DUBAI: Representation matters. Not just representation of ethnic background, but of personal experience. As Egyptian director Mohamed Diab becomes the first Arab to direct a Marvel project with the eagerly awaited limited series “Moon Knight,” it’s a landmark moment not only because of his nationality, but also because he was born, raised, thrived and suffered in Egypt, living through his country’s revolution and painful rebuild, and ultimately becoming one of its most important chroniclers.
“Part of my voice is what happened to me over the last 10 years. Everything that happened in Egypt, everything that happened to me in that experience, is who I am today,” Diab tells Arab News. “It affects how I handle every scene. I definitely have a different voice because of all that I’ve been through — all that we as a people have been through — and you’re going to feel that voice in the show.
“I’m not someone who is obsessed with firsts, but I will say that what is unique about me getting the Marvel job is that I’m coming directly from the Arab world,” Diab — who previously helmed the award-winning films “Cairo 678” (2010), “Clash” (2016), and “Amira” (2021) — continues.
That Diab is applying that experience specifically to “Moon Knight” is particularly fitting. The character, who debuted in the 1975 comic “Werewolf by Night” #32, received his powers as the result of a curse from an ancient Egyptian deity.
There was a major reason that Diab’s voice was so necessary to the project. While many of the Marvel comic books from the 60s and 70s drew from cultures and mythologies from across the world, they were written and drawn from a perspective foreign to the cultures they were influenced by, leading to limited — sometimes offensive — potrayals of those people, places and histories.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has reintroduced those characters to a new generation over the last 14 years, there’s been an increasing focus on getting it right this time — making partners like Diab invaluable.
“I think it was very important for ‘Moon Knight’ to be overseen by an Egyptian director. It portrays both a modern Egypt and an ancient one, and usually the two of them are portrayed in an orientalist way, as something exotic and ‘other,’ which to me is dehumanizing,” says Diab. “I think Marvel did everything they can to do this right, and I think people that watch the show have never seen Egypt portrayed as authentically as it is here, in the past or in the present.”
Part of Diab’s mission was not just to apply his own voice to the show, but to include the creative voices of as many Egyptians and Arabs as he could. Each Egyptian character on the show is portrayed by an actual Egyptian — something rarely, if ever, done in Hollywood — including the ancient deity that plagues Moon Knight himself. Behind the scenes, Diab recruited previous collaborator Ahmed Hafez as one of the series’ editors, and the great Egyptian composer Hesham Nazih to write the series’ score.
“I think all of that added to the show’s authenticity, because they each excelled at their job in a way no one else could have. I hope that opens doors for others,” says Diab. “To me, this had to be a success story, because that’s what would inspire Hollywood to bring in more from Egypt and the Arab world. And it’s working so far — Marvel loved Hesham and Ahmed, for example, and I’m sure they’re going to work with them both again.”
Diab — as the show’s key creative voice along with creator Jeremy Slater — was integral in far more than capturing the Egyptian aspects of the show; he helped shape its entire aesthetic, so the show embraces elements that no Marvel project has before in terms of tone, style, and themes. He also personally convinced two actors who had long resisted becoming part of a superhero project — Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke — to come aboard.
“The first guy we went to was Oscar, and the first thing he asked me when he saw my films was, ‘What the heck are you doing here, man?’ Oscar was just coming out of big franchises, and I think he wanted to take a break, he wanted to do intimate films,” Diab says. “I tried to convince him that intimate films are not exclusive to budgets. You can make your intimate film at any scale.”
Diab ultimately earned Isaac’s faith in him, and then some.
“Through conversations with Mohamed and the trust that I had in him, it really felt like there was space to actually do something really truthful, unique and thrilling as an actor,” Isaac says. “And it ended up being that way for me.”
Hawke, who in addition to acting has been twice nominated for an Academy Award for writing, signed on after Diab’s pitch without even reading a script.
“The wonderful idea of hiring Mohamed to be our quarterback, to guide this ship, is that the movies he’s made in Egypt are incredible,” says Hawke. “He’s not looking at this with the eyes of an American, he’s looking at this — and these deities, and this world — from a vantage point of growing up in Egypt and having a lot to say about it. It’s exciting to be around him in that way.”
Diab also recruited the Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy, best known for her role in the Golden Globe-winning sitcom “Ramy,” as one of the show’s leads.
“The character wasn’t written as an Egyptian at the beginning. During development, I called her and I asked her if she was free for a Marvel project. Well… to be honest, my wife actually contacted her on Instagram,” Diab says with a laugh. “She didn’t believe it at first — she even asked her agent if it was true.
“When the time came, she auditioned with Oscar, and that audition was fantastic. They loved her. She was a tremendous addition. She’s intellectual, eager, down to earth, and proud of her heritage. She knows who she is. She stood up for her character in the room, and, as an Egyptian, she knew more about her character than anyone else,” says Diab. “I have a feeling the character is going to be very popular with people across the world because of what she brought to it.”
Ultimately, “Moon Knight” — which debuts internationally on Disney+ on March 30 and will premiere in the region this summer — is a show full of outsiders who, in partnership Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and many others, lent their creative voices to make this a Marvel project like no other.
“I think all of us together being put into a blender made the show a lot better,” says Diab.
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