Vacating from the Norm
Perhaps the most striking aspect about Moon Knight’s opening episode is how willing it is to ignore the wider franchise it belongs to. Despite there being 27 films and five Disney Plus shows making up this body of work, I can’t recall Kevin Feige doing something as alien as this. Even Eternals (2021) failed to venture too far from shore, what with its habitual referencing of Thanos and his reality-shattering antics. After years of attempting to rip up the rulebook and sketch out something new, this is perhaps the most solid attempt at doing so to date.
Such claims aren’t just down to the R-Rating that show runner Jeremy Slater and president Kevin Feige have slapped on the back of this one (more on that shortly), but more to do with the outright rejection of the wider fictional world this belongs to. To my knowledge, this episode makes no attempt to reference or feed any pre-existing characters, storylines or events from past MCU projects into the narrative. This is primarily a story about Steven Grant and the psychological mysteries dominating his daily (and nightly) life. Were it not for the opening crawl signalling the studio this project belongs to, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a completely original piece of work that has zero correlation with Stan Lee’s and Steve Ditko’s comic book creations.
Taking a character that’s not widely recognised within the pop culture sphere, then bringing him to life within an R-rated television series on a streaming service sets the foundation for something that feels quite radical when you consider how notorious these guys are when it comes to applying formula to their work. For all the attempts to engineer something that feels unique and dissimilar, The Goldfish Problem is perhaps Marvel’s best endeavour to date.
By ignoring the decade of worldbuilding and tone setting, favouring an stranded project, Moon Knight’s pilot manages to create a story that feels as isolated and detached as the show’s main protagonist. Steven Grant is a man completely at odds with the reality he’s a part of. He doesn’t even have any understanding of the narrative unfolding around him. Unable to retain any of the memories that led him from point A to B creates main character who has next to no idea as to the story he belongs to. Antagonists, plot progression and narrative flow make zero sense to Grant. He’s an unwilling passenger to a story that’s beyond his control. A fitting reflection to a show that appears to be completely oblivious to the wider franchise it belongs to. Engineering something that feels like a bubble oblivious to the lure that helped bring it into existence manufactures a feel of freshness Marvel Studios has been lacking for a large portion of its run. As fresh as it may have felt during its debut back in 2008, Feige’s empire has become a victim to its own success in some respects. A fabulously well-oiled machine that entertains the masses, it may be, but that doesn’t save it from feeling stale on occasion. The story as it unfolds here suggests a potential antidote to the formulaic curse of a pop-culture titan. Whether or not it continues to function as its own thing is yet to be seen, yet here, it’s safe to say Marvel has made a show as hopelessly oblivious to the wider context as its main character is. For that alone, this is perhaps the most intriguing chapter to exit the Disney Plus catalogue since Wandavision’s premier episode.
The Unwilling Passenger
Steven Grant is a protagonist seemingly unaware of the story he belongs to. At least that appears to be the case on the surface. His decision to shackle himself to his bed and implement a series of indicators around his apartment suggests he possesses some awareness toward his extreme sleep-walking antics. Regardless of how much he knows from past experiences, the episode’s decision to deliver 99.9% of this episode from Grant’s point-of-view informs us that he retains no recollection of the events he partakes in whenever he loses consciousness.
As we learn throughout the duration of this story, whenever Grant falls asleep, he awakens to find the story has progresses through a number of key scenes whilst he’s been napping. He’s transported to what looks to be an entirely different country, has managed to tangle himself up in the dealings of some kind supernatural Mafia, and has even taken the lives of those trying to kill him. Whatever is happening around him, Steven as we see him in this episode does not have any knowledge or control over such events.
Opting to open by showcasing just one of Grant’s varying personalities allows The Goldfish Problem to blend a number of genres into a singular narrative. Firstly, there’s the comical aspect that punctuates much of the episode. The fish-out-of-water element to the story gives us a clumsy and awkward man who continuously finds himself slap bang in the midst of an action blockbuster. He has no idea how he got there, or what on earth he needs to do in order to get himself out of the situation. It would be a bit like if you or I found ourselves randomly whisked into the conscious of John Rambo whilst he’s in the midst of fleeing his captors. Lacking the skills and expertise of Stallone’s most famous character means we’d be pretty naff when it comes to outwitting an army of blood-hungry baddies. This is very much the case for Grant here, as we occasionally get to see him scrambling to figure out what on earth to do after waking up in the midst of a high-octane car chase; all of which manages to be thrilling, frightening and hilarious in a single beat.
There’s also the thriller characteristic to consider. Seeing as we are seeing this story unfold through the eyes of a man who has no idea what that story is, we’re just as in the dark as Grant is for pretty much the entirety of this episode. We can see that there’s certainly a story unfolding here. As to what that story is, exactly, isn’t quite clear cut at this moment in time. Instead of having the jigsaw assembled before us in fashion we’re often accustomed to, we’re given seemingly random pieces that only give us a fleeting glimpse of the finished image. This plays out more like a murder mystery than it does a classic superhero flick. The true nature as to what is going on is anyone’s guess at this point in time. We kind of get a vague idea of what’s happening, but nothing concrete enough to give us all the answers we need. If we want to obtain the finished product, we’re going to have to keep coming back for more.
Then there’s the horror elements to consider. The sequence in Grant’s apartment, in which the walls of reality unravel before his eyes makes for quite uncomfortable viewing. Bouts of psychosis aren’t exactly what one may call pleasant, and scenes such as these depict the fright and confusion our hero is enduring throughout such moments. The rapid transition between the everyday, the fantastic and the monstrous depict a man struggling to distinguish between the material and the psychological.
In many respects, the kaleidoscope of genres shifting in and out of focus throughout The Goldfish Problem feel reminiscent to that of Wandavision’s earlier episodes. The effortless transition from comedy to thriller to horror echo the strangeness of Wanda and Vision’s experiences living within walls of Wanda’s reality-twisting Hex. As was the case back then, Moon Knight’s ability to mesh and mould varying storytelling approaches with seemingly little effort creates a strange new world that fizzles with potential and unpredictability. Whether or not the mixing of categories manages to stick the landing is beside the point at this stage in the game, as its initial goal to encourage audiences to come back for more has been achieved.
Disney for Big Kids
Pop-culture with guts used to be all the rage. Aliens (1986), The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987) and RoboCop (1987) contained enough blood to overindulge even the most glutenous of vampires. Then, the landscape changed. Hollywood decided mass appeal was a wiser way to make the big bucks. Aside from a handful of exceptions, the last couple of decades have seen a majority of tentpole blockbusters favour a PG-13 over the raunchy Rs that once dominated the pop-culture goodies of the 80s.
At least that was the case until 2016, when Deadpool swanned onto the scene and reminded studio bigwigs that films aimed at adults shift ticket sales too. Makes sense, what with grown-ups being the ones with cash in their bank accounts. Deadpool was followed by Logan (2017) and Joker (2019), both of which went on to accumulate a fortune. This was particularly the case for Joker, which went on to become the first ever R-Rated movie to make over a billion dollars.
While Fox and DC quickly proceeded to capitalise on the rediscovered trend of making gory blockbusters, Marvel weren’t as hasty to jump aboard the bandwagon, opting instead to continue their streak of family-friendly frolics. After their buyout of 20th Century Fox in 2018, however, their acquisition of Deadpool meant it was only a matter of time before they had to make a leap of faith, particularly if they wanted to avoid ruffling the feathers of those who’d had their socks charmed off by Ryan Reynold’s foul-mouthed vigilante.
Moon Knight is Marvel’s first attempt at stepping into the realm of comic book storytelling for adults. As far as first attempts go, it’s perhaps fair to say they are playing it safe for the time being. Aside from some graphic depictions of dead bodies, not to mention a rather rattling opening scene in which an unidentifiable man steps into shoes filled with glass, this is surprisingly mild for the most part. This makes sense when you consider how foreign such territory is for Marvel Studios.
Shifting from catering for mass demographic to something more adult-focused does have a tendency to stumble over itself if not done properly. Take Doctor Who’s (1963 to present) spin-ff show Torchwood (2006 – 2011). Torchwood was Doctor Who’s first attempt to tell stories within the Whoniverse for an adult-only audience, and what a car crash that opening series was. The final product was a show that felt like it was written by a bunch of teenagers penning what they thought was good telly for grown-ups. Instead, what it was considered of crude sex jokes and shoehorned f-bombs. It wasn’t that the people working on Torchwood had not dabbled in writing for adult audiences before – Russell T Davies built a career on writing for a non-mainstream audience prior to his time on Doctor Who – it was just the jump from writing a particular kind of story for a mass audience to a more niche one resulted in some tonal inconsistencies.
Such a risk is no different when it comes to writing for MCU projects. When you’ve produced 27 films and six tv shows all aimed at a mass market, moving into telling a story within that fictional space, albeit from a slightly less family-friendly perspective risks generating a tonal disaster. Therefore, edging slightly toward more adult themes and content makes more sense than rushing into showcasing blood and guts at the first opportunity, particularly if they don’t want the whole affair to look forced and ironically childish.
If you’re going to make something R-Rated, it’s wise to give the project good reason to done such an age specific certificate. Just doing it so you can put harsh language and viscera on the screen isn’t always going to chime with audiences. Justifying the more difficult subject matter makes for a more authentic piece of work. I’d say, at this stage in the game, Moon Knight does a good job in achieving such a justification. The gore and striking imagery doesn’t feel shoehorned into the project for the sake of it, but helps to communicate the shock and dread our protagonist is enduring. Afterall, this is a character who’s been thrust into an environment and story completely beyond his comfort zone. Taking a sweet, clumsy vegan who works in a museum basement, then having him stand in front of a pile of mutilated bodies drives home the horror of the situation he’s found himself unwittingly apart of. For all the comical beats peppered throughout parts of this episode, there is an underlying terror to Grant’s situation, one that’s vividly communicated through the violence that surrounds him.
Moon Knight is violent because it’s a story about a man trapped in a Marvel story despite his reluctance to be there. Previous MCU projects have been witnessed through the eyes of gods, impressionable teens, weapon-building billionaires, idealistic super-soldiers, otherworldly supercomputers and intergalactic cowboys. They’ve been capable of overlooking the violence due to experience and idealism. Upholding paradigms of good vs evil have clouded their worldview from the reality of their daily actions. When it comes to Grant, on the other hand, he isn’t a good, avenger or star-lord, he’s just a troubled man who wants a quiet life. Without the Stark-shaped glasses distorting his vision, his view from the trenches isn’t quite as rosy as it has been for others in his position.
The Goal Fish Problem utilised character perspective much to its advantage, giving us a Marvel project that feels fresher than most. Its level of detachment for the wider franchise it belongs to allows us to enjoy a project without the weight of lure bogging it down. What’s more, fixing firmly on the point-of-view of Steve Grant allows for a number of genres to be seamlessly blended into its runtime.
As far as opening episodes go, this gives us enough to thrill and hook its audience. Helpings of comedy, horror and mystery keep us on the edge of our seats. For the MCU’s debut R-Rated work, this opening story subtle, engaging and fresh enough to justify elevating its certification from that of a PG-13.