“This is the face of a good man!”
When the tall, burgundy-robed Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) makes this pronouncement to the crowd gathered in an idyllic town square, they respond with a cheer. They have come to watch Harrow induct new members into their group. Harrow grasps the hands of the initiate and places his cane between them, resting its alligator-shaped head on the hopeful’s upturned palms. “I judge you in Ammit’s name, with a fraction of her power,” Harrow declares as the cane begins to swing and the scales tattooed on his arm magically start to shift. After the scales come to rest, Harrow makes his pronouncement.
But Harrow speaks much different words to the next person he judges, a seemingly sweet elderly woman. “I’m sorry,” Harrow says as the scales on his arm stop, unbalanced.
“I’ve been good my entire life,” the woman insists.
Harrow remains undeterred. “I believe you, but the scales see everything,” he responds, his voice softened by sympathy. “Perhaps it’s something that lies ahead." With that, the woman falls dead.
Despite his rhetoric about good and evil, Arthur Harrow is not the hero of Moon Knight, the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe series on Disney Plus. Played with quiet intensity by Hawke, Harrow is the show's primary villain, a man who wants to make a heaven on Earth by ridding the world of all evildoers—both those who have done wrong and those who will do wrong. Harrow and his followers will achieve this feat by summoning the Egyptian god Ammit, currently entombed someplace in Cairo.
The show’s hero, in fact, is timid Londoner Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac). Grant spends his days working in the gift shop of a history museum, irritating his boss with his seemingly endless knowledge of ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Steven's nights are a little less peaceful, as he straps himself to the bed and struggles to stay awake, an extreme attempt to curb his sleepwalking.
Grant considers himself a good man, a guy who takes extra time to educate museum visitors about Egyptian culture, who ensures that tourists drop money in the hat of a local street performer, and who constantly calls his mother. But when the search for a magical scarab brings Harrow to Grant’s museum, the cult leader sees neither goodness nor evil in the timid shopkeeper. Rather, the scales on Harrow’s forearms refuse to rest, revealing only confusion and disorder in response to this unremarkable man. (Spoilers ahead.)
To eliminate evildoers would be to eliminate ourselves.
Over the course of its six episodes, Moon Knight reveals that Steven Grant is the alternate personality of Marc Spector, an American mercenary who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. Where Steven is all kindness and mercy, Marc is brutal and haunted, a man who hopes to atone for his wrongdoing by serving Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon. Empowered by Khonshu to become the superhero Moon Knight, Marc wants to balance his scales. But his goodness sure looks a lot like evil, as Moon Knight brutally beats up those who oppose him. Even as Steven learns how to communicate with Marc and urges his other self to choose mercy over vengeance, Moon Knight still leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.
By pitting a troubled hero against a villain devoted to saving the world, Moon Knight offers a different look at evergreen superhero concepts such as justice and goodness. Voiced with grouchy temerity by F. Murray Abraham, Khonshu comes off as less a divine guide and more like a celestial bully, driving Marc to punish those he deems evil. Conversely, Harrow wants to keep people safe and wants to help humanity achieve their best selves, a clearly noble goal (at least, until he unleashes a giant crocodile monster at the series’ climax).
From this skewed vision of morality, viewers better understand the nature of grace. For Harrow, heaven can be achieved on Earth when all evildoers have been eradicated. But scripture teaches us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” To eliminate evildoers—to pursue a campaign of condemnation—would be to eliminate ourselves.
At the same time, scripture also shows us how Christ pursued justice, not through condemnation, but through love. Instead of destroying his enemies, Christ sought conversion, as demonstrated in one of the most famous scenes in the gospels. In John 8, Jesus stops the execution of a woman caught in adultery. He stops this injustice not by fighting, but by standing with the victim and challenging those in power. In response to their questions about the teachings of Moses, Jesus teaches the necessity of grace. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he commands, sending them scurrying away.
In this scene, Jesus absolutely pursues justice. He stops an unfair system that would punish a woman but leave a man unscathed. He identifies with the victim and places his body in a vulnerable place with her. But he doesn't seek to destroy the wrongdoers. Rather, he seeks to show them the importance of grace, to remind them that they too are sinners and need the same compassion they refuse to show to the woman. This moment shows that while God loves good and hates evil, pursuing good without grace only results in hurt.
Moon Knight demonstrates this principle in the cold open to its first episode. In a sequence set to Bob Dylan’s devotional classic “Every Grain of Sand,” we watch as Harrow undergoes a ritual. After methodically drinking from a glass, Harrow wraps the receptacle in cloth and smashes it with his cane. Tight close-ups and unexpected edits take us through every step of the process, which climaxes with Harrow pouring the glass shards into his shoes, slipping them on, and walking away. As the sounds of crunching glass mix with Dylan's mournful harmonica, Moon Knight’s viewers understand the point of Jesus’ teaching. Justice and repentance lead to more good works, but goodness without grace harms us all.