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Moonknight - Mysticism, Mental Health & the Middle East

After a breakout role in Hulu’s Ramy and a handful of appearances in shorts and tv, actress May Calamawy has landed squarely on her feet in her latest role as Layla El-Faouly in Marvel’s Moon Knight.

Like the butt-kicking lovechild of Rick & Evie from 1999’s The Mummy, Layla brings a much-needed grounding to Stephen Grant’s fractured personalities. Whilst a cloudy past with Marc Spector hangs heavy over her shoulders, Layla quips and kicks ass in equal measure - a no-nonsense, tough exterior concealing a softer fondness for Oscar Isaac’s titular character. She’s the humanising core at the centre of Marvel’s Moon Knight - something absolutely necessary in a story centred around ancient mysticism and unreliable narrators.

Secondary to that, the Egyptian-Palestinian May Calamawy takes pride of place as not only the female lead of the show, but one of Marvel’s growing pool of prominent women of colour. Taking her place alongside the likes of Zendaya, Tessa Thompson, Danai Gurira, Letita Wright, Gugu Mbatha-Raw et al, May firmly plants her feet in the hearts and minds of Marvel’s avid viewership.

Furthermore, May’s success in bringing Layla to life, lays undoubtedly in overcoming her own barriers, fears and challenges — along with those put up by disbelieving folks around her.

“As someone who wanted to go into acting, and people are like ‘really!?’ It’s not really common in the Middle East, it’s becoming more so.”

May continues, “I’ve said it before, I really think what I hope is more women can grow up learning to trust themselves and their intuition. And just follow that, regardless. If I listened to everyone, I wouldn’t be here.”

And it’s May’s — and by extension, Layla’s — tenacity that serves her so remarkably well in the MCU. She’s stepping into an enormous world, one fraught with passionate fans and frequent naysayers. For every gushing compliment, there’s a torrent of angry Tweets. For every true believer, there’s a baying crowd, hoping and wishing for the downfall of those portraying their favourite characters. It’s a funny world, but Calamawy’s battles have already laid a remarkable groundwork.

“It didn’t come easy, I was like doing therapy while I was doing (acting,)” May explains, “I wish I could have bypassed that and just gone for my dreams. And it’s not meant to be easy. I think sometimes we get a bit turned off when there are challenges but it’s meant to be challenging because we evolve through those challenges and we need to evolve into that person to be where we wanna be. So I say go for it and welcome the pain.”

And welcoming the pain is exactly how Layla succeeds. Paired in an off-screen marriage with the deadly mercenary, Marc Spector, Layla is clearly a worthwhile partner. Standing at his side through blood and sand, Layla holds her own as a worthy adversary to their many, many enemies — often, saving Marc’s (and by default, Stephen’s) backside after falling into another unexpected scrap.

Even after learning of Marc’s fractured mental health, Layla demonstrates an understanding and softness rarely seen in media. She is not the doting wife, blindly following the man in her life, nor the horrified lover, disgusted by her spouse’s transformation — She is a support, a grounding, and a fully-realised character in her own right.

She is sympathetic, patient and open-minded. There’s a strength in her softness that rounds out the implication of an entire lifetime unseen, a depth of character often reserved for title characters and box office megastars, the background built over three movies and a few team-up’s. Within a handful of hours, (truly within her first two series appearances,) May effortlessly delivers a rich, captivating character, fleshed out and tangible, the sort of leather-jacket toting woman that you’d blindly follow into the deepest tombs and entrust with your life.

It’s quite the achievement. Plenty of characters, both movie and series’, end up as temporary friends, brief single-serving appearances to further the title character. They’ll fit a cookie cutter sidekick, or a copy-and-paste partner, whatever the main attraction requires in that precise moment, soon to be tossed aside and forgotten about. (A glance back at ‘memorable villains’ proves this point entirely.)

But, thankfully, Layla El-Faouly never veers into this trope. She feels invaluable, a standout, a character begging to be explored, expanded upon, grown and utilised, refusing to back down, an intelligent, bold, strong woman who stands alongside the likes of Carol Danvers, Valkyrie, Peggy Carter and Okoye.

So whether you’re tackling the negative backlash of others, or punching Egyptian deities in the face, make like May Calamawy and Layla El-Faouly; Trust yourself, follow your intuition and welcome the pain.

Article by Bucky Ringsell

Bucky Ringsell is a non-binary writer, presenter and journalist. When not running into the desert to punch bad guys, Bucky can mostly be found collecting toys, reading comic books, watching movies and playing video games (like a real adult.)"


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