Marvel Cinematic Universe fans tuning in to Ms. Marvel for the first time may be reminded of the recent Oscar-nominated Netflix movie The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Like Ms. Marvel, that film is about an imaginative teenager who’s at odds with her family members, particularly over her habit of living in a world of her own invention. Like The Mitchells vs. the Machines protagonist Katie, Ms. Marvel star Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) obsessively doodles her fantasies, which show up both in her sketchbook and all over the screen, illustrating the colorful way she sees the world.
But series producers Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi, who directed the show’s pilot and the last of its six episodes, say they had older inspirations in mind when they were planning what the show would look and feel like.
“American high school movies and series were a big inspiration for us,” Fallah tells Polygon. He says that because he and El Arbi are from Belgium, movies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club “are, like, totally different than our world. But seeing that [version of] American high schools, that was really a great opportunity — like the John Hughes movies and Saved by the Bell.”
“And Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. And Spike Lee!” El Arbi cuts in.
“Spike Lee! Do the Right Thing!” Fallah echoes. “New York is a character in Spike Lee movies. We wanted to have New Jersey to be really a character.”
In interviews, the two men speak loudly and enthusiastically, completing each other’s sentences or sometimes shouting the same thing in unison. They’ve worked together since film school, first directing Belgian crime movies (2015’s Black and 2018’s Gangsta), then working on American action movies, including 2020’s Bad Boys For Life and the upcoming Batgirl for DC. Talking about how they developed the look and feel of Ms. Marvel, they speak over each other, jumping in to pile up titles, ideas, and sources they wanted to respect — the visual style and coming-of-age theme of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie’s art in the Ms. Marvel comic, and even their own families.
“I was thinking a lot about my sister and my nieces,” Fallah says. “Having this Muslim character that’s 16 years old, that’s a superhero — this is an homage to all these superhero women in my life. So that was a thing that really drove me to get that young audience and family feeling in the show.”
Neither director was aware of The Mitchells vs. the Machines when they were planning the show, even though it may seem like an obvious touchstone. “We were already busy doing this when that came out, so it was parallel,” El Arbi says. “But afterward, we saw a lot of similarities in parallel to it.”
Instead, El Arbi says they came to Ms. Marvel’s visual style in part by thinking about Kamala Khan as a comics fan, and her view of the world as resembling a comic book.
“When we read the comics, we were very inspired by the vibrancy in the colors,” El Arbi says. “We wanted to have that comic-book aesthetic. In the scripts, nothing was really described in terms of what the visual styles should be. We really wanted to try to find a way to translate and add the fantasy sequences and dream sequences of Kamala Khan’s head onto the screen.”
In the show, that translates to having animation appear in the background of shots, as Kamala is drawing, thinking, or even just walking down the street. It makes for a busy, visually energetic show that wordlessly communicates Kamala’s enthusiasm for life and for her superhero fandoms. All of which, the directors say, had another major inspiration: 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
“We’re huge, huge fans,” El Arbi says. “For us, that’s the best thing Marvel ever made. When we saw that, we were so impressed. We said, Oh, it would be cool if we could do a live-action version of something like that.”
He says trying to get that idea on the screen was the hardest thing he and Fallah did on the show, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of selling the idea in the first place.
“We were a bit nervous, because all that is not present in the other shows of the MCU,” he says. “We had to do a whole presentation with examples and arguments, as if we were lawyers, to try to convince [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige and Marvel to allow us to do that. Thank God, he said yes! He just said, Don’t go overboard and do it every five seconds. But they allowed us to do that. We love cool shots, we love colors, we love montages, the music. They’re very, you know, Moroccan Flavor Flav energetic stuff that’s typical of our work.”
The two men’s admiration for Into the Spider-Verse’s sheer visual density and energy heavily shaped the show, but it also pushed them in technical directions they’d never gone before.
“Woof, it’s a lot of pre-production,” El Arbi laughs. “You have to design all that up front. We could not improvise.”
“We were in good hands with the Marvel machine,” Fallah says. “We have the best of the best. But we were stressing a lot, because we’d never really worked with blue screen and green screen. On the set, you’re [telling the actors], OK, this is going to happen, and this is going to happen. It’s not really happening, but it will be. So that was really challenging for us.”
El Arbi points out one particular shot, where Kamala collapses onto a couch and the camera falls with her, settling into an upside-down position that makes it look like she’s on the ceiling. “It took 15 days to make that rig, and it was super complex,” he says. “[When Kamala and a friend are] biking, you have to have an e-bike following them, and it’s one shot with the walls, where you gotta imagine [animation behind them], so you’re fixing enough space on the wall so we have the dimension, and the dialogue needs to line up — that was technically very difficult.”
And in the end, the directors had to make sure they weren’t overwhelming the audience. The success and popularity of Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines both suggest that there are audiences that can handle and enjoy visual overload. But creating something new in that vein is still a balancing act. “You’ve got to make sure there’s not too much text,” El Arbi says. The entire time they were shooting, he says, they were thinking, “OK, how do we make that in the environment? So all of these things were a challenge. But it was great fun to work on that, and when it works out, it’s very rewarding.”