DIRECTOR: Mohamed Diab

CAST: Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, May Calamawy, Karim El Hakim, F. Murray Abraham, Lucy Thackery

RUNNING TIME: 47 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: Mild-mannered museum gift shop employee Steven (Isaac) learns that he shares a body with a ruthless mercenary…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

It’s fun to see Marvel really start to embrace the weirdness within its own cinematic universe, especially as it branches out into short-form territory on Disney+. Shows like WandaVision, Loki and What If? have already pushed the boundaries of what is normally expected in a standard Marvel Studios production (until, in some cases, it has to become the standard Marvel movie by their final episodes), but Moon Knight – its first series to revolve around a completely new character in the franchise – is already priming itself to push things even further, with a heavily psychological and supernatural tone that its first episode neatly, and unnervingly, sets up.

Episode one of the series – titled The Goldfish Problem – introduces us to a man named Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a lowly employee of a museum gift shop with a severe sleep disorder, so much so that he sleeps with an ankle restraint to keep him from wandering off in the night. His disorder starts to get worse, however, when he inexplicably finds himself in another country, encountering a mysterious cult leader named Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) who has the ability to judge and fatally punish people based on their moral deeds. Even more concerningly, Arthur and others seem to recognise Steven as a mercenary named “Marc”, which leads to Steven desperately trying to figure out what the hell is going on, who “Marc” is and why he seems to be sharing his body, and why his pet goldfish Gus has suddenly grown an extra tail.

This is very much an introductory episode, designed to familiarise audiences with the character of Steven Grant, his various routines, and most importantly what at first appears to be a severe mental illness. A far cry from the billionaire playboy that Grant originally was in the comics (which, for a character that is already considered to be Marvel’s answer to Batman, might have made the comparisons far too easy to make), the character is a much more mild-mannered and socially awkward individual in writer Jeremy Slater’s series adaptation, one who counts not just his goldfish but a non-responsive living statue as the only people in his life that he can talk to. Oscar Isaac’s nervy performance helps ground the surface-level character, enough to where you do feel a bit bad for him having to endure so much crap from his overbearing boss and missing a date that he doesn’t even remember making – and yes, while that cock-er-ney accent of his is nowhere near Dick Van Dyke levels, it’s not a perfect one as it does occasionally slip into something you’d hear in an American comedy sketch (though hints are dropped along the way that maybe there’s a reason his accent isn’t so perfect).

Then, there is the question about how Marvel Studios, for the first true time in its short history, tackles mental illness within one of its main characters. Of course, Moon Knight isn’t exactly the first Marvel property to raise the issue, with past characters like Wanda Maximoff, Bucky Barnes and even Thor having experienced signs of grief, trauma and depression throughout the recent films and shows, but this is the first time that an illness like DID – dissociative identity disorder, for those who aren’t familiar with mental health acronyms – has been at the very forefront of a story and character journey within the MCU. Throughout this first episode, Isaac’s Steven displays severe signs of DID, from his crippling social anxiety to suffering delusions of giant, threatening figures with giant bird skulls on their head, and even incidents of memory loss that cause him to miss entire days without realising. Later, when we start to see him switch to other identities, the editing effectively blacks out and returns to the grisly aftermath of certain fight and chase sequences, which is certainly a stylish way of putting the audience in this mentally unstable person’s shoes. Naturally, this being the first episode in this six-part series, it’s impossible to make a judgement on its overall handling of the delicate topic until more episodes have been released, but the signs are already beginning to show that Moon Knight, and by extensions its head writer Slater, lead actor Isaac, and series director Mohamed Diab (who will share episode directing duties throughout the series with duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead), are all on their way to getting into even deeper themes surrounding the mental disorder and its consequences on this main character.

The rest of the episode is perhaps a bit too much of a slow build, for it’s not until the final few minutes that things really begin to get strange (or, at least, stranger than they already were). The Goldfish Problem does initially struggle with filling a 40-something minute episode with drama revolving around Steven Grant’s awkward existence, with more time dedicated than perhaps should have been to a date that he was somehow able to acquire without even realising, and with his boss at the museum gift shop who is more or less a one-dimensionally aggressive bully character. It also could have done without some of the more direct references to other Disney-owned properties like Finding Nemo and Avatar, which do feel like they were forcibly mandated by the corporation rather than feeling truly natural to the dialogue. Again, though, this is only the first episode of what promises to be a very unusual and grand adventure series, so it would be foolish to apply the flaws found here to the overall series, when it’s clear that there are better and even stranger things to uncover further down the line.

Overall, this is a decent start to Moon Knight’s live-action debut; it’s not perfect by any means, but it benefits from a strong sense of mystery and, most of all, weirdness provided by the sheer psychological implications surrounding its heavy themes of mental illness, which is sure to develop over the course of this series. As Steven Grant, Oscar Isaac does well to emulate the severe disorder his character apparently suffers from, but if the ending of this episode is any indication, it will be way more exciting to see what he does as this “Marc” persona.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Moon Knight: Episode 1 – The Goldfish Problem is a decent start to Marvel’s newest series, which introduces both the anxiety-driven character of Steven Grant, played by a strongly nervy Oscar Isaac, and his DID mental illness, which is bound to be explored in greater detail as the series goes along.

Moon Knight: Episode 1 is now available on Disney+. Episode 2 will be available next week.

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