What Is Oscar Isaac's Deal?

Oscar Isaac is an undeniable talent. But he hasn't had had a lot of luck with bigger, franchise pictures, or, generally, with building a coherent career.
A screenshot of Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, smoking a cigarette and looking skeptical.
Image Source: Inside Llewyn Davis

When Ethan Hawke was cast alongside Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight—the currently-streaming show about a fairly obscure Marvel character who doesn’t have so much as an arch-enemy—he was asked what he thought about Marvel films, a question that’s now become annoyingly constant for interviews with actors and directors. He was surprisingly mercenary in his answer.

“If you were an actor in the ’50s, you know, they made Westerns. If you’re an actor in the 2020s, you’ve got Marvel,” Hawke told The Wrap. “And I’m really fortunate because we’re dealing with a story that doesn’t have a lot of ancillary baggage.”

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Ethan Hawke is an actor fortunate enough to have made many different kinds of films, from the critically acclaimed Before series to more mundane romantic comedies like Reality Bites. (In fact, alongside playing the villain in Moon Knight, he’s also in the new, critically-acclaimed, and, my editor keeps telling me, extremely fucking metal Robert Eggers Viking movie The Northman.) He’s in basically the ideal position for an actor: He has the work in his catalog to prove he really can act, allowing him to secure plum, creatively-fulfilling roles (his turn in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, for example), and is a generally recognizable star, but isn’t so famous that he’s locked into any particular kind of work, so that he can snag a quick role in a Marvel production, or a Western, or whatever blockbuster genre happens to be popular at the moment. For a long time, he’s been able to make great movies and make money, and sometimes do both at once.

Oscar Isaac is an actor in that model, and should probably be happily transitioning into just such a career. Although in his earlier days he made small appearances in bigger Hollywood films like Sucker Punch, he mostly gained popularity from his more challenging dramatic roles, particularly in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. He oozes charm, and played a roguish pilot in Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy, gaining fans for his good looks and chemistry with co-star John Boyega.

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Isaac hasn’t, though, really had a lot of luck with those bigger, franchise pictures, or, generally, with building a coherent career. Star Wars fizzled out over time, with Isaac’s character having less and less to do. His next big picture, Dune, was delayed by the pandemic, and he also played a character who dies in the first act. It’s not like the problem is that he stopped pulling out impressive dramatic performances in the meantime—alongside Dune, in 2021, Isaac starred in the Paul Schrader film The Card Counter, which ended up, apparently, being one of Barack Obama’s favorite films of the year. It’s also not like Isaac’s career is going badly: He has delivered moving, thrilling performances in movies both good and bad, big and small. It’s more that he does not yet have the ability to slip into any other mode of acting other than doing the absolute most at any given moment and in any given role, leaving him in a weird, liminal space.

Take, for instance, the accent choice Isaac makes in the first episode of Moon Knight. Isaac gets to play at least two characters in Moon Knight. The titular knight shares a body with Stephen Grant, a mild mannered Londoner working at a museum gift shop who seemingly experiences dissociative identity disorder but in fact mystically shares his body with an alter named Marc Spector. Spector and Grant have wildly different accents. Spector has Isaac’s natural, American accent. For Grant, Isaac uses a technically accurate but comical and high-pitched English accent. Initially, it’s incredibly jarring, but it’s a considered choice—once I learned that Isaac modeled the accent specifically after comic actors Russell Brand and Karl Pilkington, it all clicked for me. 

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“I thought, ‘What’s an energy that I haven’t seen in the MCU before? Like, what if someone asked Peter Sellers to be in a Marvel movie. And then I thought of Karl Pilkington,” Isaac told NME. “I was watching a lot of An Idiot Abroad, not so much for the accent, but for the comedy of it: like, you often don’t know if he knows he’s being funny. And there’s something a little bit naturally introverted about him, which I really liked a lot.”

All of this does come through in Issac’s portrayal of Grant, and he is, genuinely, so funny in this role (in which, to be clear, one of the most desirable men alive is portrayed as an abjectly sexless loser at whom women sneer). In the second episode, there’s a scene where Grant is repeatedly threatened and politely interjects “alright” and “okay” after each sentence, as if to indicate that he’s listening intently to the man who wants to murder him. It exactly resembles a classic British comedy. If anything, he’s probably too good at it, given too much leeway to make specific acting choices, considered as they may be; the micro of the performance doesn’t quite match the macro, what the scene and the production are trying to get across. On the other hand, there is no macro to get across. It’s a Moon Knight show on which a couple of accomplished and extravagantly gifted actors are working to pay the bills on their seventh yachts or whatever.   

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Compared to Hawke, who is basically doing a watered-down version of his role in First Reformed, Isaac is visibly putting a lot of work into the multiple roles he plays, even though the show does not really have the material for him to work with. Most of the time, it’s exhilarating, but sometimes, it’s just exhausting, especially when the show itself is not really that interesting. Although Moon Knight’s portrayal of Egypt is welcome for an industry all too eager to paint all Arabs as terrorists, the emotional content of the show, and Grant’s journey, has essentially already been covered in the much better X-Men show Legion that aired on FX.

For a Marvel property, doing this amount of work is just not necessary. Chris Evans is not a strong dramatic actor by any means, but his portrayal of Captain America was pitch-perfect, in part because his affability feels untrained. More similar to Isaac, Robert Downey Jr. has genuine acting bonafides even after long periods of complete duds, but his performance as Tony Stark in Iron Man and the Avengers films is barely acting. He isn’t going to do the kinds of things he did for David Fincher in Zodiac, where his puckishness festers into bitter alcoholism, for the Russo brothers. They don’t need all that, and neither does the audience.  Downey is playing a man who wears a mech suit to fight crime; working at the level he’s capable of wouldn’t be appropriate. 

None of this is to say that Isaac is doing anything wrong, exactly, by putting real work into such a nothing role (and clearly having a ball doing it), but it’s distracting and weird. As exciting as it is to watch Isaac in Moon Knight, especially as he transitions from one character to the other—sometimes mid-conversation—the show gets a lot worse the instant he is not on-screen, because he’s giving such an overwhelming and energetic performance that not only can nothing else going on compare to it, it doesn’t even seem to be happening in the same universe. It’s in the moments when Isaac is not taking up absolutely all the space on screen that I remember how Marvel shows have let me down before. 

The worst part of Moon Knight aren’t even the moments when Isaac isn’t on screen, though those scenes always come off as plodding and conventional in comparison to ones where Isaac is present. The worst scenes in the show are the ones where Isaac is there, but in the form of the Moon Knight himself, a superhero in a suit and mask that covers his entire head, making the distinction between CGI and person-in-costume indistinguishable. It makes me long to see the subtle movements of Isaac’s face, or even the impact of skin on skin when he fights people out of costume—a taste of humanity behind the character, however small. 

Maybe what Isaac needs most right now to showcase his talent and charm isn’t an action film, but a comedy, or even a romance. Something that would allow him to be as zany as Stephen Grant without becoming stuck in a staid superhero story. To see that character in an actual British farce would be more satisfying than to see him getting swallowed up by a narrative about ancient gods.

As much as I liked—and was genuinely impressed by—the first few episodes of WandaVision, it became a show about people throwing glowing orbs at each other. The longer Moon Knight goes on, the more proper nouns get introduced, the more lore Stephen Grant monologues at other characters, the more the isolated threat he faces begins to pose a threat on the entire world, nay, the universe. I can feel the glowing orbs on the horizon. I can feel Oscar Isaac, too, however faintly. But I guess every Western ends with a showdown at high noon.