‘Moon Knight’ Takes the Secret Identity Trope to its Extreme

And it makes us uncomfortable, as all good and bad Moon Knight stories tend to do.
Moon Knight Episode Explained

Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry explores Moon Knight Episode  1 (“The Goldfish Problem”) and considers the many minds inhabiting The Body. Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.

For decades, secret identities have plagued superhero stories. When talking about Superman, we always have to ask how a pair of glasses can fool those around Clark Kent? With Batman stories, we obsessively ponder who is the dominant persona, the Bat or the Man? Cinematically, these questions have grown tiresome. And in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers have mostly avoided the subject.

When Tony Stark declared “I am Iron Man” during his first solo outing, Marvel Studios pretty much ditched the double life rigamarole. There would be no Donald Blake for Thor. Steve Rogers and Captain America were synonymous. Even T’Challa unmasked before the world in Captain America: Civil War. Producer Kevin Feige said no to the superhero guessing game, and it’s been a tremendous relief.

However, with Moon Knight, Marvel’s latest franchise expansion, the secret selves inside our bodies are thematically critical. In Episode 1, we meet Oscar Isaac as Steven Grant. He’s a painfully meek clerk working at the London Natural History Museum. He’s a geek for Egyptian history, pestering guests and co-workers with an endless trivia stream. Grant wants to connect with others, but they don’t want to connect with him.

Grant’s sheepish personality is not his main issue. He’s also a sleepwalker, and apparently, his semi-conscious strolls can deposit him in some precarious locations. To fend off danger, he chains his ankle to his bed each night, and he deprives himself of as much sleep as possible so that these periods will remain as short as possible. These precautions, unfortunately, are for naught.

When Grant awakens in a grassy field with a dislocated jaw, an invisible presence barks at him, “Go back to sleep, Worm. You’re not supposed to be here.” Eventually, Episode 1 anxiously unwinds, and Khonshu reveals himself as a tall spindly CGI creation voiced by F. Murray Abraham. We mostly take this moon god at face value; our years spent superhero obsessing have taught us to believe in the impossible. But we cannot take this deity at his word, for it might not actually belong to him.

Also, Grant is not the only character inhabiting his body, or as it’s callously designated by the moon creature, “The Body.” Along with Khonshu, there is Marc Spector, the American Mercenary who gifted Grant with the busted jaw. The two can communicate and argue with each other when looking in a mirror or any reflective surface. Neither wants the other in charge, and Moon Knight Episode 1 spends its runtime wobbling between the two while never leaving Grant’s perspective on the matter.

We’ve seen these stories before, scripts that are light on the science, heavy on the theatricality. Moon Knight‘s head writer, Jeremy Slater, seems unwilling to allow dissociative identity disorder, or DID, to become a cheap, insensitive narrative tool. While the condition is certainly overdramatized, it’s not a device deployed mockingly or mystically, despite the mysticism floating throughout the plot.

As Isaac told Variety recently, his protagonist is suffering catastrophically. While preparing for the role, the actor threw himself into Robert B. Oxnam‘s memoir, A Fractured Mind. The book became his “bible,” as it details Oxnam’s slow realization that his blackout periods were actually the result of DID. Oxnam uncovered eleven unique personalities within his body, and he traced their creation to a prolonged period of past abuse.

Moon Knight‘s success as a series will rely on how well it respects and understands its protagonist’s pain. Such empathy is where the comic book iteration has frequently fumbled. When the character was first introduced in Werewolf by Night #32, he did not have DID or multiple personality disorder as it was previously labeled. Even when he branched off into his first solo series, Steven Grant and Jake Lockley – the cabbie persona – were merely identities Marc Spector would use, depending on the situation.

These multiple secret identities did not become “split personalities” until 1985’s Moon Knight: The Fist of Khonshu. Marc’s condition in the mini-series was mostly used to imply danger. The bad guys better tremble; this hero is psychotically unhinged. Read with a modern eye, The Fist of Khonshu is awkward at best.

For whatever reason, though, the DID stuck. In time, the separate personalities became tools too. As writer Brian Michael Bendis illustrated in his Ultimate SpiderMan run and Moon Knight ongoing, Marc Spector could unleash Jake Lockley for one task and Steven Grant for another. Bendis would even go as far as to manifest Spider-Man and Captain America as Moon Knight personalities as well. But don’t expect to hear Peter Parker speak from Oscar Isaac’s mouth anytime soon.

For now, Moon Knight recoils from the greater MCU. Juggling Grant and Spector and maybe a few more folks within the Body is a difficult enough task. If the series were to suddenly introduce a Hulk persona or even pull in a character like Blade, it would subtract crucial screentime from its perilous perspectives.

The DID should never be a gag. Not if they want our compassion for the Body. Nor should the war between Grant and Spector remain. The hope is that the Moon Knight Disney+ series will fall in line with how Marvel Comics handles the character(s) in their current comic series.

Writer Jed MacKay and artist Alessandro Cappuccio‘s Moon Knight reveals a functioning superhero struggling with his condition but not paralyzed by it. Their Moon Knight runs the Midnight Mission, a charitable sanctuary for the city’s less fortunate. He battles vampires and mind-controlled senior citizens while Khonshu’s other acolytes judge how he serves their master. Considering Spector is somewhat responsible for throwing the moon god into an Asgardian prison, Khonshu’s people have a solid claim on their grudge.

The comic book Moon Knight makes it work, and that’s the status the MCU Moon Knight must achieve. The Body cannot defeat or cure itself of Grant or Spector. Since they exist, the Body can only provide space for them. Hope resides in their cooperation, and without it, the Body will never fill out the inevitable Avengers application.

Moon Knight Episode 1 is now streaming on Disney+.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)