Patrick Freyne: How the hell did Frank Spencer become Marvel’s latest superhero?

In Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac talks like the bumbling twit in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em

‘Ooh, Betty! I’ve  done a whoopsie in my costume.’ Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight

‘Ooh, Betty! I’ve done a whoopsie in my costume.’ Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight

 

Marvel’s slow takeover of all genres is nearly complete. It has made espionage dramas (Captain America: Winter Soldier), sitcoms (WandaVision), horror films (Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), Scandi drama (Thor: Ragnarok), choose-your-own-adventure stories (also Dr Strange), foreign language drama (Captain Marvel – some characters speak Skrull) and teen dramas (the various Spider-Men). Soon they’ll do the news – picture Kirsty Wark wearing a domino mask while discussing the British trade deal with Asgard (a potential post-Brexit win, in fairness).

And we’ll no doubt be putting pictures of that webbed, hyphenated menace Spider-Man on the cover of The Irish Times to accompany our op-eds railing against his anarchic shenanigans.

There’s no end to the genres and forms you can co-opt if you’re Marvel. Moon Knight is the sixth Marvel miniseries created for Disney+ (all episodes now on the platform). It takes a new approach again. It asks the question: What if Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em was a superhero?

Much of the early action is set in a version of the British Museum, another rapacious institution that plundered the world’s artistic treasures in the name of cultural hegemony

“Ooh, Betty!” cries the tenuously employed klutz, before transforming into a caped CGI muscleman, who weightlessly fights demons and damages property (which is still very Frank Spencer, in fairness).

Sometimes when big actors take on superhero roles, you don’t see them embody a character so much as you see them thinking about the new house, ranch or hovercar they’re planning to buy with the money.

If you were to ask Chris Pratt about the dramatic arc of Star-Lord, for example, he’d probably just show you “before” and “after” pictures of his bank statements and a photograph of himself on a yacht cuddling a panda in a bejewelled onesie.

Plonking powers

That said, the star of Moon Knight is Oscar Isaac, my wife’s other husband, and he is far too good to just phone it in. Isaac really commits to the role of Steven Grant/Frank Spencer, a bumbling gift shop employee with a high-pitched estuary English accent, slumped shoulders and a hangdog expression. He’s not wearing a beret and a trenchcoat but these are implied.

He even uses the word “plonker” – and not while referring to some old B-list Marvel villain called The Plonker who has plonking powers, but in the British vernacular sense of the word, the sense in which Del Boy uses it on Rodney.

Much of the early action is set in a version of the British Museum, another rapacious institution that plundered the world’s artistic treasures in the name of cultural hegemony. Steven works there and is generally disrespected and patronised by his colleagues. However, from time to time he wakes up in a different country surrounded by dead terrorists, which is jarring for him if fun for us.

Television has done well in recent years depicting the complexities of mental illness on shows like Russian Doll, Euphoria and This Way Up. Marvel’s Moon Knight says, “Hold my beer!” and joins the fray to explore, in particular, dissociative identity disorder. Now, I haven’t looked this up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but if Marvel has done its research right, the symptoms include “slapstick”, “hilarious results” and “superpowers”.

Steven Grant is, unbeknownst to himself, an American mercenary called Marc Spector (it even sort of rhymes with Frank Spencer), who is also Moon Knight, the avenging avatar of a skeletal, bird-headed moon deity called Khonsu. The last bit isn’t a product of his mental health problems. That bit is real. So you can see how getting proper psychological support for Steven might be difficult.

Broken glass

We also meet Ethan Hawke, a villainous weirdo with broken glass in his shoes and a posse of cult-like followers who loved him in Before Sunrise. He works for a totally different Egyptian god who has a crocodile head like a Richard Scarry bus driver. The Egyptian gods are all CGI hams with American or British accents.

This might grate a little if you think of Egypt as an independent country with its own culture (see also: the British Museum). And then there’s Layla the no-nonsense super-competent wife of one of the Oscar Isaacs.

She’s played by the excellent May Calamawy but she’s sidelined somewhat by the chemistry Oscar Isaac has with Oscar Isaac. There’s a lot of Isaac-on-Isaac action in this show.

I’ve felt more danger watching stop-motion Godzilla battling Mothra or Vincent Browne savaging a government minister or Miss Piggy hitting Kermit

We all love Isaac, goddamn his wonkily handsome face. The problem here, as with many Marvel properties, is that the show’s quirky idiosyncrasies drift into something overfamiliar and formulaic as the story accumulates.

So we get a dull penultimate episode that stalls all forward momentum for a hallucinatory, cod-psychoanalytical look at Steven/Marc’s tragic past. Everyone should go to therapy, but Hollywood scriptwriters have been therapised for so long they think origin stories are much more interesting than they actually are. This episode should have really been a couple of scenes.

And then there’s the finale in which, as always, all human endeavour is reduced to a disappointing superhero battle with no stakes. Why disappointing? Because the superpowers are boring. Moon Knight, despite his status as the avatar of a deity, is just strong and stabby. I’ve met people who are strong and stabby who had no need of such highfalutin origins and frankly my materialist view of the universe respects that more.

Sense of jeopardy

Why no stakes? Because the creators never really define the aforementioned superpowers in a way that makes the physics feel real. So how strong and stabby Moon Knight is is unclear and we get no real sense of jeopardy as he smashes through concrete and is hit by moving vehicles.

As for the weightless CGI giants who rampage around Cairo as the story progresses, they just make me feel like I’m watching someone else play a video game. I’ve felt more danger watching stop-motion Godzilla battling Mothra or Vincent Browne savaging a government minister or Miss Piggy hitting Kermit. Maybe they should ditch the computers and do it with hand puppets.

The other problem is this weird miniseries format that Marvel is pioneering. Six episodes is both far too long and far too short for stories like this. It doesn’t have the impact of a film, but nor does it have the lived-in feeling of good serialised TV. You could compress this story into a high-octane two hours or you could, alternatively, insert some fun monster-of-the-week adventures and allow the bigger tale to breathe over a longer episode run. Moon Knight could even have a dog or a hobby.

But I suppose you’d never be able to get a star like Oscar Isaac to commit to a longer series. And he is very good. He has loads of enjoyable conversations with himself in two different accents and with slightly different hairstyles. Though I’m sure you’re still thinking: “You know what, I could do with even more Oscar Isaacs.”

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that a post-credits sequence suggests that there might be a third Moon Knight personality with a totally different accent, thus setting us up for what will surely be called Moon Knight 2: 2 Many Moon Knights – an all-Oscar Isaac production with Isaacs as far as the eye can see and Isaacs all the way down. At which point my wife will probably leave me and marry the boxset.

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