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Let’s Talk About the Very Strange World of Religion in Marvel’s ‘Moon Knight’

This week, Marvel unleashes its latest comic book character into the cinematic universe in Moon Knight. Getting an actor of Oscar Isaac’s caliber for the job is a coup, especially since this character is a real superhero deep cut. In Marvel Comics, you’ve got big players like the Avengers, Spider-Man and the X-Men, and then some characters with devoted cult followings like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl and Excalibur, and then you’ve got guys like Moon Knight — who does have his own cult following …in a certain sense of the word. That’s because in the comics, Moon Knight takes some very strange detours into the religious world.

First, some background: Moon Knight was created in 1975 by writer Doug Moench and artists Don Perlin and Al Milgrom as a side character for an issue of Werewolf by Night. This was in an era when Marvel was very interested in getting into spookier comics, and Moon Knight was pitched as a sort of “guardian of the night.” The character was a hit and started popping up in higher profile comics like Spider-Man and Hulk. Critics said the character was a little too similar to Batman (nocturnal, lots of crazy gadgets, gets a kick out using “fear” as a weapon) but Moench teamed up with now-legendary Marvel artist Bill Sienkiewicz to establish Moon Knight as a very different, much weirder figure than Bruce Wayne.

They gave Moon Knight an actual comic series and a head trip of a backstory. His real name, they decided, was Marc Spector, a mercenary for hire who died on the job and came back believing he’d been given a sacred mission to protect the innocents in the night by an ancient Egyptian god named Khonshu. Spector’s friends understandably assume he’s lost his marbles, but Moench and Sienkiewicz’s genius was to never make it entirely clear whether or not he had. Was Spector a nutjob taking orders from the voices in his head? Or was there actually a bird skull-faced deity giving him instructions? Stranger things have happened in comics, but the early issues of Moon Knight were agnostic.

This ancient religious wrinkle was made doubly interesting by Spector’s own religious background. It was soon revealed that he was Jewish, the son of a peaceful rabbi who was disappointed in his son’s turn to violence. This introduced some interesting interfaith layers to Moon Knight’s story, as Spector is shown to be both observant as a Jew and fairly devout as the “the Fish of Khonshu.”

Over time, other writers would make it clear that Khonshu was very real and very terrifying — less a benevolent god than a deranged trickster manipulating Spector for his own devices. Spector creates several other undercover identities to aid his crimefighting ways — billionaire businessman Steven Grant, lowlife cabbie Jake Lockley and dapper supernatural consultant Mister Knight — but slowly starts to lose track of which is real, developing a very comic book-y spin on dissociative identity disorder.

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In his most recent appearances, written by Jed McKay and drawn by Alessandro Capuccio and Rachelle Rosenberg, Moon Knight has taken to seeing himself as a priest of Khonshu, taking his fourfold role as “the traveler,” “the pathfinder,” “the embracer” and “the defender of those who travel at night” very seriously. It’s a far cry from a priest as we think of it, but the creative team is clearly interested in the parallels to more conventional organized religion. When a villain attacks Moon Knight by electronically deleting his finances, Spector shrugs it off by saying “there are no good rich priests.”

How much of this makes it into Disney Plus’ series? We’ll have to see. It would at least be nice to see some Jewish representation, since the MCU has mostly avoided its characters’ religious beliefs up to this point. But that is likely about to change, since Kamala Kahn of the upcoming Ms. Marvel is a Muslim character whose religious identity is a pillar of her identity. And Disney Plus recently added Netflix’s MCU-adjacent shows to the fold, including Daredevil, whose Catholic upbringing was a key part of the show’s depiction. In any case, it’s clear the the, uh, followers of Khonshu are about to get some representation.

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