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How ‘Ms. Marvel’ Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah Drew Inspiration From Spike Lee and ‘Boy Meets World’

The filmmakers behind the Disney+ series tell TheWrap about bringing ”vibrancy“ to the show and their original pitch to Kevin Feige

“Ms. Marvel” is here.

And if you haven’t fallen in love with the show, which mixes a decidedly naturalistic emotional core with Y.A. flourishes and, of course, superhero derring-do, it’s only a matter of time.

Iman Vellani (in her debut) plays Kamala Khan, a self-described “brown girl from New Jersey,” who dreams of becoming a superhero like her favorite Captain Marvel. After a family heirloom unlocks the power within herself, she must navigate a complex relationship with her friends, family, and newfound powers.

Part of what makes the new show work so well are its zippy visuals, who in the first and sixth episodes are handled by the directing duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (“Bad Boys for Life,” the upcoming “Batgirl”), who bring a new sensibility to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. TheWrap spoke to the directing duo about the inspiration behind the episode’s look, working with Vellani and finding the right mixture between the personal and the super-powered.

How you kind of came up with the look for “Ms. Marvel,” in terms of incorporating graphics and approximating actual comic book stuff?

Adil El Arbi: Well, we were attracted by the vibrancy and the colors of the comic books and at the same time, we wanted to really have this comic book aesthetic and aspect and homage to it. And it was something that was actually not in the script, her dream world and all that. We wanted to go inside her head and start off right away with that stop motion that she would do and the murals that come to life and the text messages. We really had this idea of having this animation aesthetic inspired by “Into the Spider-Verse” and “Scott Pilgrim.”

But the challenge was to convince Kevin Feige and Marvel to allow us to do that because obviously it’s different from the other MCU shows, you don’t have that aesthetic in it. We did like whole presentation with examples and explaining why it was important for us and for the character. We really tried to translate her fantasy mind into it. And surprisingly Kevin said, “Yep, go for it. Don’t go overboard. And don’t do it every five seconds but go loco.” And that’s how we were thankfully allowed to have that visual style.

And at the same time, just the fast paced, like a lot of camera movements, colors, and things that we were inspired by Spike Lee, by the way that he shows New York in this colorful, funky way, we want Jersey to be the same thing, the same vibe and the John Hughes movies and “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” “Boy Meets World,” “Saved By the Bell,” all these high school American TV shows that we grew up with being in Belgium. We’re looking up to that. So that’s been the idea.

I think you’re the only people that have cited Spike Lee and “Boy Meets World” in the same breath.

Adil El Arbi: Probably. It’s pretty eclectic. It’s like we do like a remix of all these things. It’s like hip hop.

Was there one thing in your proof of concept that kind of got him on board? Was there a moment where you said, “Okay, he gets it?”

Adil El Arbi: Well, I think that when we try to explain in story form that Kamala Khan is somebody that looks up to the superheroes and Captain Marvel, is constantly dreaming about these larger than life aspects, the same way that we are dreaming about the movie world when we were teenagers. And so many people, so many fans are aspiring and dreaming about Marvel itself. I think that he really understood the spirit and that he was convinced that it was true to her character. And I think that on story level, that’s why he went on board with that.

Was it hard to balance her super-heroism with the more grounded aspects of the story – namely, Kamala hanging out with her friends and family?

Bilall Fallah: Yeah, I think first thing we were thinking, We need to be in her head, we need to be with her family and we need to see her friends. Forget all the superpowers, that is the emotional core of the whole show. For us, that was the most important thing and everything else is adding to the story.

Adil El Arbi: Because the real superpowers basically is the love and friendship that she has with her friends and with her family and the support and that is really what makes it so powerful and so unique.

Well, the other thing that makes it so powerful is obviously Iman. What was it like working with her and just seeing this amazing talent unfold in front of your eyes?

Bilall Fallah: Iman, it was destined for her to be Kamala Khan. She is a very parallel with the character because she’s a Pakistani girl from Canada, so she lived through it. She was also searching for herself. She’s also between those two worlds, but she’s also a huge Marvel fan and a Marvel expert. And Kevin Feige is her idol. “Iron Man” is her favorite movie. And she’s also very smart and quirky and funny and charismatic.

And she was like a filmmaker herself. She knew a lot about making movies and understanding the story and the arc of the character. She added so much to the role her itself, and she brought it to a higher level and really captured the soul and heart of the whole show. For us as directors it’s just a blessing to have Iman coming on our paths. It’s unbelievable.

New episodes of Marvel Studios’ “Ms. Marvel” stream on Disney+ every Wednesday.

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