In 1978 the acclaimed science fiction author Jorge Luis Borges talked about the various cinematic adaptations of Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and why they never work. Because it’s supposed to be a mystery.
You see, when Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal novel came out, nobody knew that the two characters were the same man. It’s not revealed till the end of the book. In fact, that’s the big twist. And when people recommended it to one another, no one wanted to spoil the shocking reveal at the end.
Nowadays, we all know the story of the meek and mild-mannered man who transforms into a proverbial monster when he “loses control” and unleashes his darker side. Immediately upon hearing the names “Jekyll” and “Hyde”, we know they are one and the same. We’ve seen it replayed countless times in literature and film ever since 1886, with characters like the Hulk, and in movies like “The Dark Half” etc. But as Borges pointed out, it doesn’t have the same impact if you know they are the same person when you start the story. As he says “That would give the trick away!”
Fast forward to 1999 when my dear friend pointed out to me that it finally happened! They made a new Jekyll & Hyde movie, but nobody knew that going in! It was called Fight Club!! (OOPS!! Sorry if I spoiled it for you!) And it did gangbusters!
Now fast forward another 23 years to the present day, and Marvel’s new show on Disney+, Moon Knight, the latest in their long line of comic book adaptations. Created by Doug Moench
And Don Perlin, the character has seen wildly different, and often even directly opposing interpretations. Sometimes he’s in a hood and rags, and other times he wears a three-piece suit. (I love the Bill Sienkiewicz stuff myself!) Some authors focus on the character’s Egyptian connections, others pay more heed to his military background, and some pay more attention to his mental health issues.
So for a while, we had no idea which Moon Knight we were going to get, or how they would approach his alter ego and the complicated issues surrounding that. And in many ways, I really liked what they were going for. As I jokingly said to a friend right after I watched it “Yeah I see what they’re doing here – ‘This Is What Life is Like for Bruce Banner’ but it just seemed like an episode of The Incredible Hulk with all the Lou Ferrigno scenes edited out.” Which got a laugh, but also got me thinking yet again about what Borges said so long ago. “Why on earth should you [the audience] suppose that the two characters are the same man? No one supposes that. You’d be taken in, as everybody was taken in”.
And I think that was the essential problem with the Moon Knight pilot. It wasn’t a mystery. We already know exactly what’s going on with ‘Steven’. And unfortunately, we don’t get to share in his confusion, because we’re already in on it. Even if you’ve never heard of Moon Knight before, the ad campaign was inescapable. We know going in that Oscar Isaacs IS Moon Knight. But if we were somehow able to share in his bewilderment alongside him, maybe the approach taken would have worked a bit better. If somehow the ad campaign tricked the audience into thinking Moon Knight was a different person, or if the transitions were a bit less jarring or obvious.
And since there’s no mystery, you have to give us something else besides what’s supposed to be comedy. Something special that tugs on the heartstrings. Like the story of star-crossed love we see in the 1977 made-for-TV Incredible Hulk Movie. (Don’t worry – If you haven’t seen it, that’s one tear-jerker ending I won’t spoil for you). But without anything else to add emotional resonance, the audience is left cold and detached. So what we’re left with is basically an extended trailer that barely teases what’s to come. Hopefully, it will be fantastic. This isn’t a critique of the series and I’ll be tuning in again to see what they do in episode two. But I can’t help thinking that the creative team may have been able to pull off something truly wonderful in that first episode, had we not all been privy to the secret.
For more on Moon Knight, check out our review of the first 4 episodes here.