Oscar Isaac: New Mythology With Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight And Breaking From MCU

Mention the origins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008 and characters including Iron Man, Thor and Captain America come to mind, but believe it or not, fellow Avenger Moon Knight was one of the original names on Kevin Feige’s list to bring to live-action, reveals executive producer Grant Curtis, of the upcoming Moon Knight Disney+ series that is landing 30 March 2022.

“Moon Knight, in particular, has been on Kevin Feige’s radar from day one. I mean, you look at his history, first appeared in Werewolf by Night in 1975. Then, he kind of bounced around in the Marvel Universe for the next five years, and he got his own offering in 1980.  And when you look at years and decades of storytelling, as the great storytellers and artists on the Moon Knight pages have been doing, I think this was a natural progression, a merger into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And I think it was just like this was the perfect time,” said Curtis at a press conference for the upcoming streaming show that Geek Culture attended.

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From the Egyptian iconography to the tortured hero’s dissociative identity disorder, Moon Knight has allowed the makers to explore the depths of the character – or characters – to no ends to bring a series so unique and different from Marvel Studios to the fans all over the world. So while Moon Knight wasn’t part of Phase 1 of the MCU, he is actually the first new superhero character introduced as a lead in a Marvel Studios TV series, to be part of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe

“Marvel was onto something. I had other offers before to make big-budget movies, but I never connected to anything like this, intimate stories that has some big stuff happening around them.  So just imagine that line – you as a normal person discovering that you have another identity that is a superhero. I was drawn right away,” said series director Mohamed Diab at the press conference. 

In the comics, Marine turned mercenary Marc Spector is left for dead when he is resurrected by the Egyptian God Khonshu, to become an avatar of the deity, so instead of taking lives, Moon Knight works to brand criminals and avenges the innocents with chaos and violence since his introduction in 1975.

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But while the idea of a caped vigilante attacking criminals isn’t new, the character evolved, as did the stories, to a globetrotting, cultural, action-packed, horror series. The plot twist? Spector suffers from dissociative identity disorder and has been recognised to have at least three other primary identities, including billionaire businessman Steven Grant, who is English-Jewish, taxi driver Jake Lockley and white suit-wearing consultant Mr. Knight. 

This raises the question – is Khonshu real, or did Spector imagine it all, or is there something more around the topic of mental health?

“It just seemed like there was a real opportunity to do something completely different, particularly in the MCU, and to really focus on this internal struggle of this character, and to use Egyptian iconography and the superhero genre and this language to talk about this real internal struggle that this person is having,” noted award-winning actor Oscar Isaac, who plays the titular character. 

In the Disney+ series, the main character is not Egyptian by ethnicity or nationality, but being an avatar of an Egyptian deity means there are plenty of references to Egyptian iconography. The series delves into ancient Egypt and tales of its various deities and provides a lens into the Egyptian way of life. The series was shot in Jordan and in various locations so viewers got to see Egypt – the real Egypt as director Diab puts it. 

Being Egyptian himself, this series gave him the opportunity to make something incredibly authentic for fans, and bring in Egyptian talents into the ever-expanding world of Marvel. 

“As an Egyptian, we always see us depicted or the Middle East depicted in a way that is – we call it orientalism – when you see us as exotic and dehumanized.  Just showing us as a human, just normal human beings, through Layla’s character and seeing even Egypt as Egypt because 90 per cent of the time, Egypt is not Egypt. That’s really what attracted me,” explained Diab. 

Alongside Spector is Layla El-Faouly, a character new to Marvel because she was never in the comics and one newly introduced in the show. Serving as an ally to Spector, she is played by Egyptian actress May Calamawy (Ramy) and is also the only female in the male-dominated cast, which also includes acting veteran Ethan Hawke. According to the actress, playing El-Faouly was empowering and confronting at the same time, but being around Isaac and Hawke made the process so much easier. 

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“I’m relatively new to this whole process and industry, so I’m lucky that you were all fighting for Layla, as well. I’ve been in this place where I’m like, I’m just going to do what I’m told, and then I get to watch you two (Isaac and Hawke), and that’s something I really learned from you is you would just throw out so many ideas and even if one was like that doesn’t work, we would move in a direction based on the one that didn’t work. And yeah, they all just — they really heard me,” shared Calamawy. 

“Everyone was empowering. The main thing with Layla, it was just really important to me that as someone who’s grown up in the Middle East, the more I ended up taking from myself, the better, the easier it became. I wanted to find a story that would work with someone who had similar conditioning, who would deal with situations a certain way.  What would that look like for someone raised there versus someone raised in the West?” 

For Isaac and Hawke, the draw to the project was the complexity of the characters and the unique perspectives and experiences Moon Knight presents for these well-established actors.

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The exploration of the hero’s mental health also presented a new type of villain – if we can even call him that. Hawke plays Doctor Arthur Harrow, an avatar for a different Egyptian God on a mission to achieve a world without bad and violence. Spector’s mental illness created a whole new dynamic between the hero and Hawke’s character Harrow, who for the most part, considers himself to be the hero of the story. 

“The history of movies is paved with storytellers using mental illness as a building block for the villain. There are countless stories of mentally ill villains, and we have a mentally ill hero – and that’s fascinating because we’ve now inverted the whole process. Now as the antagonist, I can’t be crazy because the hero’s crazy. I have to kind of find a sane lunatic or a sane malevolent force. That was an interesting riddle for me to figure out how to be in dynamics with what Oscar was doing,” shared Hawke. 

“Mohamed was really embracing his mental illness as a way to create an unreliable narrator and once you’ve broken the prism of reality, everything that the audience is seeing is from a skewed point of view. That’s really interesting for the villain because am I even being seen as I am? I think that was our riddle, and we came up with somebody who was trying to save the world and in his mind, he’s Saint Harrow, you know? I mean, he thinks he’s gonna be part of the great solution!”

And the same goes for Isaac, who embraced his roles as Moon Knight.

“The story is so point of view. It means that you’re just in the skin of this guy, and you’re seeing things happen. You’re experiencing it just as he’s experiencing it so there’s something that’s terrifying about that. I think Steven (Grant), in particular, there’s a sense of humour there that is different from what we’ve seen. I think Marvel in particular has done such an amazing job at combining action and comedy in such a great way,” said Isaac of his character. 

“I thought with Steven, there was a chance to do a different type of comedy than we’ve seen of somebody that doesn’t know they’re funny, doesn’t know they’re being funny. And then to find the counterpoint of that with Marc, in some ways leaning into a bit of the stereotype of the tortured, dark vigilante guy, but what makes him so special is that he has this little Englishman living inside of him.” 

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Grant being a Jewish-English man was just one of the ways Isaac tries to do something differently. Laughing, the actor said Marvel already has “too many characters in New York”, so he decided to make Grant an expat in London. Isaac also took inspiration from English humour such as The Office, Stath Lets Flats and did research into the Jewish community and various English accents before landing on one that he felt properly represented Grant’s background and mannerisms. 

The hard part, however, was playing all these various characters in one. This is especially since in Moon Knight, Isaac’s character is seen conversing with each other and vice versa. And Isaac being had to approach scenes where he’s basically playing a guy with two (and more) guys living inside his own head. 

But who can be the other Oscar Isaac that Isaac speaks to? No one, but they found the next best thing, in Isaac’s own brother, Michael Hernandez. 

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“Well, the first step was to hire my brother, Michael Hernandez, to come in and be the other me.  That’s the closest thing to me there is on Earth. So he came in and he would play either Steven or Marc, even do the accent and everything, both accents. So that was really helpful to have – someone that’s not only a great actor but also shares my DNA to play off of,” revealed Isaac. 

“That was something that I didn’t anticipate was how technically demanding that was going to be of having to show up and decide which character I was going to play first, and then try to block that out, give my brother notes, and then do the scene, and then switch characters, and then figure it out. The most fun thing about acting is acting opposite somebody and letting something spontaneous happen that you didn’t expect, but there wasn’t really an opportunity to do that and still having to try to find what makes it feel spontaneous and not all planned out was challenging.” 

In addition, Hawke is incredibly thankful of the unique experience to collaborate closely with the creators and make his character Harrow his own. When the project was pitched to him by Isaac, the Award-winning actor signed in without even reading the script. This was just one of the many indicators of trust that Hawke has in Marvel Studios, as well as executive producer Curtis. 

“In my whole experience, usually when there’s a huge budget, there’s a tremendous amount of fear. The people in charge are incredibly controlling, and creativity is reduced. In my entire experience, with you, Grant [Curtis] and with Marvel, it’s the opposite of that. There was a lot of playfulness and a lot of willingness to fail and a lot of willingness to have bad ideas because you can’t find a great idea if we don’t say some dumb ones and make mistakes. And I sensed it from Oscar from the get-go, there was this huge passion to contribute,” shared Hawke. 

“When an actor has a strong hit on a character when they have something they want to contribute and you follow it, good things happen – that’s collaboration. You guys were willing to have that happen. Sometimes people tell you don’t sign on without reading a script but I’m really glad I did because I think it’s better because of the way it evolved.” 

With a completely new take on what it means to be a superhero and a cast so dedicated to breaking barriers, fans are strapped in for a Marvel experience that they’ve not seen before. Whether you’re in it to see a tortured vigilante with dissociative identity disorder kick butt or view Egypt through a different lens, Moon Knight is for sure a series to catch when it premieres on Disney+ on 30 March 2022.