5 years ago, one Marvel series had a better unreliable narrator than Moon Knight
"Legion," adapted by Noah Hawley for FX, did misleading protagonists first in 2017 (and did it better).
Moon Knight has, as of Episode 4, joined Scarlet Witch as the notorious bamboozlers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The key difference between Wanda Maximoff and the blubbering Steven Grant/macho Marc Spector combo is that while Scarlet Witch purposefully trapped herself and others in her delusions, Moon Knight appears to have no control over his Dissociative Identity Disorder or his Egyptian god avatar duties, which plague his mind with split memories and, as viewers just learned, vibrant hallucinations and unreliable plot points.
Or so we’ve been led to believe.
The creatives talent behind Moon Knight has also lent a hand in confusing its Disney+ viewership. Instead of grounding its protagonist (Oscar Isaac) with a tangible backstory, Moon Knight plopped fans smack-dab in the middle of a plot with no foundation. Other than being set, somewhere and somehow, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Moon Knight has rooted itself solely on the flimsy, misleading tales of a very confused Brit.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE TIME-TRAVEL MOVIE? Click here to help us rank all the ones on Netflix.
It can be difficult to get unreliable storytelling right, especially in the convoluted and zany world of Marvel in which superpowers and gods and monsters and aliens and magic all co-exist. This conundrum is compounded by a protagonist with a mental health problem that makes his mind a poor source of fact.
But Noah Hawley was able to strike the balance between surrealism and mundanity in 2017 with his adaptation of Marvel’s Legion for FX, leading viewers into the wild wonderland of Omega-level mutant David Haller’s (Dan Stevens) omnipotent mind. Here’s how.
Unreliable, right off the bat
From the very first episode of FX’s Legion, we’re given a taste of our neurodivergent protagonist’s state of mind, which isn’t “unhinged” so much as it is cluttered by untapped potential and a slew of brainy powers involving the manipulation of time, space, and other people.
It was imperative that Hawley start us off with something real to grasp — the fact that David wasn’t a trustworthy source — before diving off the deep end. This is achieved in the first minutes of the pilot with the simple cinematic tool of a flashback montage following David from infancy to present day in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
Viewers are eased into something knowable and realistic — a young man, scared, struggling with his mental health — before getting roped into the bizarre, genre-bending rollercoaster that is Legion. We see David as a happy bouncy baby but soon see him freaking out in crowds, hearing eerie whispers, getting into fights, and drowning himself in narcotics and alcohol.
Providing these “touchstone” moments throughout the series was critical as viewers attempted to piece together the past while also making sense of what was actually going on in the present. More importantly, viewers had characters they could rely on, even when David’s recollections steered them wrong.
David Haller’s legion of truth-keepers
David was an unreliable narrator, and Hawley spent no time obfuscating that. Luckily, audiences were privy to some core backstory and components of his life that were true, and also knew that some of his memories were certifiably tainted by the influence of the Shadow King, the parasitic mutant embedded in David’s brain.
Viewers could tell what to believe and what to be skeptical of partly by the use of characters who were either part of David’s past, like his sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), or characters invested in unraveling the mysteries of David’s past, such as his girlfriend, Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller). Often we were shown David’s perspective, and then we were given reality.
For example, even when the Shadow King twist hadn’t been revealed yet, Amy was able to reveal that King, the beagle seen in David’s happy childhood memories, never existed. She also eventually divulges that David is adopted, an integral component of his character in both the comics and the TV show, as he’s the son of Charles Xavier. Once watchers were able to trace David’s parentage to Professor X his seemingly limitless powers made far more sense, as did the kernels of truth in his “delusions” and in the “voices” that populated his head.
Marc Spector/Steven Grant— as of Episodes 4 of Moon Knight —has no “truth keeper.” He cannot rely on a single friend or relative to pin down his story and keep facts straight. He can’t even rely on his wife, Layla (May El Calamawy), who supposedly had no idea about his Dissociative Identity Disorder throughout their marriage. And he certainly can’t count on Khonsu, who seems far too keen on exploiting Marc/Steven’s spiraling mental state to get his bidding done.
Then again, is Layla even real? Or Khonsu? The “Oh! This was all just the vivid delusion of a doped-up man obsessed with Tomb Busters!” twist at the end of Episode 4 only revealed that providing zero backstory for Moon Knight’s protagonist does a disservice to viewers who’d like to sleuth for the “real” parts of the plot, only to find they have no certifiable clues to build their cases.
Worse, it means the show must somehow shed light on four straight hallucinatory (maybe?) episodes in the two remaining instalments of Moon Knight’s inaugural, and possibly only, season. That’s a lot of material and world-building to unpack in so little runtime. Hopefully viewers are given something more substantial to chew on in the remainder of the season.
Tantalizing visuals to match the delusions
One of the best ways in which Hawley ensured that viewers understood how to separate fact from fiction when watching Legion— or to separate what was going on in the realm of David’s mind versus the physical space he inhabits — was incorporating the usage of color, light, sound, and costuming to elevate the surrealism of a scene.
Combining ‘70s aesthetics with some Alice in Wonderland absurdity made for a delicious, sensuous watch. Even the creepiest scenes had some visual beauty to them, and it helped that, in more confusing memory sequences that were staged and lit “normally,” some bizarre monster would run in to signal that the recollection had been poisoned by the Shadow King and couldn’t be 100% trusted.
Moon Knight could have gone the Loki or WandaVision route and broken free from the constraints of the dreary color palette of nearly all MCU projects thus far: CGI-friendly dark hues that have you squinting at the screen for the majority of the time, save for when our heroes’ powers/alien tech/etc. are emitting beams of light.
However, Moon Knight chose to slog through a dreary sepia-scale, making the phantasmagoric mediocre. Save for one scene where Steven lands on green grass in Latveria, the colors we mostly see are the entirety of the yellow gradient, brown and black, and the white of Moon Knight’s costumes and Khonsu’s getup.
“Surrealism” came through the apparitions of Khonsu, those pesky Jackals that kept attacking Steven, and the appearance of mummified monsters, but even those scenes consisted of a supernatural figure being plopped in an otherwise drab reality. Other than the premise of being an avatar to a disgraced Egyptian god, there haven’t been any particularly dreamy sights — or any evidence that we were being tricked into witnessing Marc/Steven’s hallucinations.
Narrative tangibility will become even more crucial if Moon Knight’s third persona, Jake Lockley, is introduced. Audiences have been kept in the metaphorical sarcophagus, completely in the dark over who this show’s protagonist is and whether he’s worth rooting for.
If Moon Knight is renewed for a second season and Marc/Steven does turn out to be an unreliable narrator, we hope Marvels take a page from their past projects, including Legion, and take more creative risks with their cinematography, while also grounding Marc/Steven’s storyline with a bona fide flashback scene or two.
Moon Knight’s penultimate episode lands on Disney Plus on Wednesday, April 27.