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Bisha K. Ali was in the Loki writers’ room when she first caught wind of a Ms. Marvel series, and she wasted no time shooting her shot. As a Marvel devotee herself, the British-Pakistani writer knew that she could bring authenticity to the story of a Pakistani-American teenager named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) who unlocks a unique set of superpowers. Ali even declined to extend her tenure on Loki in order to work on her pitch to Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige. Ultimately, Ali understood that creating an accurate portrayal of a Muslim-American family in Jersey City would be just as relatable as any other family story.
“I said to my [Loki] exec Kevin Wright, ‘If you guys are doing an adaptation of Ms. Marvel and you don’t put my hat in the ring, none of us are leaving with hats or heads,’” Ali tells The Hollywood Reporter, with a laugh. “I was able to share with [Marvel Studios] why I thought this show was important for me personally, as a fan, as a South Asian person, as a Pakistani woman, as a woman from a Muslim background. I explained why those things were important, but also how we could marry them in a way that’s specific and universal.”
One of the surprises in the Ms. Marvel premiere was the inclusion of Arian Moayed’s Agent Cleary from Spider-Man: No Way Home, and as viewers likely recognized in episode two, his unique brand of interrogation remains very much intact.
“[Kevin Feige] introduced the idea of Agent Cleary being a part of our show,” Ali says. “Kevin and the execs know all the pieces that we might not even know, so they’ll come in and be like, ‘OK, you have this, so let’s manifest it through this piece, interconnecting it with something else.’ And that’s the thrill of being a part of the MCU.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Ali also discussed her interaction with the creatives behind The Marvels, which will continue the story of Kamala Khan, alongside Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel and Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau.
So how soon after Loki did Ms. Marvel come your way?
It was kind of in the middle, almost. I was in the writers’ room for Loki, and since I am a very annoying and nosy person, I said to my [Loki] exec Kevin Wright, “If you guys are doing an adaptation of Ms. Marvel and you don’t put my hat in the ring, none of us are leaving with hats or heads.” (Laughs.) So he went away and came back with my first meeting on it, when it was still percolating amongst the brains of the Marvel overlords and timekeepers. So that was still while I was in the writers’ room for Loki, and I started developing my pitch with the execs. I would actually take lunch away from everybody else so I could work on my approach for Ms. Marvel. So when my part on Loki wrapped, there was an extension for the writers’ room, which is a very common thing, and they asked me if I wanted to come and do it. And I said, “Thank you, but I actually need the time to work on my pitch. I need to figure out how I’m going to get this job.” So then I pitched a few weeks later, and I got the job. I rolled straight from one to the next.
What part of your pitch did Marvel seem to respond to most?
I think it was my general vibe and energy. The actual pitch was so bonkers and bananas, and they were like, “Yes, you, but maybe not the thing.” (Laughs.) But I think they really responded to the fact that this story was intensely personal. I had a real sense of who this character was as a fan because that’s who she’s representing. She represents Marvel fans in the real world, and she’s an Avengers fan within the MCU. And then there I was, a superfan as well, going into that room and being like, “Listen, I can’t believe I’m in this room either. Let’s do it. Here’s how I want to approach it.” I was able to share with them why I thought this show was important for me personally, as a fan, as a South Asian person, as a Pakistani woman, as a woman from a Muslim background. I explained why those things were important, but also how we could marry them in a way that’s specific and universal. So I laid it out for them and what my way into it would be.
I also had bonus points in that I’d worked on Loki. I’d worked on that first round of shows, and I knew how they operated and how they were making television. So being on the ground during that first wave was incredibly helpful to me in terms of how to navigate it. I also received advice from [head writer] Malcolm Spellman on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and [head writer] Jac Schaeffer on WandaVision, so all of that really helped me. We kind of knew each other creatively, and they understood who I was and vice versa. So all of those elements combined to make perfect sense.
Marvel creatives are typically given general parameters such as Wanda and Vision in a sitcom world, so what parameters, if any, were you given?
It wasn’t like, “Here are the borders of what you can do.” It was more like, “OK, maybe move in this direction a little bit more.” In terms of our parameters, it was to keep this ground level, and luckily, I was in line with that from the start. Kamala Khan is the people’s hero of this generation. She represents so many of the current fans who’ve grown up with a decade of Marvel cinematic storytelling. So that element was really important, and the thing I always wanted to do from my pitch onwards was to keep this about her character, through and through. The visual storytelling, the way [the writers] did the storytelling, the powers, the relationships are all about Kamala’s internal life, psychology and journey. So that was every creative’s guiding light from day one, and we were all in agreement from the get-go.
When you work with Marvel Studios, you often have to hand your characters off to the next group of creatives so that they can tell their own story. So did you get together with the Marvels team and plan accordingly for Kamala’s next adventure?
At the point we started up the Ms. Marvel writers’ room, we already knew going in that The Marvels was going to happen and that Ms. Marvel was going to be part of it. What I didn’t know — and still don’t — is what’s going to happen in that movie, but I have some guesses … So I was very aware that we would get a teenage girl in Jersey City, without powers, and we would have to get her ready for whatever is going to happen in that movie. So I was very aware of that connectivity, and by the time they got moving in earnest on that feature, most of our scripts had been written. So, they had read all of our scripts, and they knew what was going to happen to her. They had all of that in mind as they were going into their movie, but I would love to know what happens in their story.
Did you and your team get [Spider-Man: No Way Home] dailies for Arian Moayed’s Agent Cleary? Because you picked up right where No Way Home left off as far as his hilariously transparent good cop routine.
I don’t think that we did get dailies for Agent Cleary. It’s a Kevin thing. Kevin knows all that, man. He introduced the idea of Agent Cleary being a part of our show, and that’s the thing about working with Marvel. Kevin and the execs know all the pieces that we might not even know, so they’ll come in and be like, “OK, you have this, so let’s manifest it through this piece, interconnecting it with something else.” And that’s the thrill of being a part of the MCU. So that’s definitely a Kevin fix.
Ms. Marvel is now streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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