Moon Knight marks its opening with the goldfish-out-of-water Steven Grant as it introduces a full heaping of Egyptian myth, cerebral surrealism and more. Spoilers below.
1. Haunted Houses
“The Goldfish Problem” begins with two fairly silent openings. We get both our main actors introducing their manner and tone, and get to watch them walk through pain. One ritualistically, and the other out of desperation. But the other major hint these openings give us comes through the surroundings. Haunted houses are metaphors for hurt and cluttered minds, so it makes sense to lean into Steven’s eclectic surroundings when you want to introduce an equally eclectic man. This is, more subtly, the case for Arthur Harrow and his vacant sandstone introductory set. We even get to see the archetypal sandbags and architectural puzzles of a classic Hollywood pyramid in Steven’s apartment, hinting at the exact shape that his haunted house takes.
Overall the episode does a really good job of portraying Steven’s relation to Marc through the absence of context we get here. It seems as though Steven is the outlier in an organized system that Marc has for his DID (whether or not he’ll be aware that’s what he’s organizing), which is an interesting approach to take. Steven’s instead organized in his repression, building alarms, podcasts, puzzles and an almost certainly fake mum into routine avoidance. We will most likely see what approach they take to the origins of Marc’s DID in episodes to come, but for now at least we know the manifestation of it is compelling enough.
2. Finding a niche
Recently It’s felt like the executives at Marvel Studios are more and more interested in having each hero delegated to their own ‘corner’ of the MCU, something that can spawn its own aesthetic, a supporting cast that can be built on, and a basis outside of reality that can feed into memorable locations. For some characters that’s obviously part of the package. For example, Thor’s Asgardian royalty would feel cheap if it wasn’t portrayed proplrly. But when Shang-Chi’s adventures are all relegated to the Wuxia realm of Ta Lo, Doctor Strange is any dimension but ours and every fight the Eternals have happens miles from civilisation, you lose any sense of ‘The World Outside Your Window.’ It feels like Moon Knight is rapidly approaching a corner of his own, gearing up to fill a swashbuckling Tomb Raider/Egyptian myth niche that isn’t necessarily that compelling. There was definitely a point where you could argue his connection to that pantheon and suite of history was the biggest differentiating factor for the character (except it wasn’t, at that point the character’s biggest strength was one Mr. Bill Sienkiewicz), but the popular image of him now is one with his mentality at the forefront and the myth informing it in the background. If they can make it work it’ll be a great point of differentiation, but if not we might just end up with one more regressive origin story. Still, it’s pretty nifty they have him fighting a dog monster that could vaguely be construed as a werewolf in his first appearance.
Maybe my favorite aspect of this first episode though, was just how tactile the design felt! We had such a great emphasis on the set design, as I mentioned before, but every prop felt well used and the VFX felt well contained within that aesthetic. Khonshu and the Moon Knight’s suit were remarkable, which goes without saying, but even Steven’s tan jacket/white hoodie combo was just a great visual motif. This commitment to the analogue felt really prominent in the opening, it wasn’t anything flashy but they’re letting Ethan Hawke, an accomplished horror actor, engage with the props and set a tone just through his intention.
Andrew Palermo, the cinematographer for Moon Knight, is the other huge talent at the core of this show. He has such a knack for getting the camera right where it needs to be, and every time a scene opens wide enough, he finds a way to put something visually unique at the front of it. He has such a pronounced sense of style that you can feel him chafing against the script when it can’t keep up with him. There’s whole swathes of this episode that drop out of your mind instantly because they’re set in empty fields or windowless storage closets. But even when Palermo is just given a bathroom mirror or a unique light environment, he cracks open a shot that feels essentially “Moon Knight.” He’s spoken about taking inspiration from Greg Smallwood and Jeff Lemire’s “Moon Knight” run which absolutely feels apparent. It’s the most surreal and, arguably the most visually unique, “Moon Knight” run out there, but also the hardest to reference casually, so with all the nods to Sienkiewicz, Maleev and Shalvey we’re getting in the costuming, it’s nice to see some Smallwood in the cinematography.Continued below
The only part of this aesthetic that I did chafe against was the soundtrack. It feels like they’re using chirpy music to try and portray cognitive dissonance, but it feels too peripheral to actually achieve that. There’s nothing coordinated to it, and it doesn’t feel like the scene starts or ends with it. There’s no strong relationship between sound and sight, so you’re left feeling as though there’s an egg timer chirping in the background of the show. It’s weird, but inconsequential once you learn to tune it out.
4. Oscar and Ethan
Marvel absolutely lucked out in its casting here, Isaac and Hawke are two of the most charismatic and consistently riveting actors out at the moment, which is why their roles here mostly feel generic, rather than outright grating.
Oscar Isaac is good at playing roles with a lot of natural confidence, without ever undercutting any self-loathing or inadequacy the character needs to compliment that with. So it’s going to be interesting seeing him take that away entirely for Steven Grant, even if that’s just going to be a point of polarity against his Marc Spector. Still, more often than not, when you build up a character who does nothing but get stepped on it’s usually a device to then lift them up out of their life and never look back, because there’s nothing worth looking back at. It’s why so much of his performance here feels easy to discount, because it’s informing us on how he reacts to a world that simply is not going to be relevant from here on out. It’s even more frustrating, because if Steven is completely removed from any personal life once he realizes his place in Marc’s system of alters, he becomes an instantly less interesting character. The thing that is compelling about Marc’s DID is how each alter can inhabit their own social world; if Steven just becomes an alternate set of emotions to fight against without any of his own grounding, the whole thing falls flat. That said, Isaac has really strong mannerisms here, the way he wakes up after falling out a fifth storey window and clocks his jaw back into place, or cluelessly orders steak while holding back tears is really endearing. So I’ll stick with this version of the character for a while longer, even if it’s just out of respect for his delivery of ‘nah mate, someone’s having a laugh.’
Ethan Hawke on the other hand, definitely feels like he’s getting the Hugo Weaving/Mads Mikklesen treatment by Marvel. He’s just such a flat villain, which isn’t helped by the fact that he’s practically a complete MCU construction in everything but name. The best moment he has in the whole episode is the Avatar joke, and he’s the straight act in that. Still, at least it shows that if Ethan Hawke’s fed nothing but flat monologues for Oscar Isaac to springboard off of, Isaac willat least get a triple spin out of them.
5. A Scarab everyone cares about but us
“The Goldfish Problem” was a weirdly plot-first outing, given the fact that it was our first introduction to Moon Knight, a character with a notoriously heavy load of character to unpack. That said, plot centered stories can be really strong, Loki achieved it with an immediate hook through intrigue and Wandavision did the same through style. Moon Knight struggles because it doesn’t necessarily have either. There isn’t a great central chemistry to balance the exposition on, or a creative method of delivery, so we’re stuck bearing the brunt of its macguffins and scaffolding until the spark of the show kicks in. The closest Marc has to a sidekick here is the voice of Khonshu in his head, which was a little more shlock-y than I expected, definitely reminded me of Tom Hardy’s Venom more than the dignified voice of an Egyptian God. In fact, for all the marketing’s agonizing about being a better, more knowing exploration of DID than conventional media, it still has most of the same scary mirrors, ghostly voices and cliches we’re used to. None of it feels especially reductive, it’s just a bit uninspired. If the show does want to justify some of that time spent overcooking the plot though, it would be nifty to see episode 2 take all the same events from episode one but show us Marc’s lucid moments instead, let us piece the two together from there. I did like how the human statue scene was written though, a nice inspired way to show that Steven is the epitome of nervous energy.
It looks like Episode 2 is asking us to expect the unexpected, so buckle in for whatever next week brings.