Some time after The Dark Knight came out, the once-novel comparison of various superhero franchises to Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman (“gritty!”, “realistic!”, “brutal!”) became the kind of immediate, shorthand example of a definitive narrative direction. Shortly after, Joss Whedon lent his too-clever-by-half dialogue, full of sly witticisms and fast quips, to the MCU, where his imprint has been imitated and exaggerated ever since. Comparisons to Nolan and Whedon abound these days as examples of two poles of comic book movie style: dark or humorous, grave or a knowing wink. Both styles share an aversion to color, or to taking advantage of the source material in a way that feels true to what’s so great about comic books.
What frustrates someone like me, who loves both comics and movies, any more than it could frustrate anyone with a beating heart and a passable memory of the last fifteen years, is both the seemingly endless cycle of derivative, convoluted, more expensive but less creatively inventive remakes, reboots, and spin-offs, and the hashing out of why these projects are either the sign of a dying culture or the saviors of it.
These conversations become pressing or alternately ridiculous to people depending on their stamina for this kind of discourse, or their awareness of it. Comics are comics. Movies are movies. At a certain point, it all sounds like overdetermined whining — less impassioned critical defense, more distressing time-wasting. What gets lost in the clamor is the simple fact that, as extant narrative forms with a rich and wide-ranging history that encompasses multiple mediums, not to mention their influence on pop culture even before the superhero movie boom, comics demand a degree of creativity and weirdness and depth from their adaptations that they normally never get.
Of the two big houses, DC and Warner Bros have struck out more times than Marvel, but their attempts, flawed and messy, at least have some kind of authorial stamp on them. After 20-something movies, and a handful of TV shows, MCU stans are drowning in a sea of material that’s been deemed good for the sheer amount that exists, how much money it’s made, and what’s on the horizon. Then again, some people only listen to box office numbers and aggregated audience scores. All that is to say, for the resources and talent involved, I can remember exactly one time a Marvel movie showed me a color on screen more vibrant than the pale blue of an afternoon sky or the mature authorial trust in an audience greater than that of, say, Sesame Street. Now that the Nolan-Whedon spectrum has been thoroughly populated on either end, with shades of Zack Snyder and Sam Raimi in between, it’s about time these movies started getting weird.
I got into comics earnestly when I was in middle school and the majority of them, though I didn’t realize it at the time, were published by Marvel. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Inhumans, X-Men, Doctor Strange, Hulk. There is a narrative malleability to comics, with artists and writers on any given series constantly being swapped out like batteries, and the resulting storylines swerving, backpedaling, or outright vanishing in tandem with a given team’s ideas. This made for frustrating reading when I was a kid who just wanted what I liked to stay the same. When a certain writer’s vision or an artist’s style becomes near and dear to you, to say nothing of that special kind of chemistry that occurs when both parties find themselves in lockstep with the character(s) they’re working with, you want it to go on forever. But this changeability is an essential aspect of comics, a way of forming attachment and interest in characters and artists over an arc, a way to gauge how time has treated certain storylines and how certain fads of style and drawing have or haven’t endured. One would think this legacy would prove exciting, even liberating for productions looking to adapt these stories. Not only could a character be played by different people, but different color palettes could be utilized, different directors and writers could come in and put their own distinctive stamp on the same storyline, not as reimaginings or reboots, but as connected, linked installments. The closest we’ve ever come to this is by accident: Joel Schumacher’s two campy Batman movies, with Val Kilmer and George Clooney as Batman, FX’s underrated show Legion, and the animated Into the Spider-Verse, which rekindled one of my least favorite conversations: that all comic book adaptations should be animated because they are, essentially, for children.
Anyway, when I was in high school, I was browsing my local comic book store and picked up two non-consecutive volumes of Moon Knight, one written by Charles Huston from his run in 2006 and another written by Warren Ellis from 2013. Moon Knight is a strange character, which, if you read comics even a little bit, is really saying something. Marc Spector: rabbi’s son, boxer, soldier, mercenary, corpse, in that order, until he’s resurrected as an avatar and priest of vengeance by an interdimensional being that used to be worshiped in ancient Egypt as Khonshu, god of the moon. He wears a white costume, flies in a ship called the Moon Copter that’s shaped like a crescent, and gets resurrected by Khonshu a seemingly unlimited number of times. Over the years, Spector has been (un)favorably compared to Batman for several admittedly striking similarities in their backstories: both well-trained, non-powered wealthy white men hiding out in techy underground lairs saddled with a variety of emotional and mental problems who don caped costumes and assume nocturnal alter egos to violently fight crime in the name of justice. At one point during writer Charles Huston’s run, a villain named Profile says of Moon Knight, “If by hero, you mean a borderline sadist whose entire sense of self-worth is bound up in his ability to inflict pain, kill, and generally &*%$ everything up? Then yeah, he was a hero.” Besides the killing (though it does happen), he could be describing the Caped Crusader too. But the similarities end there. For one, there’s the Egyptian god of it all, plus the fact that Spector has multiple personalities that take turns dominating his psyche. And then there’s the fact that Spector is a killer who is riddled with religious doubt.
I stayed with Moon Knight partly because his exaggerated struggle to believe in the motivations of a mysterious, temperamental, often terrifying god was relatable to me. Spector’s Jewish background is integral to his story and something that often gets lampooned or left by the wayside when he’s brought up. Childhood abuse and paternal spite drive Spector to abandon the faith of his forefathers until, many years later, he succumbs to the psychic advances of Khonshu, who’s had his eye on Spector since he was a kid, and chooses to become his champion on earth. Heady and sometimes upsetting material that I ate up for a couple years then fell off before coming back when all-star writer/artist Jeff Lemire did a run that called into question the very concept of Moon Knight’s sanity, which was already shaky to begin with.
This week, a trailer for the upcoming Moon Knight series starring Oscar Isaac caught some attention, mostly for Isaac’s bewildering British accent (hopefully a choice illustrating one of Spector’s multiple personalities), but also for its nightmarish, chaotic imagery. All good for the most part, as good as any trailer making huge promises can be. I love Moon Knight, I love Oscar Isaac. Plus, the MCU has been dull for a long time. For a while now, a question on the minds of nerds everywhere has been when Marvel would begin to play with their more unwieldy characters, Moon Knight being the kookiest they’ve chosen so far. But, this long into the timeline, franchise fatigue notwithstanding, an accidental convergence of corporate minds has occurred. Moon Knight comes out the same month as Robert Pattinson’s The Batman. I’ve already told you about these two and their shared similarities. Would you believe both adaptations feature almost identical specific shots of their protagonists beating the shit out of someone on the ground while the camera slowly pushes in to emphasize the excessive brutality being meted out in the name of justice? A minor detail, surely, speculated without further information. But these are two guys who have, at different points, killed many of their allies and cut the face off their arch nemesis.
Marc Spector is a murderer who worships at the feet of a god who consistently torments and rewards him in service of a nebulous mission of justice and revenge, all without superpowers and no shortage of carnage. If we were at the beginning of the MCU, I’d say this bodes well. It’s the same feeling I got when the trailer for Doctor Strange came out. Now, they’ve even got Mahershala Ali playing Blade! But what we’ve witnessed so far from Disney, even as they’ve extended their designs beyond cinema into limited form prestige television with fair writing rooms, is a dearth of narrative risk-taking. Moon Knight might be the one that finally breaks my last vestiges of faith. Because if Oscar Isaac doesn’t go absolutely crazy as Marc Spector, tormented by demons personal and literal, until he’s transmogrified into a vibrating mess of violence, fear, and religious fervor, what’s the point of doing Moon Knight, and by extension other zany, fucked up, abrasive characters, at all?
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.