Moon Knight and Pop Trauma
Content Warnings: abuse, alcoholism, psych wards, mental illness
Spoilers for Moon Knight and Season 1 of Legion
Moon Knight is the most recent addition to the MCU. Oscar Isaac plays as Marc Spector, a man who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). He is also the avatar for the Egyptian god Khonshu. Early issues of Moon Knight has Marc pretending to be Steven Grant and Jake Lockley. These are not manifestations of his mental disorder at first, instead they are guises he wears for different situations. Jake is a seedy cabbie driver, Stephen is a rich Bruce Wayne like millionaire, and Marc is the tough mercenary (his true identity). Over the years the comics recontextualized his alter egos into a mental disorder. This is the Moon Knight depicted in the MCU.
According to the creators and actors, a lot of research went into being respectful to those with DID. While I cannot say if they did the right work (I do not have DID), I find the way Moon Knight depicts abuse and trauma to be ridiculous.
Episode 5, Asylum, of Moon Knight finally breaks into the history of Marc Spector. When he was a kid, he and his brother Randall went exploring in a cave. However, it was pouring rain and the cave flooded. Marc survived but his younger brother did not. In most pop media, this would be the exact moment that Marc’s DID manifested. Instead, this is the start of the laundry list of trauma. There is a Shiva for Randall, and Marc comes downstairs. His mother is distraught as she should be. When she sees Marc she accuses him of being the one to kill her “RoRo”. This is also not the moment where Marc manifests Steven. The show cuts to Marc’s birthday where his mom, with alcohol in hand, interrupts his celebration. Through slurs and chuckles she tells him that he murdered his brother because he was jealous. Marc hides in his room and for the first time becomes Steven Grant. His mom bangs on the door until she breaks it down. She then beats Marc with a belt.
In the same episode there is a funny talking hippo goddess. Marc and Steven even get into a fist fight with the unbalanced souls from the Duat (an Egyptian afterlife). The episode has a major tonal whiplash. The abuse on screen stops being a real depiction of parental abuse and becomes melodramatic. It does not help that Oscar Isaac is acting as if this is a show that cares about abuse. The pain and reaction of Marc and Steven read really well. Marc keep his eyes closed tight while Steven stares in horror. The other actors in the scene are not on his level because of the constraint of bog-standard MCU acting. It launches the abuses into a soap opera when it is clear the producers at Marvel think this dead serious.
Worse, with Asylum being the penultimate episode the trauma feels like a twist. Something to drive the two protagonists (Marc and Steven) away from each other. The conflict is resolved when Steven tells Marc that the abuse and his brother dying was not Marc’s fault. This plotline is under twenty minutes in a show with a total runtime of six hours. This makes the story of abuse and trauma feel rushed. Instead of focusing on mental illness it becomes an obstacle to overcome to save the world. Basically a side adventure. If the show was about someone with mental illness, why dedicate so little time to this plot? Moon Knight is chasing the tail of a better show; Legion.
Legion is an FX show based on the X-Man character David Heller aka Legion. In the show, David has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, when in actuality his brain is being destroyed by a psychic parasite. The line between reality and psychic constructs are extraordinarily thin. Even though the show says that his mental disorder is exacerbated by the parasite it still treats the abuse and trauma as real. The whole first season is working through David’s broken psyche. A lot of runtime is decided to him talking about his feelings and how it affects him. He dives deep into the memories of his pain. Instead of forgetting the trauma he is confronted with it. Scenes are given time to breath and the audience can reflect on this story. Thankfully, the show is not afraid of being incredibly weird. It fully embraced the mind bending art of the comics. The “You rise when the king appears” scene is brilliant with its use of music, visuals, and tension. Sure the rest of the show kind of falls flat, but the first season will always be special.
Moon Knight was doomed by the very nature of the MCU. It tries to be surreal but the studio restrictions kneecap it. When Moon Knight gets to be itself it is very entertaining. Oscar Isaac is putting in the most work possible. His acting (and accent work) is so ridiculous that every time he is not on screen I am asking, “where’s Oscar?”. Ethan Hawke walks with shards of glass in his shoes. Why? Literally there is zero reason besides Hawke made the acting choice. This show wants to be fun. The moment of Jake Lockley’s appearance is a ton of fun. The fact that it is an end credit scene that people will miss sucks. Because of the gravitational pull that is Marvel, Moon Knight could never be great. Love Khonshu though, what a real piece of shit.