Since its establishment in 1939, Marvel Comics has been one of the top production companies that created fantasy stories for children and teenagers focused on mystery, adventure and action. Characters like Spider Man, Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk were widespread among the readers and then viewers when they were transferred into films or TV series.
For over seven decades the dramatic and characterisation structures which were adopted by Marvel (and also the other comic production companies) were based on the traditional conflict between good and evil, in that case the conflict between superheroes and supervillains. Their main goal was to focus directly on the imaginative aspects of the story to create an artificial, dazzling ambience and striking characters without paying much attention to the depth of the drama, the development of the characters or the importance of acting. Eventually, the early superheroes’ productions suffered from being generally shallow. Perhaps the production companies thought that, since the largest percentage of their audience are children and teenagers, then the depth of the story, the strength of direction, or the reality of acting was of less importance in the production equation.
This was not the case after the beginning of the 21st century when Marvel produced in 2002 Spider Man directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire. Although the story is from Marvel Comics, the direction, the shooting and the acting in this film was much closer to reality more than before. The new artistic approach gained appreciation from the audience and the critics as well, one year after Ang Lee’s Hulk was produced, based on Marvel Comics, with the same new goal. This became a new trend in the superhero world, but perhaps the most significant change happened in 2005, when Warner Bros also changed its approach and produced Batman Begins, based on DC Comics, directed by Christopher Nolan.
The development of the Superheroes’ stories and films continued throughout these years. Recently Marvel Studios launched a new superhero TV series titled Moon Knight. The six episode-series which broadcast on the Disney Plus platform was directed by Mohamed Diab (four episodes, with the two others by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead). The series starred Oscar Isaac who is also an executive producer with Diab and others. Created by Doug Moench, Moon Knight is based on ancient Egyptian mythology.
There are similarities among superheroes, regardless of the production company, that were obviously taken into consideration when the series creator came up with the details of the main character’s personality: he is an ordinary person who suffers from loneliness; he is innocent, as can be seen in Peter Parker in Spiderman or Clark Kent in Superman. In the first episode of Moon Knight we are introduced to the main character, Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac, who is also the executive producer along with Diab and few others), an ordinary employee in the gift shop of an ancient Egyptian museum in London. The introductory scene shows that although he seemed to be a simple Englishman living alone, there is something creepy about his life as he ties his leg to the bed while sleeping and wraps scotch tape round the door of his apartment. Such precautions show that he suffers from a kind of mental disorder or a sleepwalking condition. However, it becomes clear in later episodes that Grant suffers from more confusing problems. The first episode, as in most thriller TV series, contains an important gripping scene which includes a major twist that will change the life of this ordinary person for good. That is when Grant discovers that the blackouts he suffers are periods of time when his body is possessed by another personality whose name is Marc Spictor, an American person with superpowers. That is when he wakes up to himself in another city being chased by the armed followers of Ammit.
The reference of the plot uses the mythical nature of the goddess Ammit, who is a funerary deity, as a mythological creature with a crocodile’s head, a lion’s torso and the legs of hippopotamus. She can be found under the Scales of Justice in the Duat realm (the underworld in the ancient Egyptian mythology), where the dead person is judged with his heart on the right scale and a feather on the other. When the scales show that the heart is heavier than the feather, Ammit devours the heart and the person is not allowed to continue his voyage to immortality. The drama of the series used this nature of Ammit as an equivalent to ordinary evil when the intentions of the supervillain, Ammit follower’s leader Arthur Harow (Ethan Hawke) wanted to resurrect Ammit so that she can eradicate those who are capable of making mistakes or committing crimes before the do. However, this cult uses violence and terrorism to punish humans on their intintions. Against this abusive force there is Khonsu, the God of the Moon who tries through his avatar, Marc, to fight the Ammit’s followers just to give humans the freedom of choice and the ability to learn from their mistakes.
The series gets its vibes not only from the exotic mystery of the ancient Egyptian mythology itself but also from revealing some of the story’s secrecy gradually, where a part of the puzzle is nearly solved each episode. As in the first episode, when Grant was chased by a mythical Egyptian Jackal in the museum, when he saw his other personality in the mirror, Marc asked him to surrender his body to him then transformed into the superhero Moon Knight to kill the Jackal.
A few things make this series face more challenges than any other superhero productions. The main character is not like Spiderman, Hulk or Thor, who were known to the audience from the comic books before they were seen on screen. The case with Moon Knight is that it is an innovative production not only in terms of the character of the superhero but also in the use of the ancient Egyptian mythology. This may cause some confusion in the drama, especially in the fifth and sixth episodes where the creators try to cast the real life of the main character as if he is suffering from a severe schizophrenic condition with hallucinations, then the change the line of drama again to favour the conflict between the Egyptian gods Khonsu and Ammit.
One of the most fascinating features of this series is that the series director, Diab, manages to transfer the usual chase scenes which are iconic in suspense-thriller Hollywood films to the streets of the poorest and deprived neighbourhoods of Cairo. Diab wasn’t the only Egyptian to work in this production: Khaled Abdallah played a significant role as Selim Osiris Avatar in three episodes, while Ahmed Dash Played the role of a young thug and Ammit follower in a few scenes. The editing too is by an Egyptian, Ahmed Hafez, working with two others, and the music was done by the talented composer Hehsam Nazih. Beside the beautiful score of the series, he probably also selected some Egyptian songs: in the scene when Grant is about to go on a date with his colleague, Nagat’s song Bahlam Ma’ak (Dream With You), which was famous in the 1980s, was played in the background. In another episode also the audience will recognise a different mix of Warda’s famous song Batwanis Beek (I Enjoy Your Company) at the beginning of the third episode.
The importance of using this song is to link Marc-Grant with Egypt when he wakes up in front of the pyramids of Giza while Marc’s wife Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy, who is also a Palestinian-Egyptian actress) is looking for him. Calamawy’s performance in this series can be described as charismatic, since she is an experienced Hollywood actress. In fact most of the acting couldn’t be more captivating, especially when it comes to the two Hollywood stars Ethan Hawke as the villain with his firm and confident expressions and Oscar Issac who plays the protagonist with his two identities and their contradictory reactions: the Englishman who has a sense of humour and the American who is a classic, serious hero.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.