In 2017, when Marvel Legacy hit, Moon Knight had been through some radical shifts. He started the millennium as a broken hero with a suitably gritty return to superheroism, filled with gloom and gore; he was a Bendis mouthpiece, glibly facing mental health issues by literally dressing them up in spandex; he was a multifaceted, brutalist neo-noir/action-thriller force of nature, (literally) punching up in an endless Daredevil hallway scene; finally, he was a delicate and beautiful (if completely mind-bending) parable for mental healing.
He was, in a word, confusing. Tonal inconsistency was his only consistency, and that’s not even counting his classic adventures of the ’80s and ’90s.
After the radical shake-ups in the Marvel Universe following Secret Wars, following the on-the-nose All-New, All-Different push that injected new characters and team lineups into the spotlight, Marvel Comics was looking to de-radicalize with Legacy. A return to the status quo in spirit, the push looked to return primary characters to their places. The goal, in short, was to return the Universe and all its heroes to a sort of prototypical state—to make the characters the best overall representatives of themselves and give readers a new place to call base camp.
The question put to the creative team taking over Moon Knight was: how do we distill all of what came before to fit the larger mold? Who was Moon Knight to begin with, and what best represented the types of stories he was used to tell? It was a tall order, one that had to take all 42 years of character history into consideration—including the head-scratching parts.
How do writer Max Bemis and company answer the question? They start with the villains.
It’s a fairly genius approach. By first illustrating the threat—in some cases other mentally ill men with powers, in later issues actual Nazi evils—and establishing the stakes before introducing Moon Knight, you define what the character actually is: one who reacts rather than takes action. Among all the inconsistent narratives throughout the preceding volumes, that may be the one true throughline: Mark Spector rarely has a mission in those stories, he is only provided an opportunity to punch.
Legacy is an era of the character that attempts to establish a place of firm footing for the character—he is given a family; old friends are returned to him—but the fact of the matter is that keeping any such stability from him makes him who he is. It attempts to provide a bit of origin to the character not yet explored: before Khonshu, before being a mercenary, before Lemire and Smallwood’s childhood mental hospital, Bemis looks to establish the trauma that began Marc’s tip into mental illness.
In one incredibly brutal and horrifying issue, we’re exposed to the Nazi, a sadist posing as Marc’s family rabbi. It’s incredibly effective—perhaps the most effective issue of the collection. It allows Marc a moment of earnest reflection, and it allows for a powerful scene in which Marc discusses his mental illness with his young daughter who, in turn, easily accepts it.
All that careful work establishing Marc, his relationships (both with his family and with his various selves), and a new understanding of mental illness feel, halfway through the book, to be an incredible feat. The team seems to have stuck the landing, injecting just enough levity into the darkness to make Moon Knight a book that fit in amongst the brighter, more heroic books it was being released alongside.
But it doesn’t take long for the book to veer out of honesty and make a mockery of the earnest moments by giving the Nazi a comic-book army and burying that singularly real moment of trauma under an exhausting issue-long, psychedelic-fueled supervillain monologue. Things get out of hand so that the final several issues seem to be a rush to make sense of the whole run before its inevitable end. An attempt to tie up every single narrative thread becomes an overload that all but wipes away the power behind earlier moments.
At its core, Moon Knight Legacy: The Complete Collection might be the most accurate modern distillation of the character, but it is not the character at his most interesting. For every early powerful emotional moment, there is an over-the-top, tonally inconsistent concluding bit of chaos. A book meant to refine the character, in the end, gets just as out of hand as the legacy it’s trying to define. What’s more, all the hard work put into giving Marc a firm place to stand has been, just as inevitably, quietly abandoned.
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