Identity Politics

7 years ago, M. Night Shyamalan made a better version of Moon Knight

Oscar Isaac's two Moon Knight personas don’t hold a candle to James McAvoy’s 23 distinctive personalities.

Moon Knight is far from the first TV show to tackle mental health. However, it appears the team behind the show didn’t get that memo. Moon Knight has done a dubious job of handling a complex character with dissociative identity disorder, forgetting to study its predecessors like Noah Hawley’s fabulously trippy-dippy Marvel show, Legion, or M. Night Shyamalan’s Split starring James McAvoy in an ambitious role portraying 23 different identities.

Here’s what Split got right, and what Moon Knight could have learned from the psychological horror film.

Dissociative Identity Disorder is acknowledged

Right off the bat, something that Split does better than Moon Knight is that it acknowledges the existence of dissociative identity disorder (DID). McAvoy’s Kevin Crumb Wendell, the “original” personality before significant trauma caused his identity to fracture and split, seeks out therapy and treatment for his condition from the kind and compassionate Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who cares for her patients and devotes her life to defending the misunderstood condition in an effort to tamper stigma and demonization.

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These therapeutic efforts are thwarted once The Beast — the most horrifying and uncontrollable persona living within Kevin — emerges. The movie doesn’t exactly portray dissociative identity disorder in a positive light, but it at least notes that the rare psychiatric disorder does, in fact, exist.

Instead of giving the diagnosis a name or showing Steven going to therapy, Moon Knight has a couple of one-off lines about Steven and Marc being “unwell” and “in chaos.” Rather than discussing the realistic nature of the condition, the Marvel series seems to imply that Khonsu’s exploitation of Marc is what sparked the introduction of Steven. In the four episodes of Moon Knight given to critics for review, DID isn’t mentioned.

McAvoy didn’t require mirror gimmicks

While not exactly a positive portrayal of DID, Split at least acknowledges the illness. Universal Pictures

In Moon Knight, viewers have to watch Marc Spector and Steven Grant differentiate themselves primarily through reflective surfaces— there isn’t a mirror, puddle, or shiny car that hasn’t been spared from an internalized beef. The gimmick is effective in the first episode to familiarize viewers with the unique dichotomy Marc and Steven share, but by the fourth episode, these gimmicks grow tired.

Is there a better alternative? Split and Glass prove, that, yes, you can in fact let the audience figure out who is who even if those separate personalities are being embodied by the same actor. McAvoy’s strengths as an actor come across as he makes subtle shifts in physical gestures and accents between Kevin’s “good” identities and his “evil” identities. While The Beast may rely on some special effects and stunts to portray its animalistic traits, McAvoy relies mostly on skill to portray snooty older ladies, nine-year-olds obsessed with Kanye West, and obnoxious intellectuals.

We hope that whatever the future of Moon Knight is, whether that’s an inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or just a continuation of the Marvel Studios TV show on Disney+, producers can figure out a way to put Oscar Isaac’s talents to better use and give him more room to play with the manifestations of Marc and Steven.

Steven Grant and Marc Spector don’t inspire emotion

Oscar Isaac can only look at so many mirrors, people.Marvel Studios

Whether it’s the way they’re written or the way they’re acted, neither bumbling Brit Steven Grant nor macho American Marc Spector are particularly fearsome, pitiful, or loveable.

In fact, Steven’s submissive, sitcom neighbor demeanor and his constant state of wide-eyed wonder and confusion while stumbling in and out of museum exhibits and archaeological sites doesn’t inspire much at all. Meanwhile, Marc’s brazen bravado and arrogance make him deeply unlikeable, no matter how cool he looks fighting in the Moon Knight suit. It makes it difficult for viewers to feel much for this lukewarm Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pair, as their personalities and thin backstories don’t invoke enough emotions to root for either persona.

It’s hard to get invested in a blank canvas. Marvel Studios

In Glass, The Horde’s surviving victim from Split rushes to see her captor after they’re taken into a psych ward. She’s moved to tears and clasps their hand, watching McAvoy’s character switch from identity to identity. While she fears the manipulative persona of Patricia, the perverse Dennis and the cannibalistic tendencies of The Beast, she — and the audience — can’t help but love nine-year-old mischief-maker Hedwig, Barry the extroverted fashionista, or the original identity of Kevin Crumb Wendell.

Kevin’s history of abuse, which triggered his dissociative identity disorder, makes him and some of his less nefarious personalities empathic. Your heart can’t help but hurt at Kevin’s struggle to remain good while so much evil can leap out of him without warning. When Steven and Marc swap places in Moon Knight, the internal struggle of retaining one set of morals, tastes, and experiences doesn’t quite translate on-screen in the same way, leaving his journey feeling hollow.

Moon Knight is now streaming on Disney+. Split is available to rent on select digital platforms.

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