Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Oscar Isaac is a 43-year-old actor who really broke out 15 years ago in Hollywood. Yet, he was really solidified as a movie star for his role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). He was funny, charming and sexy. It helped that the film was one of the biggest blockbusters ever. Isaac hadn’t really been the lead in a film before but after 2015, he started getting lead roles all over the place. In most of the films he’s done, Isaac hasn’t been able to flex his comedic muscles, but this series changes that track. Strangely though, the film that came to mind as this show played out was X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). In that film, Isaac played an Egyptian character who has super powers transferred to him from another being. Here, his character isn’t Egyptian, but the majority of the series is either set in Egypt or concerning Egyptian culture. His character is also similarly one who has super powers transferred to him from another being. If one is curious about seeing his character exercise or utilize those powers, you’ll be a tad disappointed, given that this show hardly ever displays him using his powers.
Instead, this series is not much more than an acting vehicle for Isaac to play two different characters, particularly one who endearingly rambles a lot in an English accent. He stars as Steven Grant, an employee at a museum in London that specializes in Egyptian history or is currently featuring an exhibit on Egypt. Steven works in the gift shop but he’d rather be a tour guide, as he has almost encyclopedic knowledge of that Middle Eastern country. He lives a very strange life, which is mostly a lonely one. It’s coupled with the fact that he wakes up every day in bed with his leg chained to the wall. Presumably, it’s to stop him from sleepwalking. Yet, when he starts experiencing blackouts and hearing voices, it becomes clear that Steven suffers from dissociative identity disorder. When he experiences a blackout, it’s his mind becoming another personality. That other personality is named Marc Spector.
May Calamawy (Ramy and The Long Road Home) co-stars as Layla El-Faouly, an archeologist who is of Egyptian heritage. What’s revealed is that she’s married to Steven, but she met him while he was Marc. For some reason, Marc became a mercenary who traveled to Egypt on a mission with Layla’s father. That mission resulted in Layla’s father dying.
Created by Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four and The Umbrella Academy), adapting the comic book character, the series focuses less on the relationship between Marc and Layla. This is perhaps purposeful because that relationship is problematic on several levels. The main problem is that Marc is essentially a construct. His personality was formed out of a traumatic event and the series builds to a reveal of what that traumatic event is, but in no way does this series have the character deal with that issue in a real or substantive way. Acknowledging the trauma is a crucial first step, but there is more to it than that.
Ethan Hawke (Training Day and Before Sunrise) also co-stars as Arthur Harrow, a cult leader who worships an Egyptian goddess named Ammit. His cult is all about bringing Ammit back into power. He starts by advocating her ideology, an ideology that is about punishing people before they do something bad. That punishment includes death. His calm and soft-spoken demeanor masks a horrible series of beliefs. He actually comes across like a psychiatrist in the way he talks. In a few scenes, he’s even depicted as a psychiatrist in a nod to M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass (2019).
Those scenes have Arthur counseling Steven and Marc, but those scenes are more about questioning the reality of his status as a super-hero. Steven learns that he’s the avatar for another Egyptian god named Khonshu who provides a special white suit that gives Steven or even Marc super powers. Yet, those counseling scenes are about whether these Egyptian powers are real. Those scenes lead to the revelation about the traumatic event that resulted in Steven’s DID, but they are nowhere near being about addressing that traumatic event in a proper mental health way. That would likely include an accounting of the blackouts or the actions of the alters.
However, what’s more egregious is how the series introduces Arthur’s ideology, which is the same as Ammit’s ideology, and does nothing but a superficial reflection. Ammit is an Egyptian goddess. Her ideology is akin to the ideology in the film Minority Report (2002), except it’s far harsher and deadlier. It basically purports that a person should be punished with death if they are deemed bad, meaning that Ammit can tell if that person has done something bad or will do something bad. We see some people killed as a result of Ammit’s ideology and her judgment. This ideology though opens up some questions. Some of which are raised in Episode 2, but only briefly and those questions are never addressed again. Some of the questions include: Would Ammit kill a child or a baby? What are the bad things that would get a person killed by Ammit? Do the bad things include offensive speech? Without exploring these questions, it makes this whole thing intellectually hollow.
Lastly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which this series is apart, has been doing a lot to be more inclusive and diverse in terms of its superheroes. Eternals (2021) did a good job of advancing that inclusivity and diversity. According to the comics, Steven Grant and Marc Spector are supposed to be Jewish, which would make the character possibly the first Jewish-American superhero. This series doesn’t do much with that though. Later, Layla becomes the avatar for another Egyptian goddess named Taweret and she’s identified as the first Egyptian super-hero, which is great. I just wish the series had done more for the relationships and inner life she had.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 6 eps.
Available on Disney +.