I was hoping to have some expert Egyptological input before writing this, but I can’t wait too long or I will have forgotten what I saw, so here goes with the weird guy in mummy bandages.
Moon Knight is an attempt by Marvel to colonize Egyptian mythology in addition to Norse and Greek. However, rather than have gods as main characters, they have opted for something more complex. Kudos to Doug Moench who came up with the original comic character, I guess.
The first thing know about Moon Knight is that he is more than one person. The superhero is Marc Spector, an American mercenary soldier. But Marc shares a body with Steven Grant, a mild-mannered museum worker and ancient history geek from London. These appear to be multiple personalities rather than separate souls in one body, and the show hints at a third personality. I’m not going to get into spoiler territory by discussing this, but it is very weird.
The other thing about Moon Knight is that he is an avatar of the god, Khonsu (or Khonshu as it is spelled in the comics.) Given thousands of years of history, there’s not a lot of consistency in Egyptian religion. He is definitely a moon god, but his role in disciplining sinners is less well attested and seems to have come mainly from the Pyramid Texts. He does have a falcon head though. Yes, just like Horus. Egyptian religion is confusing.
The basic plot is that of a war between Khonsu and the crocodile-headed Ammit. She is most definitely a nasty piece of work. She is the demon to whom souls were fed if they failed the judgement of the dead when their heart was weighed against the feather of Maat. The story is that Ammit has decided that almost all humans are guilty and should be killed immediately. Khonsu wants us to still have a chance to be judged.
This war takes place in our world as a conflict between Moon Knight and the avatar of Ammit, a cult leader known as Arthur Harrow (superbly played by Ethan Hawke). Except that Steven Grant keeps taking over the body from Marc Spector at inopportune moments.
I’m assuming that Oscar Isaac was attracted to the role by the opportunity to play two very different characters. Mostly he does a fine job, but his attempts at London slang are embarrassing. No one in London says “laters gators”, even in a joking comment to a crocodile goddess. Isaac has apparently said he got help from British members of the film crew. I think they were winding him up.
Inexplicably, the show also mixes up its London geography. Steven’s place of work is pretty obviously the British Museum. Nowhere else would have that sort of collection of ancient artefacts. But the exterior shots are all of the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar Square, which contains only paintings in the like. In one scene Steven’s boss has a National Gallery logo on his sweater. I guess the museum also has multiple personalities.
Much to my relief, the show does much better with the episodes set in Egypt. It doubtless helps a lot that four of the eight episodes were direct by Mohamed Diab, who is Egyptian. Earlier this month I attended an Assyriology conference in Helsinki and got to meet a young Arab scholar who had grown up in Egypt, though she now lives in France. She assured me that the show had gone down very well in Egypt.
It probably helped a lot that the show was actually shot in Cairo, not in a studio lot in Atlanta, or a town in Queensland pretending to be Cairo. Diab also got a lot of Egyptian and Arab music used in the show. Apparently this included some controversial Egyptian rap music. More on that here.
Finally we have the female lead on the show. Marc’s Egyptian wife is played by May Calamawy who was born in Bahrain of Egyptian and Palestinian parents. Towards the end of the season she gets to become the avatar of the hippo goddess, Taweret, as the superhero, Scarlet Scarab.
As is so often the case with the MCU, this is a choice with deep comics history, as this article explains. The original Scarlet Scarab appeared in Roy Thomas’s Invaders comic in 1977. This series revived characters from WWII. The Scarlet Scarab fights Nazis alongside Prince Namor and the original Human Torch.
Layla El-Faouly in Moon Knight is the third member of the family to inhabit the Scarab costume. The connection to Taweret is new, however. The scene in which she takes part in a fight in a Cairo street and a bystander asks if she is an Egyptian superhero is genius, and I was pleased to be told that it meant as much to people in Egypt as I had hoped.
Wonderful though Layla is in her Scarlet Scarab costume, the star of the series is undoubtedly Antonia Salib as the hippo-headed Taweret. In mythology Taweret is mainly a goddess of fertility and a protector of women in childbirth, but the Book of the Dead also mentions that she guards the path to the mountains of the west that leads to the underworld. It is this role that she plays in Moon Knight. It is hard not to be memorable when you are a giant, hippo-headed god, but Taweret is also a fabulous character and I will watch future Moon Knight series just for her.