'The powers are connected to who she is in a way that will be surprising,' says head writer Bisha K. Ali.
Ms. Marvel has officially arrived, whether she meant to or not.
The first episode of Disney+'s latest Marvel series introduced a whole new legion of fans to the girl who is perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe's biggest fan of all. Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) began the first episode as a 16-year-old Youtuber and fanfic writer perfecting her Captain Marvel costume for AvengerCon, and she ended the episode with new, unexplainable, possibly uncontrollable powers of…cosmic light? It's unclear so far exactly what her powers are, but you can imagine that a lover of earth's mightiest heroes is mighty excited to possibly be one of them. Sure, her mom (played by Zenobia Shroff) is extremely disappointed in her, some mysterious agents are now after her, and she kind of made a huge mess of the convention, but dreams are coming true, and not just for Kamala.
"Oh my gosh, the dream, the absolute dream," is how head writer Bisha K. Ali describes the process of diving into a new corner of the MCU to Metacritic. "We're all in the writers' room sitting around and pinching ourselves. Are we talking about our experiences at Masjid, and then we're gonna put them in a Marvel show? We couldn't believe that we got to do that."
The show is a bright, colorful mixture of Kamala's more "grounded" world with her family, who are Pakistani Muslims living in Jersey City, and the fantasy world of superheroes she's deeply obsessed with. Superheroes may be very real in this universe, but Kamala should still be focusing on school, prayer, and her brother's impending wedding, according to her mother. She can also only go to AvengerCon if she agrees to dress up as the Hulk with her father (played by Mohan Kapur), which she absolutely refuses to do. She ends up sneaking out with her best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz), along with a beautiful bracelet sent by her grandmother, which her mother mysteriously told her not to touch.
Kamala's attempt to put some Pakistani flair on her costume with the bracelet ends up giving her actual Captain Marvel-esque powers that just so happen to act up while Kamala is showing off her costume at the costume contest. She accidentally knocks off the head of the giant Ant-Man statue, which then tears through the con like the boulder from Indiana Jones. Kamala gets out of there quickly, but the damage is done, and there's a lot to learn about what the heck just happened. Of course, that will have to wait for the next episode.
In the meantime, here, Ali and director Meera Menon give Metacritic some insight into building the world of Kamala Khan.
What was is like to dive into Kamala's world, balancing the cultural aspects and the fandom aspects? The MCU hasn't really spent a lot of time with either before.
Meera Menon: It was a lot of fun. I think that the fact that the show is fun to watch reflects the fact that it was fun to make. I think everyone felt how important it was to be representing a family like this, to be showcasing a diversity of kids like this. I think everyone felt the diversity of the storytelling, but also knew that we were so lucky to be able to do it that we just wanted to live in the moment of it, so we tried to have a lot of fun. We were shooting during the heart of the pandemic and these past few years, so there was a lot of masking, and we were faced with a lot of obstacles, but I think despite that and in spite of that, we all tried to have a lot of fun.
Bisha K. Ali: The fact that these comics exist, and Sana Amanat did all this work in creating this character for the comics, that opened the floodgates to this huge group of creators behind the camera who got to come together. The impact of that, I can't overstate enough how incredible that is. So, that felt so joyful, and then the fact that it's from a fan perspective, we've got this generation of young people who've grown up on 10 years of Marvel storytelling, and they are fans. They're the ones who hold up this entire business model, frankly. They're tied to it. They're the most important part of it, and now that generation gets to see someone like them, who's also a fan of it within the show, live their fan life and get tapped to join the universe that they so love and dream about. I think being a fan is such a passionate thing, and it plays on emotion. Some of the fans are artists, they're writers, they're creators in their own right. And I think that's really essential in Kamala's character and what she does, and I'm just really excited for them to see themselves in her, and to see her get her biggest dream and their biggest dream too. And that speaks to Iman's story as well. Oh my gosh, what a joy to see those things come together, and to be a small part of this entire process, and this thing coming together, like AvengerCon. I was like, please send us to AvengerCon. We created AvengerCon in the writers' room, and we're like, why isn't this a real thing?
That was going to be my next question. Where is AvengerCon and when can I go?
B.K.A.: Right? Thank you! It was a bunch of nerds in the writers' room, and we were like, "What would we want to go to?" And one of the debates we had was, "Where would AvengerCon happen?" Because we didn't want her, character-wise, to go into New York City right at the top of the show, or at any point in the show, because there's something symbolic about that — about going to the city from Jersey — so that felt like a big move. And then one of our writers realized that Camp Lehigh [from Captain America] is in New Jersey, and we were like, "Let's repurpose Camp Lehigh as the location where AvengerCon takes place." That felt like the kind of activity that we were so excited about, and that excitement was born out of the fact that we're all fans. That's why it was so much fun pitching what weird activities fans would put on at an AvengerCon. It's a love letter to the fans who love cosplay and who put so much of their heart into loving these stories. It was a great honor of mine to be able to facilitate that story.
The first episode ends with her discovering these powers, and clearly there's some sort of family connection with the bracelet. What can you say about the journey Kamala is about to go on?
B.K.A.: I appreciate the question, but I can say absolutely nothing. I'm trying to be really well behaved. I will say there was one day in the writers' room where we had the show broken out on index cards, and we were all sitting back and we kind of went, "We're really putting her through it, huh? We're really putting Kamala Khan through something?" And we're like, "Yeah, we are." And that's all I can say.
M.M.: I think for the rest of the season, the audience will be in for a lot of growth, a lot of discovery, a lot of danger, a lot of travel, a real journey of self-discovery. And I think that is the story of Kamala Khan, especially being just a young girl trying to figure out who she is and trying to figure out how to summon her bravery to save the world.
Can you say if the powers will be tied to the cultural aspects of the show, since there's clearly a family connection with the bracelet?
B.K.A.: I don't know if I'd necessarily say [it's connected to] a cultural aspect, but I'd say it's inherently tied to who she is. I think that interconnectivity is not overt. I think the way that she moves through the world, her culture just is. It's part of it, we're not pointing at it. It's just who she is and how she operates in the world, and in the same way I think the powers are connected to who she is in a way that will be surprising.
In the second episode (which is directed by Menon), Kamala gets the chance to figure out how her powers work. What was the process like to determine what that would look like?
M.M.: There was a lot of conversation about that, both prior to my arriving into the process and afterwards. I think there was a lot of thought put into how her power set was going to exist within the MCU in a larger sense beyond just the show, and how to demonstrate the kind of micro steps it takes her to get there. I think for me, what was the most fun about it or what was the most interesting storytelling part of it was that this is a kid who's just figured out that she could do this, like, a minute ago. So, imagine being in the shoes of someone that's just trying to figure it out with zero information: There's a lot of fumblings, a lot of missteps; there's a lot of falling on her face, literally. I think that is part of what is, to me, also the metaphor of just being a teenage girl and trying to figure out who you are and what you're good at and what your superpowers are, so to speak.
Was there any inspiration behind how the powers would actually work?
M.M.: That was a such a collaborative effort between the studio and the visual effects department. They were really top level on this show, and they were not just excellent craftsmen at what they do, but real visionaries and artists of their own right. They had a lot of ideas about just the texture and the vibrancy and the kind of crystallization of her powers, and how it should be an extension of who Kamala is as a person. She's a real creative kid. She's an artist, at the end of the day. You see that so much in the point of view of the show and the imaginative space that the show exists in, and I think her powers needed to feel like an extension of her imagination. Those were the kinds of conversations that led to what you see in terms of how those powers look.
Get to know Bisha K. Ali:
Ali is hot off Marvel's previous Disney+ series Loki (Metascore: 74), but the British writer and producer has also written on Four Weddings and a Funeral (50) and Sex Education (81), and served as a consulting producer on The Baby (71). Ms. Marvel (75) is the first show she has created.
Get to know Meera Menon:
As a director Menon has previously worked on comic book adaptations from The Punisher (Metascore: 55) to The Walking Dead (79), but she has also helmed episodes of You (75), Outlander (76), For All Mankind (69), and most recently, With Love (75).