Wrestling With Moon Knight’s Judaism

By | May 27, 2022
Arts & Culture, Latest
Oscar Issac in a Marvel Studio's MOON KNIGHT clip

Warning: The following contains spoilers for all six episodes of Disney+’s Moon Knight.

Over the last few years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has made an effort to increase its representation of minorities. A universe that mostly spotlighted handsome white men has expanded to include a cast of characters from more diverse backgrounds, with projects such as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Hawkeye spotlighting African American, Asian American and disabled heroes. And yet, the MCU has a long way to go. Of the 28 films released since 2008’s Iron Man, only two and a half (Captain Marvel, Black Widow and Ant-Man and the Wasp) have been headlined by women, while only one has starred a Black lead (Black Panther). Meanwhile, Eternals received criticism for hyping up its LGBTQ representation only to sideline the one gay hero for two-thirds of the movie. 

It is in this context that Moon Knight, released on Disney+ in March, became the first MCU project to feature a Jewish superhero. Starring the non-Jewish Oscar Isaac in the title role, the series follows Marc Spector/Moon Knight, a mercenary who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. After being betrayed on a mission by his partner, the hero is brought back to life by the Egyptian moon god Khonshu to protect the innocent and bring his vengeance to those who commit injustice. 

On the one hand, the MCU version of Marc is unequivocally and clearly Jewish. He wears a Star of David necklace around his neck throughout the series and hangs a mezuzah on the doorpost of his London flat. He even attends the shiva for his mother while wearing a yarmulke. 

But taken in the context of the series as a whole, these nods to Marc’s Judaism are just surface-level storytelling shortcuts that allow the series to convey the hero’s identity to the audience without using it to actually influence Marc or move the story forward in any meaningful way. I could review the entire drama, not mention Marc’s Judaism once, and you, the reader, would still get a full picture of the series.

Take the shiva in Episode 5, “Asylum.” It features adult Marc returning home after the death of his cruel mother, who blamed him for the accidental death of his younger brother that occurred when they were both children. The sequence is the emotional climax of the episode’s series of flashbacks, and it ends with Marc throwing his yarmulke on the floor as he breaks down in tears, only to embrace it close to his heart once again. 

Yet we are never given any context for why, in this particular moment, Marc throwing his yarmulke to the ground is important or why we, as an audience, should care. His Jewish identity plays no role in the various flashbacks that come before this sequence. He is never seen wearing the yarmulke as a child, and there is no indication that he associates the skullcap or his Judaism as a whole with his conflicted relationship with his mother. In fact, the scene would have had just as much impact had the writers swapped out the yarmulke for a cross and the shiva for a wake. 

This stands in stark contrast to how the show handles Egyptian culture. From the beginning of Episode 1, the series seeks to reclaim portrayals of Egypt and its heritage from a plethora of poor screen representations and years of appropriation in the original Moon Knight comics with the help of a team of Egyptian talent behind the camera, including director Mohamed Diab, composer Hesham Nazih and editor Ahmed Hafez. Marc’s alter, Steven Grant, shows great care and interest in Egypt, pushing his British Museum supervisor to show more respect toward its culture and heritage. When the show leaves England for Egypt, there is no musty, yellow filter. Cairo is portrayed as a vibrant, living, breathing city. Its foods, sounds and sights—including the correct placement of the pyramids—are spotlighted to great effect. 

But the groundbreaking, original character of Layla El-Faouly is the real meat of Moon Knight’s Egyptian representation. Played by Egyptian-Palestinian actor May Calamawy, Layla is an Egyptian adventurer and Marc’s wife. The show fully embraces her Egyptian identity; she speaks Arabic and wears clothing that references her Egyptian heritage. At the end of the series, she becomes the Scarlet Scarab, the MCU’s first Egyptian superhero, a point the writers made an extra effort to highlight. 

This is not a knock on the show’s treatment of Egyptian culture nor an implication that its representation is less important than Jewish visibility. This was a no-win situation for Moon Knight’s creative team. They could have completely ignored Marc’s Judaism, robbing Jews of the little representation we have in the superhero genre. Or they could have changed the story to include more of Marc’s Jewish identity, which would have meant telling a different story from the one they felt was best. With only six episodes, the team had to decide how much time they were going to dedicate to Marc’s dissociative identity disorder, Jewishness and connection to Egypt, while also balancing the stories of the rest of its cast. 

Yet some may read the above and argue that I am being too kind to the creative team, as it is their job to bring Moon Knight and all that comes with it to the screen. But perhaps the reason I am so forgiving to Diab and head writer Jeremy Slater is because Moon Knight’s Jewish history is not as clear-cut as Marc Spector simply being a Jewish superhero. The history is a bit more complicated. In fact, in a way, the show’s lack of emotional weight toward Marc’s Judaism is in line with the hero’s source materials—the original comics. 

Created by writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin in 1975, the hero is never identified as Jewish in early adventures. It is only when Alan Zelenetz took over as writer for the series in late 1983 (more than 40 appearances later) that Marc’s Jewish roots are fully acknowledged: His father was a Holocaust survivor, and Marc was at least partially inspired to become a superhero to fight antisemitism. Ever since then, Moon Knight’s Judaism has been featured sporadically in the comics, completely ignored in the run by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, while the current volume by Jed MacKay and Alessandro Capuccio has addressed it to a limited extent. 

To make matters more complicated, Marc Spector/Moon Knight’s Judaism came about completely by accident. In an interview with Moon Knight Vol. 5 writer Charlie Huston, Moench said that he named Marc Spector after a friend of his who worked at one of the comic shops he frequented. “Then it turned out Marc Spector [the comic shop employee] was Jewish. Ah, I guess this is a Jewish name. Well, I guess I just made up the first Jewish costumed hero. So maybe I should research some Judaism and stuff about the Mideast and Mossad and all this other stuff, and that’s where all that stuff came from,” Moench said. “It was all an accident. I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to sit down and create a Jewish character.’”  

Taken all together, this presents a very conflicted view of Moon Knight. On one hand, we should be happy Moon Knight is Jewish. He is a relatively popular character in the comics world, which is lacking in Jewish representation, and he allows Jews to be seen in our world. His portrayal on TV only enhances the profile of the character and inevitably will lead more comic readers toward his stories—Jewish, Egyptian and everything in between—perhaps fostering more unity and understanding. 

On the other hand, one can’t help but feel disappointed that he was made Jewish by accident. There was no real intentionality. If his Judaism was so easily added, doesn’t that mean it could be easily taken away? How central is it really? Does Marc Spector need to be Jewish to tell a Moon Knight story? Bendis and Maleev seem to say no. MacKay and Capuccio seem to say yes. The TV series seems to be somewhere in the middle. 

Perhaps we will never get a definitive answer. Fifty years of comics come with a lot of history, baggage and interpretations. But maybe it is a waste of time to look for one. Maybe, wrestling over a character initially conceived in the comics as a white man suffering from dissociative identity disorder and drenched in appropriated Egyptian culture, who was later made Jewish because the creator happened to like the name of a comic shop employee, is not the right avenue to take. Instead, we should spend our time demanding characters who are created with intentionality. Characters like Whistle, Layla and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, the wildly popular Pakistani-American Muslim hero who debuted in the comics in 2013 and is already getting her own solo Disney+ series this summer. Perhaps if comic companies like Marvel and DC spent more time developing heroes like these, their cinematic universes would not feel so fictional. 

Sam Gelman is a news editor at CBR, where he covers comics, movies and TV. He is also the editorial and program officer at the Yeshiva University Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. You can follow him on Twitter @SamMgelman.

Top image: Oscar Isaac as Steven Grant in Marvel Studios’ MOON KNIGHT. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

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