This discussion and review contains some spoilers for Moon Knight episode 3, “The Friendly Type,” on Disney+.
At the risk of stating the obvious and objectifying one of the finest actors of his generation: Oscar Isaac is sexy.
Isaac is an actor who tends to share an easy chemistry with his costars. Isaac’s scenes with John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens sparked, lighting a fire that launched an aggressive fandom ship of Poe (Isaac) and Finn (Boyega). Isaac approves of the pairing, calling out Disney’s cowardice in refusing to let the flame burn. Isaac played husband to Jessica Chastain twice, in A Most Violent Year and Scenes from a Marriage, and the two even shared a chemistry on the red carpet.
So, on paper, “The Friendly Type” should be a slam dunk. One of the more compelling aspects of Moon Knight, particularly in the context of its global production in the midst of a pandemic, is its relatively tight cast. Allowing for F. Murray Abraham’s voiceover work as Khonsu, the show essentially has three leads: Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, and May Calamawy. Even with Isaac playing multiple iterations of his character, that’s a fairly intimate ensemble.
“The Goldfish Problem” and “Summon the Suit” largely took place in London, albeit with Budapest standing in. Building off the ending to “Summon the Suit,” “The Friendly Type” takes its cast on a truly globe-trotting adventure. Steven Grant (Isaac) and Marc Spector (Isaac) find themselves in Cairo with Layla El-Faouly (Calamawy), hoping to stop Arthur Harrow (Hawke) from discovering the secret tomb that houses the exiled goddess Ammit.
This setup deliberately evokes Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, a loving tribute to the old adventure serials of the 1930s. This had been the plan from the early pitch phase. “I came and wanted to go with Raiders of the Lost Ark,” said head writer Jeremy Slater on the red carpet for the show’s premiere. Calamawy described the show as “Fight Club meets Indiana Jones.” Director Mohamed Diab boasted that “for all of us, it felt like Indiana Jones is definitely an inspiration for sure.”
To be clear, this is often how these sorts of intellectual property concepts are packaged and sold these days. After all, The Book of Boba Fett is not really like The Godfather, no matter what Ming-Na Wen says. Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t really that much like Three Days of the Condor, even if Joe and Anthony Russo argue that it is. Still, it’s clear that Moon Knight has taken several cues and lifted several plot points from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it wants to evoke the feel of that movie.
These references are obvious in “The Friendly Type.” There are rather overt shoutouts, such as the sequences of digging in the desert that recall iconic shots from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are aspects more woven into the production design, such as the use of Egyptian temples. However, the most obvious parallel exists in the character dynamics. “The Friendly Type” is the story of a rogue adventurer attempting to reconnect with his estranged lover, the two rediscovering themselves.
“The Friendly Type” feels very much like filler in terms of plot. Narratively, not much happens. If the Marvel streaming shows really are just over-extended movies cut into arbitrary weekly releases, it seems like a lot of “The Friendly Type” would end up on the cutting room floor. Steven/Marc and Layla are essentially on a treasure hunt, and that leads them to a largely episodic encounter with Anton Mogart (Gaspard Ulliel), who is the villain Midnight Man from the comics.
The emphasis on the relationship between Steven/Marc and Layla recalls the beating heart of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the dynamic between explorer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Like Jones abandoned Ravenwood, Marc abandoned Layla. Much like Ravenwood finds herself drawn back into Jones’ life by necessity, Layla finds herself reunited with Marc in pursuit of an invaluable religious artifact.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, audiences flocked to the cinema to see beautiful women swept off their feet by clumsy (and untrustworthy) adventurers: Kathleen Turner by Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile, Sharon Stone by Richard Chamberlain in King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, even Rachel Ward by Jeff Bridges in Against All Odds or Rachel Weisz by Brendan Fraser in The Mummy.
However, what made these movies particularly interesting was the sexual and romantic charge between the two leads, the sense of danger and exoticism underpinning these adventures. In many ways, Oscar Isaac should be perfect casting for this sort of adventure. He was the heir apparent to Harrison Ford in the Star Wars sequels. He is capable of striking the delicate balance that such a role requires: charming, funny, witty, prone to improvisation, but also somewhat unreliable.
The setup in Moon Knight should lend itself to this sort of romantic adventure. The central conceit of the series, with the title character effectively being his own worst enemy, allows for a delightfully dysfunctional romantic triangle where two of the sides are Oscar Isaac, as Layla finds herself caught between her untrustworthy-but-capable ex-husband Marc Spector and the dimwitted-but-innocent Steven Grant in the same body. That is one hell of a hook for a globe-trotting adventure romance.
It’s a shame Moon Knight is so lifeless. Like much of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Moon Knight is largely sexless. It is full of beautiful people who share little to no chemistry. It has a similar problem faced by Disney’s other recent attempt to revive the sexy globe-trotting adventure romance, Jungle Cruise, which ran aground against both the intangibility of its green-screen setting and the implausibility of Dwayne Johnson’s star persona as a sexual or even romantic lead.
To be fair, there are understandable reasons why modern blockbuster productions tend to be so sexless. The #MeToo movement forced a long-overdue reckoning with sexual abuse in Hollywood, including abuse on sets filming sex scenes. Many actors, particularly female actors, have talked about how they felt violated or abused during the filming of such scenes. It is understandable that modern Hollywood has taken a step back from onscreen intimacy.
However, it is possible to over-correct. To remove sex and romance is to remove humanity. Intimacy coordinators work to ensure safe and healthy environments where actors feel safe. There has been a recent concerted effort to reclaim the long-lost erotic thriller genre. Last week, Karina Longworth launched a new season of You Must Remember This looking at the genre’s history, and Vulture offered a week-long celebration of the genre’s legacy vowing to “Make Hollywood Horny Again.”
To be fair, not all superhero movies are sexless. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns remains a horny Christmas classic. Even recently, with its emphasis on voyeurism and masculinity, The Batman simmered with repression. Sony’s Marvel movies are boldly queer, with Venom: Let There Be Carnage playing as a romantic comedy while the most coherent way to read Morbius is as “an AIDS revenge story” about two deeply closeted men. The MCU’s insistent sexlessness is an oddity.
Then again, this is ultimately proof that everything bends to the house style. If Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings could not capture the spirit of the Hong Kong cinema it evoked, then Moon Knight was never going to be allowed to stray too far from the template. Even beyond the complete lack of romantic tension or chemistry, this is evident in the way that Moon Knight deals with mysticism. After all, this is a story of gods and mythology. Why does it feel so pedestrian?
For a story about a character who serves as the avatar of an ancient Egyptian deity, it is frustrating how much of Moon Knight draws from the iconography of Iron Man. Like Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Marc and Steven can manifest their costumes from seemingly thin air, dressing themselves in suits of armor. At the climax of “The Friendly Type,” Khonsu allows the hero to turn back the night sky, an incredibly magical gift, but the episode plays it like Tony Stark cycling through his head’s-up display.
Even the more explicitly mystical elements of “The Friendly Type” are couched in familiar iconography. When Steven is brought before the other mystical avatars, it recalls the summoning to the Time-Keepers’ chamber in Loki. When Steven is confronted by the other avatars sitting in judgment of him, it recalls the World Security Council commanding Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in The Avengers. Even Harrow’s plan recalls Project Insight from The Winter Soldier.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the MCU is the way in which it sands down all of the rough edges on any of its more interesting elements. Watching “The Friendly Type,” it feels like the franchise has managed the impossible: It has managed to make a globe-trotting adventure with Oscar Isaac feel curiously bland.