The superhero genre was largely developed by Jewish creators—Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee. Because of the climate of discrimination in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, though, there was a major impetus to assimilate. Few superheroes are canonically Jewish.
Nor has that changed much in our latest superhero-on-screen moment. Jewish actors like Gal Gadot and Scarlet Johansson play non-Jewish heroes. Traditionally Jewish characters like Scarlet Witch have their Jewishness written out. There’s been Magneto in the X-Men series, and a few quips by Flash in Justice League, but beyond that, super-Jews have been thin on the ground.
Moon Knight is one of a handful of Marvel heroes who are Jewish in the comics, and many fans were hoping that the Disney+ MCU series would at least nod to his Jewish roots. The fifth episode of the series does so—but in a way that’s so disappointing and confused it verges on the offensive.
The episode is incoherent and difficult to summarize, but in broad strokes: Moon Knight has two identities, Marc Spector and Steven Grant, both played by Oscar Isaac. In episode 4, he’s killed, and both selves wake up in a psychiatric hospital, which is actually the Egyptian afterlife. There is an anthropomorphic hippo that tells both personalities that they must remember their past to balance their souls and avoid eternal torment.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Marc’s brother drowned while in his care, and that his mother Wendy (Fernanda Andrade) blames him for the death. She abuses him throughout his childhood, causing him to create the personality of Steven as an escape.
We know Marc’s family is Jewish because we see the ritual of sitting shiva to mourn the dead twice. The first time Marc sits with his family at home in honor of his brother. The second time he refuses to join his father Elias (Rey Lucas) in sitting shiva for his mother. Instead, he throws his kippah, or head covering, on the ground and stalks away in anger—before the Steven personality takes over, and forgets that his mother is dead.
Observant Jews believe you are not supposed to let the kippah touch the ground; Marc’s action could therefore be read as sacrilegious, or a kind of rejection of Judaism. That doesn’t seem to be what the show is getting at though. Or at least, disagreements over Judaism don’t factor into his conflict with his mother in any other scene.
The truth is, it’s almost impossible to figure out what the show does think it’s saying about Judaism, or even near Judaism. We are given no clue as to what Marc thinks about his Jewishness. This is especially odd because the entire show is framed as an ancient Egyptian religious spiritual journey.
Jews were enslaved in Egypt and persecuted on ethnic and religious grounds. Moses had to lead them out of bondage. An Egyptian god presuming to judge the soul of a Jewish man raises a whole lot of questions, chief among them, “Where do you get off?!” Marc wouldn’t have to be especially invested in his Judaism to raise an eyebrow or two (or four) at the presumption.
But he (and the showrunners) have literally nothing to say about the relationship between Egyptian spirituality and Jewish history.
Jewish people aren’t a monolith; there’s no one right way to portray Jewish identity. I’m a Jewish atheist myself, and my family was less observant than Marc’s from the little we see of their practice. I don’t need Marc to make some great profession of faith. I don’t even need his Jewishness to be that important to him.
But if it’s not important to him, I’d like to know how it’s not important to him. Did he enter the service of the Egyptian God Khonshu with a “good riddance” to his Jewish heritage? Was he a Jewish atheist who had to shunt aside his nonbelief when the Egyptian Gods started casting miracles in his direction? You’d have to be a lot more cut off from Jewish tradition than Marc seems to be not to notice that it’s a little weird for a Jewish guy to be mucking about with all these strange gods. Again, maybe you don’t care! But there’s a whole commandment that says you should, and you’d be bound to think about that a little, even if just to laugh at it.
To be fair, it’s not just the Jewishness. Virtually everything about Moon Knight is confused and adrift. Why on earth does Marc’s second personality have a British accent? How many different tragic backstories does one character need? How can the plot be so uninvolving? This is not a good show, so it’s not a surprise that they handle the Jewish aspects of the character poorly.
Still, I can’t help feeling a little irritated when the show goes out of its way to tell me Moon Knight is Jewish and then goes even further out of its way to avoid engaging with any of the ways that that Jewishness might actually affect his relationship to his own experiences or plot. Watching this, I don’t feel seen. I feel like I want to kick Marc, all his identities, and various mystical hippos, right in the tuchus.
More From Wealth of Geeks
- ‘Moon Knight’ Doesn’t Know What to Think about Justice
- 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
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios.
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.