The Marvel Cinematic Universe has drawn inspiration from plenty of genres, from spy thrillers to space operas and even sitcoms. But there's one genre that's potential has remained mostly untapped: horror.
Sure, pure horror might not be everyone's cup of tea, but movies outside the genre that borrow its elements to scare audiences show they can be a vital tool to raise the stakes and get our adrenaline pumping. Lately, major blockbusters haven't seemed as willing to frighten audiences, but classic adventure movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its disturbing face-melting scene, or Jurassic Park, with its raptor jump scares, and even Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, with Large Marge, had no problem peppering in some serious nightmare fuel.
Marvel's latest Disney+ show Moon Knight, which debuts Wednesday, brings a little bit of that spirit into the franchise. It's only a small start, but mixing in some spooky horror beats, and being willing to creep viewers out here and there, helps Moon Knight form its own identity as the MCU's streaming era enters its second year.
The first Marvel Disney+ series to center around a new hero, Moon Knight stars Oscar Isaac as a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, and he's introduced as a meek museum employee named Steven Grant. Steven soon finds himself in over his head thanks to his other personality, mercenary Marc Spector, who also serves as the avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu. The first two episodes center largely around Steven, allowing Isaac to really go for it and make some big choices. The series lets him flex his comedy chops to portray Steven's utter confusion, though he also conveys the tragedy and sadness of this genuinely nice guy having his life slowly destroyed.
But framing the show initially from Steven's point of view also lets it explore just how horrifying this situation actually is, particularly in early sequences where we see Khonshu from his perspective. The Egyptian god's design is quite creepy, and the show often frames him like a sinister horror villain. Khonshu's eerie first appearance sees him popping up behind Steven only to disappear, and a few great sequences in the first two episodes play like something out of the Conjuring franchise. One in the premiere masterfully builds tension as Steven runs into an elevator, frantically presses the down button as Khonshu approaches and the lights flicker, and it all culminates in a rare MCU jump scare.
When Moon Knight shifts perspective to the more in-control Marc Spector, who isn't as freaked out by Khonshu, the tone adheres more closely to an adventure film like The Mummy. But the fourth episode, which sees Steven/Marc explore a spooky, dark tomb, is the highlight of the initial batch of episodes provided to critics. Seeming to draw inspiration from the classic cave diving horror film The Descent, it keeps us tense for the full hour anticipating what might pop out of the shadows, making excellent use of darkness and sound design to unnerve us with threatening clicking sounds off in the distance.
Moon Knight definitely misses an opportunity to take this even further, though. That fourth episode's payoff isn't quite as satisfying as the early tension, and this is certainly a Disneyfied version of horror. Plus, for how much the eeriness of Khonshu is played up at first, he speaks too often — with a voice that's not very intimidating — in a way that can detract from the fear Steven is feeling. But shots of Khonshu looming in the distance silently watching over the scene are unsettling, and while this might not be a full-on horror show, there are sequences that will have younger audiences reaching to turn on a light. For the most part, Moon Knight also lets the fear of these moments linger without having to immediately break the tension with a gag, as is often the Marvel way.
That being said, those hoping Moon Knight might fully break free of the MCU mold by being oppressively dark should adjust their expectations, as the show can often be (intentionally) goofy. There is, though, noticeably more blood than we normally see out of the fairly bloodless MCU, and the series pushes some boundaries for the universe in terms of violence. Heck, the first thing we see on screen is a disturbing moment of the villain filling his shoes with glass, and for a franchise that can be accused of playing it safe, it's refreshing to start a new entry and be wincing within the first 60 seconds.
After all, there haven't been a lot of moments in the MCU so far aimed specifically at disturbing or scaring audiences. Look no further than a number of articles about the "scariest Marvel moments" that really have to stretch the definition of that word, and let's not forget the way Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed unwilling to make its villain terrifying and gave him just one too many quips.
2016's Doctor Strange had the potential to go full bore with horror after Scott Derrickson, director of the terrifying Sinister, was tapped to direct. But while he mixed in a few unsettling images, the horror wasn't very present. Horror mastermind Sam Raimi is working on the sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so could that film pick up what Moon Knight started, and push the MCU to embrace horror more than ever? Letting an exploration of the multiverse be a bit terrifying would help differentiate it from the multiverse movie we just got in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Besides, when Marvel is often accused of having its entries always feel the same or being too afraid of alienating audiences, coming off a comedic, fan-service-driven entry like No Way Home seems like the perfect time to go in the opposite direction, switching things up by giving viewers something they're not expecting in a way that could even risk turning some away. Peppering in horror would be a great way to do that, and Moon Knight is a small but satisfying step in that direction. Let's just hope the show is only an intro to the MCU's creepier side, and not as far as Marvel is willing to go.