Perhaps it’s too much of a generalization to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is designed for children, but it’s absolutely designed in a way that isn’t meant to exclude them. Even with the MCU’s light geopolitics and frequent friendly gestures toward the military-industrial complex, at the end of the day, the franchise is carefully designed to remain firmly family-friendly, with mostly bloodless violence and nothing too frightening or intense. For the most part, that’s fine. The MCU could arguably be better without its fixation on comic book heroes as paramilitary agents, and every step away from that (like Shang-Chi) is appreciated. However, sometimes the focus on four-quadrant storytelling collides with the ambition of the story in a given MCU installment — as this week’s Moon Knight illustrates.
“Asylum” is among the darkest, most intimately devastating stories Marvel Studios has ever told. It’s an episode about a man’s fractured mind finally shattering as he revisits the most traumatic moments of his life. It’s fraught, terrible stuff, delivered with a light touch that might be too light. The horror is frequently undercut with moments of humor, and a reticence to center that horror onscreen.
This is frustrating in an episode as crucial and internal as “Asylum.” Picking up where “The Tomb” left off, “Asylum” shows Marc Spector and Steven Grant (both played by Oscar Isaac) seemingly trapped in a psychiatric ward run by “Dr. Harrow” (Ethan Hawke), who is trying to convince Marc that the events of Moon Knight thus far are a fiction devised by Marc’s brain as a coping mechanism. Taweret (voiced by Anotonia Salib), a fertility goddess resembling a hippo, offers Marc and Steven another possibility: They’re dead, and currently being judged in the desert afterlife known as the Duat.
According to Taweret, Steven and Marc’s hearts must be weighed on the scales of judgment in order to determine whether they will remain trapped in the sands of the Duat, or proceed to a reed-filled paradise. However, the balance of the scales are in flux, as they were when Harrow tried to use his own powers to weigh the two men’s guilt. Steven and Marc must work together and — to quote David Lynch — fix their hearts or die.
With this directive, “Asylum” takes its shape, with Marc and Steven wandering the asylum’s halls to revisit their mutual past. Each door along its white corridors hides a memory, and in visiting these rooms, Moon Knight’s writers fill in just about every gap in the show’s backstory thus far. Viewers are shown how Marc took responsibility for his brother’s death in childhood, how that death led his mother to turn abusive and resort to alcoholism, and how Marc invented the Steven Grant persona, patterning it after his favorite movies, to help him withstand that abuse. As Marc gets older, the wall between himself and Steven gets higher, with Marc bearing all the pain. Eventually, he’s discharged from military service and into a mercenary career, while Steven gets to live in bumbling ignorance.
It all builds to the origin of Moon Knight, as Spector’s crew is hired to raid an archeological dig. His commander has other ideas, and begins to slaughter everyone — including Layla’s father. Mortally wounded from trying to defend the archeologists, Spector crawls to a statue of Khonshu deep within the site, and hears the moon god ask for his allegiance in exchange for a new lease on life.
Tonally, “Asylum” veers wildly between the adventure-story feel of “The Tomb” (Marc and Steven fight sand zombies) and dark psychological horror. (The zombies are all the people Marc has killed in his mercenary life.) In this, Moon Knight feels caught between two masters: the challenging, morally gray story about a man dealing with mental illness and his own capacity for horror, and the Marvel Studios brand of action movie the whole family can watch.
These two things aren’t mutually exclusive — something lost in the modern ’80s homages of shows like Stranger Things is how ’80s classics like E.T. delivered stories where the genuine fun is paired with genuine terror, peril, and inner turmoil, all of which were difficult for kids (both onscreen and in the audience) to process. Under the Marvel formula, however, every edge is sanded off. Did you know Marc Spector is Jewish? His family sits shiva twice in this episode, and he rips off a kippah in anguish, but none of this informs his character or his perspective. Critics could build headlines around Moon Knight as Marvel Studios’ “first Jewish hero,” but what does that mean? In this context, not much. As with the sex scene in Eternals, the sense of commitment to anything meaningful is lacking. Where’s the story potential in a supposedly passionate relationship when it’s reduced to a static shot of two expressionless people lying together, prone and nearly inert?
This lack of engagement with a story’s biggest emotions remains perplexing, especially given that Moon Knight thus far is only minimally attached to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (In the most overt MCU reference in the episode, Taweret obliquely says the Duat is just “an” afterlife, noting that the Ancestral Plane, as seen in Black Panther, is beautiful.) Under the current MCU structure, Moon Knight’s biggest accomplishments are diluted down to the goal of broadening the horizons of the wider Marvel Studios project ever so slightly. The efforts toward representation and the interest in darker, more complex material might be laudable. But the series should be more focused on serving the primary purpose of storytelling: to make us feel something.