A little more than a year after the conclusion of WandaVision, Marvel Studios’ inaugural TV series and the opening act of the MCU’s Phase 4, Marvel’s multiversal, interconnected narrative is poised to experiment with a new approach to small-screen storytelling. Two of the four films Marvel has released so far in Phase 4—Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals—have introduced a new wave of superheroes, while the first four live-action TV shows have centered on the old guard of Avengers (and one mischievous Asgardian god) as they all searched for ways to adapt to their new lives after the events of the Infinity Saga. With Moon Knight, the MCU is turning to streaming to tell a superhero origin story for the first time.
In Moon Knight, which premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, Oscar Isaac stars as a superhero whose dissociative identity disorder and psychic connection with the Egyptian god Khonshu produce four distinct personalities in addition to the titular, costumed character. Far from your average Marvel affair, the six-episode limited series doesn’t concern itself with the Blip or any traumatic Infinity Saga fallout. Instead, it serves as a character study of an unsuspecting museum-shop clerk who discovers he has a mental illness as he’s thrust into a supernatural world where Egyptian gods walk among humans. Under the guidance of a creative team led by Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab and head writer Jeremy Slater, Moon Knight is set to take the MCU into darker and scarier terrority. “I want to bring some horror into the MCU and some scary monsters, and really push that envelope as far as we can,” Slater told Variety.
However, Slater also cited Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters as sources of inspiration for the series, so expectations surrounding how dark and scary Moon Knight is should probably be measured. (It is, after all, streaming on Disney+.) But Moon Knight is primed to push past any Avengers-adjacent agenda as it brings Isaac and a lesser-known comics character into the spotlight alongside Ethan Hawke as the villainous cult leader Arthur Harrow and May Calamawy as archaeologist Layla El-Faouly.
Ahead of the series premiere, here is everything you need to know about Moon Knight’s comics history and why the show is shaping up to be unlike any other Marvel Studios project that came before it.
A Brief Comics History of Moon Knight
Like many Marvel superheroes, Moon Knight got his start in the comics as a guest in another character’s title series: Werewolf by Night. Written by Doug Moench with art from Don Perlin, 1975’s Werewolf by Night No. 32 was the first part of a two-issue story arc that pitted the comic’s titular Werewolf against a mercenary who wore boots and gauntlets made of silver, a hooded white cloak, and a crescent moon symbol on his chest. (Because what better opponent could there be for a creature transformed by the full moon than a guy decked out in crescent moon gear?) From his first appearance, Moon Knight was an antihero. Initially, he’s the alter ego of a man named Marc Spector, who’s paid by a shady group of businessmen called The Committee to bring in Werewolf by Night so they can use him for their dastardly schemes:
Spector’s backstory is rather vaguely outlined through some exposition provided by a Committee member, who explains that Spector is a mercenary and a war veteran who has some experience working with the CIA (among other things that are meant to let you know this Spector guy is pretty impressive). As for the moon-inspired getup, there really isn’t much reasoning behind it at first—the Committee just has a taste for the theatrical, I guess.
In the years after his debut in Werewolf by Night, Moon Knight appeared in the occasional team-up with heroes such as Spider-Man and Daredevil, and was featured in a Marvel Spotlight story, all of which painted Moon Knight as more of a heroic figure than he was originally designed to be. It wasn’t until 1980 that Moon Knight got his own solo series, with Moench and artist Bill Sienkiewicz headlining the comic’s creative team. Here Spector’s backstory was rewritten and expanded: The mercenary’s new roots extend to the deserts of Egypt, where he dies at the hands of another mercenary and eventual nemesis, Raoul Bushman, after attempting to save an archaeologist at the dig site that their crew is about to ransack. But Spector is resurrected in the tomb of Khonshu, the Egyptian moon god, and he awakens with a new purpose, borrowing a white cloak from the tomb to become the Fist of Khonshu—a knight for the vengeful god. Along with the Moon Knight persona, Spector also adopts a couple of other identities to help serve his new god and defend the innocent: millionaire Steven Grant and cab driver Jake Lockley.
Starting with Steven Grant, the TV series is making some adjustments to a few key characters as they transition to the small screen. Instead of being written as a millionaire Hollywood producer, as he often is in the comics, Steven has been recast as a meek museum-shop clerk in London with a strange accent. Hawke’s Harrow is a rather obscure villain who first appeared in a Moon Knight comic in the 1980s and serves as little more than your run-of-the-mill “mad scientist.” For the Disney+ series, he’s morphed into a religious zealot and cult leader whom Hawke has described as being based on David Koresh. Meanwhile, Calamawy’s Layla is an original character for the series who appears to be standing in for Spector’s on-off girlfriend in the comics, Marlene. Like Layla, Marlene is an archaeologist who assists Moon Knight in his mission to serve Khonshu.
Although Spector was initially drawn in the comics as more of a character actor who alternates among these identities to further his crime-fighting efforts as Moon Knight in various walks of life, over time he became a vehicle that writers used to explore a character with dissociative identity disorder. That evolution led to some insensitive handling of mental illness and sloppy characterizations of DID, including some stories that conflated DID with schizophrenia, as well as a general overuse of words like “crazy” and “insane” to describe Spector.
One of the Moon Knight comics that best portrays the character’s psyche is Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood’s 14-issue series from 2016. While other comics have used Spector’s DID as more of a gimmick—including Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s 2011 run, which swapped out his usual alters for those of Captain America, Wolverine, and Spider-Man—Lemire and Smallwood’s series crafted its entire story around Spector’s history of mental illness, weaving in varied styles of art for each of his personalities and bringing the character to a place where he’s able to accept and live with his DID:
Moon Knight has often been compared to another, more popular caped crusader in superhero comics, Batman. After all, if you swap out the moon for a bat, the character shares a lot of similar DNA: Moon Knight has an alter ego who is a rich playboy like Bruce Wayne; he strikes terror into the hearts of any criminal who attempts to prey on the innocent at night; he wears a utility belt full of fancy, moon-themed gadgets; and he flies around in a moon-shaped plane. (Moon Knight even has a thing for vengeance, too.) But Moon Knight is unique in that his origins are rooted in Egyptian mythology and his DID is one of his defining characteristics. And while the Dark Knight dresses in all black to hide in the shadows of Gotham City, Moon Knight wears white because he wants his enemies to see him coming.
Moon Knight has had a long, complicated history in the comics, with too many reboots and continuity errors to keep track of. (The latest, Moon Knight Volume 9, is an ongoing series from writer Jed MacKay and artists Alessandro Cappuccio and Rachelle Rosenberg that debuted last year.) He’s had superhuman abilities—such as heightened strength in accordance with, uh, the phases of the moon—though most of the time he doesn’t. But there are still plenty of strong comic book runs for the TV adaptation of Moon Knight to mine for inspiration, and the series has a great opportunity to give the character a defining origin story that can put an end to any lingering notions of Moon Knight being little more than Marvel’s knock-off Batman.
The Many Identities of Moon Knight
Khonshu, an entity inspired by the actual Egyptian moon god, is said to have four aspects: pathfinder, embracer, defender, and watcher of overnight travelers. As such, Moon Knight almost always has three alters (most commonly Marc Spector, Steven Grant, and Jake Lockley) in addition to his superhero identity. Moon Knight is porting this tradition over to the small screen, but with several key changes.
Based on the show’s first trailer, the protagonist of the series won’t be Moon Knight’s original main identity, Marc Spector, but rather Steven Grant. The character’s other personalities include Spector, who retains his backstory of being a CIA operative turned mercenary; Moon Knight; and finally, Mr. Knight, another vigilante identity from the comics. Mr. Knight was first introduced in a Secret Avengers comic, but he more prominently served as the main character of writer Warren Ellis and artist Declan Shalvey’s popular Moon Knight run in 2014—a series that seems to be a visual inspiration for the Disney+ series. Aside from his preference for a simpler ensemble of a white suit and mask, Mr. Knight is more of a detective than his vigilante counterpart.
Given how significant DID is to the Moon Knight character in the comics, it’s no surprise that it’ll be a central subject in the TV series. Considering how it’s been mishandled at times in the comics, along with how frequently DID and mental illness have been treated as jokes or oversimplified plot devices in pop culture, it’s crucial that the show approach the subject in a serious way. According to Isaac, that was important to him and the creative team as well. “The way that we approached the show was making everything about what it’s like to deal with a mental health crisis,” Isaac told Vanity Fair. “That was the way to respect it, and completely dive into it, and orient the whole story around somebody experiencing this mental crisis, and make the journey one of healing and integration.”
Along with introducing a character that will contribute to Marvel Studios’ continuing (albeit belated) efforts to build a diverse roster of superheroes, Moon Knight also has the chance to tackle the rarely discussed topic of mental health illness in what will hopefully be a mindful and meaningful manner. “I’m really proud that our show gives this real, honest look at what it’s like to deal with mental health illness in an empathetic way,” Isaac said. “It’s still shockingly taboo to talk about mental health problems and the struggles that a lot of people have to deal with. To feature a character having mental illness in this big world that is the MCU, I think we really had a rare and unique opportunity to bring awareness and try to destigmatize mental health illness.”
Is the MCU Ready for Mature Content?
Aside from being Marvel Studios’ first Disney+ series to focus on a new superhero, Moon Knight is set to be darker and more violent than its predecessors. So far, MCU TV has offered a sitcom-infused mystery box, a dramatic action adventure, a multiversal sci-fi journey, an animated anthology, and a six-part Christmas special; later this year, the streamer will add a YA series and a half-hour legal comedy. Given its subject matter concerning mental illness and the elements of horror woven into the show’s storytelling, Isaac says it’ll be unlike anything we’ve seen in the MCU before.
“What makes our show different from other MCU movies is that you’re not sitting back and just watching the story unfold,” Isaac told Vanity Fair. “You are within the eyes of Steven and experiencing these unpredictable events that are happening to him. It’s terrifying and true to the psychological horror of not knowing what’s happening, and the slow revelations of the truth.”
Moon Knight is looking like the closest analogue in the Marvel Studios stable to the various TV shows in Netflix’s Defenders Saga, which features mature enough content that it called for Disney+ to update its parental controls when it was added to its streaming library earlier this month. And while I still can’t imagine that Moon Knight will go quite as far as the likes of Daredevil or Jessica Jones (the latter of which featured its leading antihero breaking a villain’s neck), according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, the series doesn’t pull its punches for the benefit of its family-friendly streaming home. “It’s been fun to work with Disney+ and see the boundaries shifting on what we’re able to do,” Feige told Empire. “There are moments [in the series] when Moon Knight is wailing on another character, and it is loud and brutal, and the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘We’re gonna pull back on this, right?’ No. We’re not pulling back. There’s a tonal shift. This is a different thing. This is Moon Knight.”
Through a six-part adventure that will dive into the supernatural, Moon Knight has a chance to lead the MCU into exciting new territory that feels distinct from that of the dozens of Marvel superhero stories to come before it. We’ll find out what that new direction will look like—and just how far Marvel Studios is prepared to go—when the first MCU project of 2022 arrives on Wednesday.