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'Ms. Marvel' head writer says the show is a deeply personal superhero story

Iman Vellani stars as the titular superhero in the Disney+ series <em>Ms. Marvel. </em>
Marvel Studios
Iman Vellani stars as the titular superhero in the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel.

Kamala Khan, the teenager at the center of the new Disney+ show Ms. Marvel, isn't your typical Marvel superhero. Sure, she battles bad guys. But she's also a Muslim high school student living with her Pakistani-born parents in Jersey City — which makes Ms. Marvel the first show or film in the Marvel universe to feature a Muslim hero.

Head writer Bisha K. Ali says Khan's character was informed by her own experiences growing up in England as the child of Pakistani-born parents, as well as the experiences of other second-generation writers. While the show is written for a broad audience who love the Marvel cinematic universe, Ali says it also speaks, in part, to people "who rarely get to see themselves be the protagonists, who have suffered from a history of poor media representation in the West."

"It's really a love letter to all of those people," she says. "What's really been a joy is hearing a lot of people from Pakistani backgrounds, and I think a lot of second-generation backgrounds generally, responding, being like, 'Yep, I've had this word-for-word dialogue with my parents. It's like you're inside my teenage living room.'"

Like any teenager, Khan occasionally clashes with her parents. But Ali is quick to point out that the show avoids the trope of the second-generation immigrant kid rejecting her community. Instead, we see the character attending traditional dance classes and going to the mosque.

"There's no note of, 'These people, this culture oppresses me and I'm in direct conflict with them,'" Ali says. "That really isn't at all what we're chasing. ... Deeply personal stories — things that feel like a painful excavation of self — are always what are going to attract me. "

Interview highlights

On casting actor Iman Vellani for the lead role of Kamala Khan

We were really trying to kind of hit a very small target, that target being a Pakistani American teen, North American, and someone who is close in age to this character. We didn't want to cast someone who's a lot older, and then also someone who has the exact right sort of energy for this role, which is deeply optimistic, very enthusiastic, and even in moments of difficulty approaching things with a real compassion. And that's a lot to ask of a brand new actor who's never done anything before. So the search was really, really, really broad. ... [Iman Vellani] had this immediate energy. I was just like, this is her. I felt this really clear sense of I've been writing this character for the last year, writing scripts, rewriting, revising, redrafting, and the jokes that we had written and the emotional moments. As I was talking to her about the TV and film industry, in the back of my head, I was saying, "Oh, I can hear all of this in her voice really clearly. I know the person I'm writing for now."

On having a character, Nakia, who feels empowered by the hijab

When we see characters of the hijab, historically, it's usually portrayed as a tool of oppression, that it's not someone's choice or that it's something that narratively, at some point, they're going to take off the hijab and now they've self-actualized and now I know how to assimilate and I can be free and live my own life. ... [That] is the dominant narrative that we see when it comes to hijab. ... When we talk about representation, I think I'm very mindful that one thing can't represent every single billion-plus Muslim experience. Not at all. We can represent one story that's true to the characters in our show, and that has to be more than enough. And this, for us, what felt really important was that this was a choice for her. She feels empowered by putting it on. It's something that her parents actively, in fact, were confused by her doing. And this is something that she really felt like, "This makes me who I am, and I want this for myself." For young girls who have chosen for themselves to wear hijab, for them to see someone like them so they don't have to go and explain themselves at school all the time ... this is just one example where they can kind of see themselves in Nakia.

On making the generational trauma of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan central to the story

We see in this story, the ripple effect of the violence of that time and how it affected each of those mothers' relationship with their daughters all the way down to our protagonist, Kamala Khan.

When I think about my ... own family's experience with what happened during partition, I think about stories [I hear] in times of bereavement. When someone passes away, suddenly there's an opening. The doors just start getting cracked open and the trauma of what happened [comes out] and then we have huge, huge stories that are about the core of who you are. ... And you want to look at it from a place of beauty in our story, not to be trauma porn ... but really coming from a place of ... what can that bearing witness do to help us heal? And that was really that journey for Kamala. And if I'm being really honest about this process, it was certainly the journey for a lot of us in the room in terms of bearing witness to what people we know and love have been through and what that means on a wider scale when we put that out into the world.

On getting "review bombed" by people who are upset the show centers on a teenage Muslim girl

I'm not surprised by things like this anymore. ... I don't think it takes away from the integrity of what we wanted to do. ... Part of being the head writer ... especially in a world where historically marginalized artists don't necessarily get to tell their stories ... and to be witness to other artists really giving of themselves, especially in a massive corporate environment, that we managed to make this magical bubble where we got to really say something and excavate from a place of tenderness — I know how special that is. I witnessed it.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger