Ms. Marvel Head Writer Bisha K. Ali On Her Shah Rukh Khan Obsession And Avoiding Clichés [Interview]

As much as the lead actor on any given show is largely responsible for imbuing their character with life and personality and energy, sometimes it's the behind-the-scenes talent who cook up the secret ingredient to make it all work. The first two episodes of "Ms. Marvel" have already inspired a wave of positive reactions on the strength of Iman Vellani's star-making turn as Kamala Khan, the MCU's first Muslim superhero. But one brief conversation with head writer Bisha K. Ali over Zoom was all I needed to realize just how much her infectious personality practically bleeds into that of Marvel's newest addition.

Not that she'd ever admit as much, of course. "Ms. Marvel" is the end result of countless different artists coming together for one common goal: to make Kamala Khan into a household name for the many general audiences who've never had the pleasure of being introduced to the young, vibrant, and outgoing teenage hero. That all stands to change with the latest Disney+ series. Ali's maintained a fun and outgoing online presence on social media, happily weighing in on her own projects and providing insights for the many fans who engage with her work.

I recently had the chance to chat with the British-Pakistani screenwriter, where she kindly indulged my questions about how she joined the "Ms. Marvel" team after her experience on "Loki," the wide-ranging influences she pulled from and brought into the series, and precisely how she managed to balance the cultural, religious, and superhero elements at play while avoiding various tropes and clichés.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

'Being really annoying and persistent, I guess, is how I got this job'

I want to start with, how exactly did you end up shouldering such a heavy responsibility on this show? No pressure or anything [laughs].

[Laughs] No pressure. Initially I was working on "Loki" in the writers' room, and it was such a great experience over there in terms of understanding the creative freedom and also the boundaries that we had to fit into this kind of web of storytelling that's existed for a decade. But also, you get to carve out your own little corner of it, what that's going to be, and that's something I was really lucky to learn in that room and run with. Those relationships that I built with the Marvel executives and all that kind of thing, we just got along creatively so well and understanding how they wanted to create these shows and craft them and put them all together. It was a really good training ground for me before I went on to "Ms. Marvel."

How I got to "Ms. Marvel" was, I'd picked up the comics in 2014 before I was ever working in this industry at all. And I, literally, one day — Kevin Wright is the exec on "Loki," and we had been in so many creative debates at this point that there was this weird sibling relationship. I was like, "Kevin, I know, at some point, you guys are going to do 'Ms. Marvel,' and I'm telling you, if I don't get a meeting on it, you're dead. You're dead. That's what's going to happen." [Laughs] And they're quite secretive, but he was like, "Oh, I don't know if we're doing that. I don't know." Then I was like, "Okay, dude." The next day he comes back, and he is like, "All right, I got you a meeting. Don't mess it up." So that was just — being really annoying and persistent, I guess, is how I got this job [laughs].

And I think, just to say that, yes, it's a lot of pressure, but what a creative team we have. We got to pull [Kamala Khan co-creator] Sana Amanat over from publishing and be like, "Come do television with us." We have Kevin Feige, who's just shepherding this whole thing. [Executive producer] Louis [D'Esposito] and Victoria [Alonso] are so supportive. The incredible directors, this team of directors, are all incredible artists in their own rights. The writers' room, just full of experienced, genius writers. Always happy to have people who are better than you, that's something that I always believe in [laughs]. They're all incredible, and I think there was pressure on me, certainly, but man, this dream team that we got together, it didn't feel like work. It felt like a complete joy.

'Everybody all together got behind this huge melting pot of things'

I know some directors on "Ms. Marvel" have already compared it to something like the "Spider-Man" movies as an influence on this. I'm wondering, besides superhero movies and besides the original comics, what other sources of inspiration did you bring to this series?

Oh my gosh, so many. I will say that everybody's right, because, literally, like first day of the writers' room — I have a picture of it somewhere that I'll post at some point — I got them to put up a massive "Spider-Man: Homecoming" poster right behind me [laughs] at the writers' room, and above that, "What Would Captain Marvel Do?" We made a little banner. So that was definitely at the heart of this. How Kamala fits in, that was kind one of the tonal touchstones. And certainly "Scott Pilgrim," certainly John Hughes movies, certainly "10 Things I Hate About You." I'm just obsessed with [that] movie. I could talk about it forever. There's some shout-outs to it in episode 1. Those were kind of influences of that high school life.

And then, I think some of the other influences, like the Shah Rukh Khan of it all, that people are talking about. I'm obsessed with Shah Rukh Khan [laughs]. I was torturing our writers like every single lunch break ... I would make them watch the Chaiyya Chaiyya video, him dancing on a train in this red bomber jacket. And then, I think, Jenna Berger, one of our producers, bought me that bomber jacket [laughs], the Shah Rukh Khan bomber jacket for Christmas. So, obsession is real.

And so there's so many of those different influences and elements we wanted to weave into the show, and I think we just did it. I think everybody all together got behind this huge melting pot of things that we wanted to include. And yeah, Sana really pulled it all together for us.

Just based on those examples, we're on the exact same page [laughs]. I can say that much.

[Laughs] That's great.

Highest ambitions vs. greatest fears

So when you are breaking the story in the writers' room with everybody, were there any specific stereotypes or clichés or tropes that you wanted to stay away from? Not even necessarily cultural — although there is that, too — but just in general, for other coming-of-age movies and superheroes in general?

Absolutely. There are a bunch of things. And actually, on the first day in the writers' room, there's something that I like to start with, which is, "What are your highest ambitions for what this show could be? And what are your greatest fears for what this show could be?" And the answer then kind of speaks to a lot of those tropes that we want to avoid.

In terms of the cultural stuff, one of our writers was like, "I don't want to see Muslim people telling on other Muslim people. We are heavily policed. I don't want to tell that story." I was like, "Yep. A hundred percent." So that kind of really personal stuff, things we don't want to see represented. "I don't want to see tradition versus 'modernism' seen as good versus bad. I want to see it as loving, and different approaches, and nuanced, and different, and complex, and whole, and beautiful." And that was one of our highest ambitions, so we were having those conversations right from the start.

In terms of the superhero of it all, man, there's a lot of debates because it's also ... Peter Parker, when he first gets his webby things, and he is in high school, and that scene where he is catching the lunch tray? We all love that scene. So we're like, "That's not a stereotype, that's a goal." [Laughs] So there's like, "I want to watch that at one point in the show." It's a lot of fun kind of breaking down the cultural elements, the religious elements, and the superhero elements, and the teen elements, and what we did and didn't want to portray.

And also, teens who were really smooth, generally, like smooth operators, there's got to be something up with someone to be that smooth an operator as a teenager [laughs]. There's some cringy moments in the show because being a teenager is so cringe [laughs]. There are some horrible moments in it.

And so, we lean into it in certain moments, and that's the heightened element. And other moments, we lean into a more grounded feeling. So yeah, I just love this show. It's so fun. [laughs]

New episodes of "Ms. Marvel" debut on Disney+ on Wednesdays.