Perfect
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Disney+.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.