SPOILER ALERT: This story includes discussion of major plot elements of the season finale, including the post credits scene, of “Ms. Marvel,” currently streaming on Disney+.
Over the many iterations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008, rarely has a project felt as personal as “Ms. Marvel,” the six-episode series that streamed its season (perhaps series) finale Wednesday. The show serves as the origin story for its titular superhero, a teenage girl named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), whose powers are unlocked after she places an ancient family bangle on her wrist. Over the course of the series, Kamala learns that the origins of her powers tie her to the Clandestines, a group of supernatural beings — including her great-grandmother — who are trapped on Earth from an alternate dimension and are desperate to use Kamala’s bangle to return home.
But the show spends far more time exploring Kamala’s Earth-bound heritage as a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim who lives in Jersey City and idolizes the superhero Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson). Kamala fights with, and then bonds with, her traditional mother, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff); she attends the lavish wedding of her brother, Aamir (Saagar Shaikh); and she ultimately flies to Pakistan to learn more about the bangle from her grandmother, Sana (Samina Ahmad). In the show’s fifth episode, Kamala even finds herself transported back in time to the violent and traumatic partition of India in the late 1940s, when millions of Muslims were forced to relocate into the newly created country of Pakistan.
For the show’s creator and head writer, Bisha K. Ali, it was all a chance for her to put a bright, Marvel-sized spotlight on a life experience that has effectively never received big-budget, blockbuster treatment in America. Ali talked with Variety about how personally important so many of the show’s creative choices were to her and the other writers, what she regrets never made it onto the show and what Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige’s reaction was to her desire to depict the real-world historical event of partition on a superhero TV series.
Yes, Ali also talks about the delightful reveal that Kamala’s powers come from a mutation of her DNA — cue 1990s “X-Men” theme music! — and Carol Danvers’ sudden post-credits appearance that teases Kamala’s role in the 2023 Marvel Studios feature film, “The Marvels.”
I am one of many who yelped with delight at the first mention of mutants in the MCU. What can you tell me about how that came about?
Close to absolutely nothing. One of the puzzles that we had from the beginning was we know her powers are inherited in the TV show and the thing with inheritance is it leaves you with that pesky question of “Well, if they’re inherited, everyone in that lineage should have them.” And that was something that we’re toying with ways of approaching. And then a solution arrived!
I don’t know how it fits into the larger MCU. I genuinely can’t answer that. Not because I’m lying. Because I don’t know. Kevin is doing whatever Kevin’s up to — who knows? The man’s full of mysteries. It just was this perfect piece. But the fact that we get to roll out this part of the MCU in our show, my nerd heart could not be more thrilled.
You said the solution “arrived” — was that one of the Marvel executives walking into your writers room when you were talking about this problem and saying, “You know, you could just say mutants”?
Not quite like that. Bear in mind that we’d written full drafts before any of us had heard the word COVID before. In that process, you’re going back and forth with Kevin, you’re going back and forth with the rest of the team. There’s weekly check-ins as we build out what our show is anyway. And then the timing works out and then you get a message saying, “Hey, let’s do this.” And here we are.
Also, there’s the post-credits scene in which Kamala kind of turns into Carol Danvers…
Kamala doesn’t turn into Carol.
Ah, I mean, like, Kamala switches places with Carol — is that more accurate?
Correct. It’s an important distinction, just because in the comic books, that’s something that [Kamala] does — she can change the way she looks and she looks like Carol Danvers in Issue 1 of the comic book. She’s not turning into Carol [on the show]. That’s Carol Danvers standing in Kamala’s bedroom.
Was there any discussion of bringing in Carol earlier? Kamala still hasn’t met her idol!
Certainly at the very, very, very beginning, way back when, that was part of the conversation. The more I kind of dug deeper into what I wanted to say with the show and what I wanted to her to go through, it really had to be about her and her community, her family and her friends. So Carol’s meeting up with her after this journey that she’d been through in the season. She’s Kamala in her own right. She’s looking in the mirror at the end — she’s not seeing an imitation of Captain Marvel the way that she’s seeing in Episode 1. She’s seeing Kamala wearing a suit that her mother made for her, with the masks that Bruno made for her, with the sash from Red Dagger — then, moments later, she gets her name from her own father. That moment is about her becoming her in her own right.
So I think it would have really taken it off in a different direction if she’d met [Carol] any sooner than she will meet her, which is in the movie that’s coming out next year. She’s still gonna be so excited and just so happy to meet, when they finally do get to meet. But in this journey, in this character arc, it felt really important, actually, that they didn’t meet.
The Clandestines, led by Najma (Nimra Bucha), are referred to as djinn — a real part of Muslim and South Asian cultural history — on the show. How did you and the writers decide to integrate that into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Kamala’s own personal history?
It’s worth saying that they aren’t djinn. In Episode 4, they overtly say they aren’t djinn. I can’t speak for the entire Muslim world, but certainly from my background growing up, when something weird happened, it was always like, “Oh, is it a djinn?” If someone’s behaving weirdly, it was kind of allotted to this is the work of the djinn. Certainly in Pakistan, this is how we would talk about something that’s supernatural, beyond our explanation. That’s how it’s been for generations.
The other piece as well is in Episode 3, when Najma tells her that people call us the djinn — it’s the worst possible thing [Kamala] could be. It is, emotionally, a nightmare. That’s what takes her to the point where she says, “Well, I can’t be a superhero.” Because there’s nothing worse that she could possibly imagine being, because of the negative connotation we have with djinn culturally. So that’s really what we’re chasing.
In Episode 4, we learn that the Clandestines are trying to get back to the Noor Dimension using Kamala’s bangle, but doing so would cause that dimension to overtake our own. That kind of implied that we’d see that fight happen in the final climax of the show, but it ends up being a confrontation between Kamala and Najma that resolves by the end of Episode 5. Was there a version of the show where this was the big finale?
No. I would say that a lot is missing. There are, like, essays we’ve written about the Clandestines, the Noor dimension, the Red Daggers and about how it’s all connected to everything else. There are huge swathes of character arcs that for the purpose of being able to make this in the time that we had, with the situation that changed [due to] COVID — I think we miss out a lot on some of the parallels between the two different kinds of families. I think we’ve missed out a lot on some of the character development for the Clandestines. I wish I could have shown you more of what we had.
So that emotional climax was about two women, a different kind of mother and about Kamala representing her kind of family. And those two things completely smashing into each other. That moment was all about Kamala coming into her fight style, which is always defensive. She always talks people down first. Her goal is always, “Hey, how are you feeling? Can we resolve this without anyone getting hurt?” You see that again in the finale as well. So it was always built that way, that this event where the universe gets subsumed by another universe, that wouldn’t happen.
Also, we’re a six-hour television show. We’re never going to be able to have a universe completely subsumed by another. But the key function of that for me, emotionally for Kamala’s character, was figuring out how she’s going to deal with these difficult situations when things get spicy when she comes home.
The Department of Damage Control is also something of an overtly antagonistic force on the show as Agent Deever (Alysia Reiner) hunts for Kamala and Kamran (Rish Shah) in Jersey City. In previous iterations of the MCU, Damage Control was maybe more neutral.
The Damage Control of it all was really, I mean, I don’t know if I could have put the analogy in clearer light in terms of the over-policing, the profiling and the surveillance of Muslims. I think the thing to know is that Agent Deever is going rogue. So there’s a bit of flexibility there, because I didn’t want to say all of Damage Control are overreaching. And that is how we want to also keep it within MCU-land and not use a real government agency in any way. But that’s our way of telling that part of the story that’s inherent to Kamala and who she is and to the community that she’s in.
This is probably a question that you can’t answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway: I wondered if Agent Deever and Agent Cleary (Arian Moayed) were meant to point to the events of the upcoming Marvel Studios series “Secret Invasion,” about how shape-shifting Skrulls have invaded the U.S. government. So… are they?
I will tell you honestly that I don’t know the answer to that either way. Is that helpful?
Well, I understand the way these shows have worked is that you’re focused on telling your specific story and the Marvel Studios executives are giving notes in part to guide how the show connects to the rest of the MCU. So was there any sort of fiddling Marvel was doing with the Damage Control agents, maybe?
I mean, Marvel fiddles all over, so I can say it’s specific to just those characters. I would say not to my knowledge was any of it geared towards anything in particular, aside from making the show as good as it could be.
You are very good at giving safe answers.
I have to. They will eat me alive!
When did you decide you wanted to make partition a central part of the series, to the point where we actually see it depicted in Episode 5?
Very, very, very early. Like week one, we were talking about partition. We put up a timeline of when we’ve seen events take place generally in the MCU. I started looking back on some of the other movies, at “Captain America: The First Avenger.” That’s essentially a period piece and I was like, “Okay, so after World War II, what was happening in Kamala’s family? So 1945, World War II. 1947 is when partition happens. So if World War II exists in the MCU, and that part of our history can be canonized, then why not ours?” When I laid that timeline out to Feige, he was like, “Oh, cool! I get what you’re doing!” The history of the world isn’t just this one place. There are other places with histories too.
In terms of an internal central piece to the emotional journey that she goes through, her superpower is these four generations of women. And so that felt really clear to us. We wanted to make it about looking inwards, and looking into your own family. Rather than the central storyline being about, “I don’t fit into this world because of who I am,” I wanted it to be like, “I don’t know who I am and I need to go and figure that out.” That conflict’s more internal rather than “us verses them.” I’m not really interested in them, because they already minoritized us. They’ve already marginalized us. Cool. We’ve seen versions of that, which are brilliant. That’s not what we wanted the show to be. We really want it to be about the “us.” So that was always the intention from the beginning.
But yeah, I felt bananas going in and being like, “Hey, so have you guys heard of partition?” There were some interesting conversations there.
Interesting in what way? Had they heard of it?
No, not really. I mean, it’s not surprising? They might have heard of it kind of vaguely. And also, I’m going 1000 miles per hour. I’m like, “So this is what partition is. Here’s what it means. Here’s emotionally why it’s important.” I was never questioned on, should we do this, should we not do this, in terms of Kevin, who was like, “This sounds great. How are you going to do it?” I have to pay him his props for that. I was really impressed by how excited he was for Kamala to go on this journey and for us to show this.
Some of the writers in the room, many of our families have been affected by partition quite directly. It’s actually something that in a lot of homes doesn’t get talked about. It’s too painful. The thing that kind of made me feel like it was good that I pushed for this was seeing young people say, “I asked my parents about it and then they finally spoke to me about what happened to their parents or their grandparents.” Yes, that’s why we did it! This is not just Kamala healing her family, but also being able to bear witness to what we’ve been through.
Do you know what your future is going to be? And is it going to be with Marvel?
I’m currently working on something that is not Marvel that I can’t talk about that I’m just so excited about. And that’s for next year. And then the other big piece for me is that I’d like to direct, so I’m working on a feature for me to direct and that’s going to be the big new phase of Bisha. In terms of the Marvel of it all, certainly, I’d love to be a part of Kamala’s story going forward in some capacity. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if there’s gonna be more of Kamala’s story. So dot dot dot.
This interview has been edited and condensed.