The opening moments of Moon Knight, the latest superhero adventure from Disney+’s Marvel, don’t feature the show’s lead, Oscar Isaac. In the first scene of the first episode, the camera is on Ethan Hawke. As the villain Arthur Harrow, he sits quietly by himself, peacefully reading, before he makes a curious decision. Hawke-as-Harrow pours broken glass into his shoes, puts them on his feet, and walks slowly across the room with a sickening crunch at every step. As tone-setters go, it’s an effective one—Hawke plays that scene the same way he plays Harrow throughout the six-episode series, as a steady presence, preternaturally calm and warmly human despite having motivations few actual humans can relate to. (He wants to awaken an ancient Egyptian crocodile goddess to judge humanity; it’s a whole thing.) Marvel has always taken great pains to ensure that the stakes of its stories connect to the real world—the first hour of Avengers: Endgame is a long meditation on grief—and it’s hard to imagine much of the joyful nonsense that goes on throughout Moon Knight working without Hawke. The show’s climax, which Hawke carries out as someone possessed of an unwavering confidence in the goodness of his intentions, lands on the right emotional beat. Audiences might be perplexed by the final episode’s breakneck pace or the hand-waving explanations for the mechanics or consequences of what they’re watching, but they’ll understand what drives Harrow. “What’s happening?” a viewer might ask. “Ethan Hawke’s character thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s not working out,” is an answer that, for any of the actor’s longtime fans, makes intuitive sense.
Moon Knight wasn’t Hawke’s first foray into television; that was 2020’s The Good Lord Bird, a seven-episode Showtime miniseries about the abolitionist John Brown, which Hawke cocreated, wrote for, and starred in. Hawke’s performances connect the goofiness of Moon Knight and the more serious subject matter of Bird. The tone and stakes of Moon Knight don’t have a lot in common with those of Bird, but Hawke’s interpretation of John Brown—whom he plays with a wild-eyed fervor, as a man possessed of a righteous conviction that the world around him is largely unable, to his great frustration, to recognize—is a clear through line. Brown sought to catalyze a war that would lead to emancipation for enslaved African Americans. On Moon Knight, Hawke has to play off a CGI crocodile, but he grounds both performances in a way that few actors are capable of. In recent years, especially as he’s begun exploring the expansive terrain of television for the first time in his career, he’s graduated to roles that explore the nature of conviction and found a number of different ways to play that out on-screen.
In 2018, Hawke began what we’ll call the Ethanaissance—what feels like a commitment from the onetime heartthrob movie star to more substantive fare, often with a stronger creative hand. That year saw two major works from a talent who had previously seemed resigned to letting his best work come when serving as a color in longtime Austin buddy Richard Linklater’s palette. Hawke cowrote and directed Blaze, a Blaze Foley biopic (he also has a cameo), and made the widely acclaimed First Reformed with longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader.
First Reformed marked something of a turning point for Hawke. In that film, he plays a priest who, after witnessing to a young couple who are tormented by the threat of climate change, begins to take more direct and confrontational action to warn the world of approaching disaster. Hawke’s performance is defined by the same conviction he shows in The Good Lord Bird and Moon Knight—his Reverend Ernst Toller slowly gives himself over to the idea that failure to act is the greatest sin he can imagine—and it resonated with critics. Hawke was snubbed for an Oscar, but he earned best-actor accolades from the Independent Spirit Awards, Gotham Awards, and fourteen (!!) critics’ associations. (He followed that role with one in the indie crime flick Stockholm, playing Lars Nystrom, the real-life bank robber who won the support of his hostages with his conscientious treatment of their predicament and the rightness of his cause, a dramatization of the real-life incident that led to the coining of the term “Stockholm syndrome.”)
Hawke has become the actor who best embodies that sort of misunderstood conviction. He’s done the character work in film, and thanks to his recent entrance into television, his performances are given more time to breathe. Hawke might not have played a great super-villain in a movie, where screen time is limited and choices tend to be broad (both First Reformed and Stockholm solve these problems by putting him in virtually every scene), but the hours we spend with him as Harrow pay off. It adds up to a fascinating late-career turn: the foundation he laid in First Reformed and Stockholm led to the success of his wildly ambitious take on The Good Lord Bird. In the Showtime miniseries, Hawke seemingly felt no pressure to balance the frankly unhinged zealotry he displays as John Brown—the white American famous for being unambiguously correct on the issue of slavery and willing to fight and die for his beliefs—with a pull toward gravitas or an appeal to the sensibilities and understanding of a modern audience. Fighting and killing to free enslaved African Americans in the 1850s made you look crazy to the rest of American society, and Hawke embraces that for seven episodes. (His willingness to do so earned him another Gotham Award, as well as Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations.) At this point, playing a character who is convinced of his own righteousness, even in the face of a world that disagrees, seems downright easy for Hawke.
Hawke is poised for more in the coming months. He returned to the big screen in April, with a small role in the viking epic The Northman—he plays, wait for it, a bad man who believes he’s good—and in June, he stars in the Blumhouse horror film The Black Phone, cowritten by Austin screenwriter C. Robert Cargill. Later this year, he’ll take on another prestige project, costarring with Ewan McGregor in Apple’s Raymond & Ray, before capping 2022 as part of the ensemble for Netflix’s Knives Out 2. (He’ll also be back behind the camera with the six-part documentary series The Last Movie Stars, about Paul Newman and Joan Woodward, coming to HBO Max later this year.) It’s hard to say how all of those projects will be received, but if his recent history has taught us anything, it’s easy enough to guess what Hawke will bring to these roles: utter conviction, wide-eyed humanity, and more to look forward to from one of the great underpraised talents of his generation.