How ‘Moon Knight’ Sends Marvel Studios Into the Unknown: ‘We’re Creating a Whole New Thing’
It is no spoiler to say that Marvel Studios’ “Moon Knight” is unlike anything attempted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008’s “Iron Man.” Not only is it Marvel’s first Disney Plus series that doesn’t focus on already established characters, the first four episodes of the show, which Variety has seen, contain not a single spoken reference to the MCU. No one talks about Thanos or the Snap, Spider-Man or Wakanda. There are no mentions of the Avengers or the Eternals, infinity stones or multiverses. And not a single familiar face — not Doctor Strange or Wanda Maximoff, Captain Marvel or Shang-Chi — makes an appearance.
When the team behind “Moon Knight” set out to make it, however, walling off the MCU “wasn’t a goal, ironically,” says director and executive producer Mohamed Diab.
“Moon Knight” follows a nebbishy London museum gift shop employee named Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac) who is regularly waking up in strange places with no memory of how he got there. Over the course of the first episode, he comes to realize that an alternate, and far more aggressive, personality named Marc Spector (also Oscar Isaac) is living inside him — as is 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 any of it, and grapples for control over 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 room to squeeze in the rest of the MCU.
“As the show progressed, everyone felt, ‘OK, you know what, we don’t need crutches. We can stand on our own,'” says Diab.
Adds Isaac, “We wanted everything to feel like it was an external expression of an internal struggle. And so the plot ties to other MCU things became much less important, because the most important thing was an emotional truth to the journey that was happening.”
It helped enormously that much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Moon Knight was never anywhere close to being a marquee character within the Marvel Comics landscape. “Because of its obscurity, it wasn’t like, we got to make sure we do this beat or the fans are gonna go crazy,” says Isaac. “We have a lot of freedom to figure out what is exciting for us.”
In doing so, “Moon Knight” also boldly steps into even more uncharted territory for Marvel Studios in its use of ancient Egyptian mythology, in its depiction of Steven/Marc’s dissociative identity disorder, and in its darker and more violent approach to superhero storytelling.
“It’s a risk,” says Isaac. “We’re creating a whole new thing.”
“The Pyramids Are in the Middle of the City!”
When he was growing up in Egypt, Diab was a regular consumer of comic book heroes, but he’d never heard of Moon Knight.
“In Egypt, we only got Spider-Man, we only got Batman — we only got the big guys,” he says. Nevertheless, when Marvel Studios chief 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 zeroed in on the character as the project they most wanted to pursue after recently moving to Los Angeles. Diab had established himself as an acclaimed director in Egypt for his films “Cairo 678” and “Amira,” both grounded, contemporary dramas. In “Moon Knight,” he saw the opportunity to bridge his Egyptian heritage with big canvas Hollywood filmmaking.
“The drama of it and the Egyptian part of it feels like an extension of everything that I’ve been doing,” he says. “And there’s the action and the horror and the comedy, which are things I wished I had the chance to show.”
Diab says he and Goher put together a 200-page pitch document covering every aspect of how they’d approach the production. “The moment we’re done, I told 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, with the directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead handling the second and fourth episodes.)
Since “Moon Knight” relied heavily on ancient Egyptian cosmology, Diab understood that by necessity the show would be Marvel’s first title set in the Arab world — and getting that representation right would be crucial.
“One of the most important things was how to depict Egypt, the present and the past, in an authentic way,” he says. “Egyptians see that Hollywood always sees them in an Orientalist way. We’re always exotic. Women are submissive. Men are bad. So it was very important for me to break that.”
He pushed for Egyptian-Palestinian actor May Calamawy (“Ramy”) to play Layla El-Faouly, a woman from Marc’s past who was not initially written to be Egyptian. And he insisted on shooting the sequences of the show set in Cairo to reflect how the city really incorporates its most famous ancient landmarks.
“You always shoot the pyramids in the desert,” he says. “If you pan a little bit, the pyramids are in the middle of the city! No one likes that shot. You can see skyscrapers. It’s 20 million people living there. It’s one of the cities that never sleeps. So showing all that was very important for me.” It was also not lost on Diab that he is the first Arab director for Marvel Studios. “It was very important for me to show that I’m not here because I’m an Arab or an 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 succeeded, I might open doors for minorities around the world. I hope that happens.”
“The Language Is Already Very Heightened and Dreamlike”
In the comics, Marc Spector takes the lead as Moon Knight, with several alternate personalities, including Steven Grant, helping him in his superheroic pursuits; it’s only later on that Marc is determined to have dissociative identity disorder, or DID. Previously known as multiple personality disorder — and often mischaracterized as schizophrenia — DID is a real, clinical mental health diagnosis that Hollywood has often turned to as an engine for heightened drama.
To better understand DID, Isaac read “A Fractured Mind,” the 2005 memoir by China scholar Robert B. Oxnam, who learned through therapy in his 40s that the blackouts, depression, and alcoholism that had plagued him were the result of 11 distinct personalities.
“For me, that was my bible,” Isaac says. In his research, the actor learned that DID is predominately caused by prolonged abuse that starts in early childhood. “It’s not just a traumatic thing happens and suddenly you have all these personalities,” he says. “In order to survive this abuse, the mind fractures and creates other personalities to be able to not know about the abuse, or shoulder that abuse, or punish the people that are abusing him.”
In his recounting of his alternate identities, also, Oxnam turned to fantastical, child-like imagery. “He described a castle and a witch that lives on a hill,” he says. “The language is already very heightened and dreamlike, and so it really lent itself to this genre. It didn’t feel like we were trying to push this in as a backstory or a plot point, but that we could orient the entire story around these very complex psychological things, and at the same time, make, you know, an action-adventure story.”
Indeed, while Isaac and the filmmaking team strove to bring as much authenticity to the depiction of DID as possible, Diab is quick to note that “Moon Knight” is still, at heart, a superhero show.
“I learned a lot, and I think everyone is going to learn a lot through the journey of the show, about DID,” the director says. “But I still would say that, as respectful as we were, this is not an accurate depiction of DID. We are in a supernatural world and sometimes we over-dramatize stuff.”
“OK, That’s a Little Too Much Blood!”
The specter of trauma and violence looms throughout “Moon Knight” in a far more visceral way than Marvel Studios has ever explored before. It’s apparent from the very first scene — in which Hawke’s Arthur Harrow places broken glass in his shoes in a ritual of religious self-flagellation — and continues throughout the show.
“I covered my trailer with all sorts of ‘Moon Knight’ art from the comics,” Isaac says. “It is a really dark, terrifying aesthetic. In a way we had to kind of go past the boundary to figure out what it was. It’s like, ‘OK, that’s a little too much blood! That’s a little too much sounds of organs coming out! Let’s pull that back a little bit.'”
Often, the job of communicating the harrowing nature of the story fell to Isaac’s performance — or, really, performances — as Steven and Marc. To the actor’s best understanding, the different identities within someone who has DID are, effectively, “different people that happen to share the same body,” so as an actor, it was about “committing to 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 decided — rather infamously now — to give Steven Grant a high-pitched, working class British accent, even though that wasn’t indicated in the script.
“I thought there was an opportunity to create a very different kind of indelible comic character to bring you into the world gently, and to basically get the audience on his side pretty quickly,” Isaac says. “So that once stuff starts going crazy, you’re with him, and you’re already rooting for him. You can you feel for his terror at not knowing what’s happening to his mind or his reality.”
Isaac has said this acting choice was not initially met with wild enthusiasm. But he credits Marvel Studios and Feige for trusting in his own creative instincts, and providing him with a more central decision-making role than many actors taking their first swing in the MCU normally receive.
“I was in a position — because I wasn’t actively looking to get back into something this big — to say, ‘This is how I see it, and if you guys don’t see it that way, that’s totally okay, but then maybe it’s not the right fit,'” he says. “And so I wasn’t afraid that I was going to do the wrong thing.”
It also meant that, unlike so many actors before him, Isaac is not contractually obligated to remain in the MCU after “Moon Knight” ends its six-episode run in May. So fans should not necessarily expect him to show up in the Marvel Studios features like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” or Disney Plus series like “Secret Invasion.”
“I had heard of the golden handcuffs,” Isaac says with a nervous chuckle. “That was something that I was reticent about. And luckily, we all agreed that this [show] is what we’re going to focus on. This is the story. And if there’s any kind of future, I think it just depends on if people like it, if people want to see more, and if we find a story that’s worth telling.”