How ‘Moon Knight’ fought mental illness, Egyptian representation

It’s not spoilers to say that Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight is unlike anything attempted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008’s Iron Man. It’s not just Marvel’s first Disney Plus series that doesn’t focus on already established characters, the show’s first four episodes that diversity seen contain not a single spoken reference to the MCU. Nobody talks about Thanos or Snap, Spider-Man or Wakanda. There is no mention of the Avengers or the Eternals, Infinity Stones or Multiverse. And not a single familiar face — not Doctor Strange or Wanda Maximoff, Captain Marvel or Shang-Chi — makes an appearance.

Ironically, when the team behind Moon Knight set out to seal off the MCU, “that wasn’t a goal,” says director and executive producer Mohamed Diab.

Moon Knight follows Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a nebulous clerk at a London museum gift shop who regularly wakes up in strange places with no memory of how he got there. As the first episode progresses, he realizes that an alternate and much more aggressive personality named Marc Spector (also Oscar Isaac) lives within him – as well as the voice of the Egyptian god Khonshu (F. Murray Abraham). . Marc and Khonshu are at odds with a religious cult leader named Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), but Steven wants nothing to do with it and is struggling for control of his own body.

Diab and Isaac explain that while developing Moon Knight with head writer Jeremy Slater (“The Umbrella Academy”), they realized that Steven’s story was already so psychologically complicated that there was precious little leeway for the rest of the MCU.

“As the show went on, everyone was like, ‘Okay, you know what, we don’t need crutches. We can stand on our own two feet,’” says Diab.

Isaac adds, “We wanted everything to feel like it was an outward expression of an inner struggle. And so the storyline’s connections to other MCU things became a lot less important, because what mattered most was an emotional truth about the journey that was taking place.”

It helped tremendously that like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Moon Knight was never remotely a marquee character in the Marvel comics landscape. “Because of his vagueness, it wasn’t like we had to make sure we were making that beat or the fans would go crazy,” says Isaac. “We have a lot of freedom to find out what’s exciting for us.”

In doing so, Moon Knight also boldly treads into uncharted territory for Marvel Studios with its use of ancient Egyptian mythology, its portrayal of Steven/Marc’s Dissociative Identity Disorder, and its darker and more violent approach to superhero storytelling.

“It’s a risk,” says Isaac. “We are creating something completely new.”

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Oscar Isaac and director Mohamed Diab on the set of Moon Knight.
Gabor Kotschy / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“The pyramids are in the middle of the city!”

Growing up in Egypt, Diab was a regular consumer of comic book heroes, but he had never heard of Moon Knight.

“In Egypt we only have Spider-Man, we only have Batman – we only have the big boys,” he says. When Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige announced in 2019 that Moon Knight would be one of the studios’ Disney Plus shows, Diab and his wife and producing partner Sarah Goher focused on the character as the project they were most passionate about recently moved to Los Angeles. Diab had established himself as an acclaimed director in Egypt with his films Cairo 678 and Amira, both down-to-earth contemporary dramas. In Moon Knight he saw an opportunity to bridge his Egyptian heritage with big-screen Hollywood films.

“The drama and the Egyptian part of it feels like an extension of everything I’ve done before,” he says. “And there’s the action, the horror and the comedy, things I wish I could have shown.”

Diab says he and Goher put together a 200-page pitch document that covers every aspect of their approach to production. “As soon as we were done, I said to her, ‘We’re going to get this job or there’s something wrong with the world,'” he says with a smile. (Diab directed the first, third, and final two episodes of the series, while Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead directed the second and fourth episodes.)

With Moon Knight drawing heavily on ancient Egyptian cosmology, Diab knew the show would inevitably be Marvel’s first title set in the Arabian world – and getting that portrayal right would be crucial.

“One of the most important things was to represent Egypt, present and past, in an authentic way,” he says. “Egyptians see that Hollywood always sees them as Orientalist. We are always exotic. Women are submissive. men are bad. So it was very important for me to break that.”

He pushed for Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy (“Ramy”) to play Layla El-Faouly, a woman from Marc’s past who wasn’t originally written as Egyptian. And he insisted on filming the show’s sequences in Cairo to show how the city truly integrates its most famous ancient landmarks.

“You always photograph the pyramids in the desert,” he says. “If you swerve a bit, the pyramids are in the middle of the city! Nobody likes this shot. Skyscrapers can be seen. 20 million people live there. It’s one of those cities that never sleeps. Showing all of that was really important to me.” Diab also noticed that he is the first Arabic director for Marvel Studios. “It was very important for me to show that I’m not here because I’m Arab or Egyptian,” he says, “I’m here because I’m a good director. I’m here because I can tell the story better than anyone else. And if I can do that, I could open doors to minorities around the world. I hope that happens.”

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Oscar Isaac in “Moon Knight”.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“The language is very sublime and dreamlike”

In the comics, Marc Spector takes the lead as the Moon Knight, with several alternate personalities, including Steven Grant, helping him in his superheroic endeavours; only later is it discovered that Marc suffers from dissociative identity disorder or DID. Formerly known as multiple personality disorder — and often mistakenly referred to as schizophrenia — DID is a true, clinical mental health diagnosis that Hollywood has often used as a motor for heightened drama.

To better understand DID, Isaac read A Fractured Mind, the 2005 memoir of Chinese scholar Robert B. Oxnam, who, in his 40s, learned through therapy that the blackouts, depression, and alcoholism that had plagued him , the result of 11 different personalities .

“For me, that was my Bible,” says Isaac. During his research, the actor found that DID is predominantly caused by long-term abuse that begins in early childhood. “It’s not just something traumatic that happens and all of a sudden you have all these personalities,” he says. “To survive that abuse, the mind breaks and creates other personalities that don’t know about the abuse or can shoulder that abuse or punish the people who abuse it.”

Oxnam also turned to imaginative, childlike imagery when telling his alternate identities. “He described a castle and a witch living on a hill,” he says. “The language is already very elevated and dreamy, so it really lent itself to this genre. It didn’t feel like we were trying to shove that in as a backstory or plot point, but that we could frame the entire story around these very complex psychological things and do an action at the same time. adventure story.”

While Isaac and the filmmaking team have strived to bring as much authenticity as possible to the portrayal of DID, Diab is quick to realize that Moon Knight is still essentially a superhero series.

“I’ve learned a lot about DID, and I think everyone will learn a lot through the show’s journey,” says the director. “But I would still say that, respectful as we were, this is not an accurate representation of DID. We’re in a supernatural world, and sometimes we over-dramatize things.”

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Oscar Isaac in “Moon Knight”.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

“OK, that’s a little too much blood!”

The specter of trauma and violence emerges in Moon Knight in a far more visceral way than Marvel Studios has ever explored before. It’s evident from the very first scene – in which Hawkes puts broken glass in Arthur Harrow’s shoes in a ritual of religious self-flagellation – and continues throughout the show.

“I covered my trailer with all sorts of ‘Moon Knight’ artwork from the comics,” says Isaac. “It’s a really dark, terrifying aesthetic. In a way, we had to cross the line to find out what it was. It’s like, ‘OK, that’s a little too much blood! That’s a bit too much organ noise! Let’s pull that back a bit.’”

Often the task of conveying the harrowing nature of the story fell to Isaac’s performance – or performances – as Steven and Marc. To the actor’s best understanding, the different identities in someone with DID are effectively “different people who happen to share the same body,” so as an actor, it was about “engaging with completely different people.” Since Marvel Studios decided to set Moon Knight in London to differentiate it from the many other titles set in New York City, Isaac – now notorious – decided to give Steven Grant a high-pitched working-class British accent, although this was not stated in the script.

“I thought there would be an opportunity to create a whole different kind of indelible comic book character to gently bring you into the world and basically win the audience over to him pretty quickly,” says Isaac. “As soon as things get crazy you’re with him and already cheering him on. You can feel his terror because he doesn’t know what’s happening to his mind or reality.”

Isaac said that at first this decision to act was not met with wild enthusiasm. But he credits Marvel Studios and Feige with trusting his own creative instincts and giving him a more central decision-making role than many actors making their first move in the MCU are typically given.

“I was able to say, because I wasn’t actively looking to get back into something that big, I was like, ‘That’s how I see it, and if you don’t see it that’s perfectly fine, but then maybe it’s not the right fit,’” he says. “And so I wasn’t afraid that I would do the wrong thing.”

It also meant that unlike so many actors before him, Isaac isn’t contractually obligated to remain in the MCU after “Moon Knight” ended its six-part run in May. So fans shouldn’t necessarily expect him to appear in Marvel Studios features like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever or Disney Plus series like Secret Invasion.

“I heard about the golden handcuffs,” Isaac says with a nervous chuckle. “That was something where I was reluctant. And fortunately we all agreed that this [show] that’s what we’re going to focus on. That’s the story. And if there’s a future, I think it just depends on people liking it, people wanting to see more, and finding a story worth telling.” How ‘Moon Knight’ fought mental illness, Egyptian representation

Charles Jones

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