The Marvelous 'Ms. Marvel'
Iman Vellani is a star, regardless of what ends up happening with 'The Marvels.'
The backlash against the Disney-owned, Kevin-Feige-lead Marvel Studios reached a crescendo last week when Variety published a story, authored by Tatiana Siegel, called ‘Crisis at Marvel.’ I’m not gonna sum up the entire piece (the veracity of which has been contested, natch); it basically just consolidates a lot of stuff that’s already been reported and confirms some pre-existing industry suspicions. This includes the hype that the production company’s latest offering, The Marvels - due for release this Friday - is very bad and will likely be their first honest-to-Iron Man box office bomb.
I haven’t seen The Marvels yet. I have no idea if it will be any good or not, and I have no vested interest in it making money. The movie is a sequel to multiple other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and shows, including Captain Marvel, WandaVision, and Secret Invasion, none of which I found particularly enthralling (and Secret Invasion was outright BAD).
It is also, a sequel, however, to the mini-series Ms. Marvel, which is one of the best things Marvel Studios has produced to date - a show that’s fun and meaningful and introduced the world to the young actress Iman Vellani, who is about as charismatic as any performer in recent memory. And I do think it would be a major shame if a negative reaction to The Marvels did anything to dissuade people from thinking that Vellani is a star and that Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan is a great role. Because regardless of the quality of the film, Ms. Marvel has already proving that both those things are true.
It would be absolutely marvel-ous if you would subscribe and share.
First, some context.
When Spider-Man was first introduced in 1962, what made him so revolutionary was his relatability as a audience surrogate. Billionaire Batman lived in the fictional Gotham City, and Superman the living god settled in the fictional Metropolis. But Spider-Man wasn’t really a man. His secret identity was Peter Parker, a smart, socially awkward, wisecracking 15-year-old being raised by a working class family in Forest Hills, Queens. He didn’t just have to worry about saving the city; he had to worry about saving the city, helping out around the house, passing his mid-terms, and finding a date for the dance. Even more than Batman’s sidekick, Robin, Spider-Man enabled readers to see themselves in a superhero…
…assuming, of course, those readers were White. As the publisher continued to grow in popularity, Marvel Comics did introduce prominent Black characters as well - most notably, Black Panther in 1966, Falcon in 1969, and Luke Cage in 1972 - but the efficacy of those heroes as reflections of their readership is debatable (in fact, Black Panther’s appeal specifically lies in his more aspirational circumstances - the character is royalty from a secret African nation that has far surpassed the rest of the world in technology, education, healthcare, and general prosperity, making him a refutation of racist stereotypes and the “shithole countries” mentality).
I would argue that it’s really only been in the past twelve years or so that Marvel Comics has begun to introduce proxies for readers of color in earnest: 2011 saw the emergence of both a second Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and the multiverse-hopping America Chavez, while a 2013 issue of Captain Marvel saw the introduction of one Kamala Khan.
Kamala was created by a number of Marvel insiders, including the editor Sana Amanat, a New Jersey native born to Pakistani immigrants and practicing Muslims, and the writer G. Willow Wilson, a New Jersey native who converted to Islam in 2003. Lest there be any doubt that Amanat and Wilson very deliberately wanted to introduce a protagonist in whom young Muslim women could have a Peter Parker of their very own, Kamala is a 16-year-old New Jersey native born to Pakistani immigrants and practicing Muslims, and she’s obsessed with the Avengers - specifically, Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel (the character is played by Brie Larson in the movies).
2014’s Ms. Marvel #1 opens with Kamala and her friend, Nakia, salivating over haram sandwiches (“Delicious, delicious infidel meat”). By the second page, they’re fielding questions from an obnoxious White girl named Zoe, who wants to know if Nakia is being forced to wear her hajib: “Nobody’s going to, like, honor kill you?” Superheroes aren’t even mentioned until page five. It as much a story about growing up in the modern world as a part of a Muslim community as it is sci-fi/fantasy escapism.
The Ms. Marvel live-action mini-series was created by Bisha K. Ali, a Brit whose parents were - you guessed it! - Pakistani immigrants. It doesn’t wait as long as the comic to connect its protagonist to the larger Marvel universe - we learn that Kamala stans Captain Marvel in the very first scene - but it does dive as whole-heartedly into the life of a young Muslim woman growing up with immigrant parents. In addition “normalizing” (for lack of a better word) certain aspects of the Muslim faith that Hollywood has heretofore often portrayed in a negative light, Ms. Marvel offers plenty of chances to admire Pakistani culture in a casual manner - as when Kamala and her friends attend her brother’s wedding:
But Ms. Marvel also often takes a headier approach to the issue of balancing native and adopted cultures. As with Marvel Studios’ Black Panther films, Ms. Marvel wrings conflict from the tension between tradition and evolution. What is the right equilibrium between holding on to sacred customs passed down for thousands of years and adopting modern behaviors? How does a culture acclimate without completely gentrifying itself?
These struggles are sometimes evident in a very literal manner, as when a governmental security agency bursts into Kamala’s mosque without removing their shoes or even obtaining the proper legal warrant, or when Nakia (portrayed here by Yasmeen Fletcher) speaks about her decision to wear a hijab:
“It’s definitely not easy. My whole life I’ve either been too white for some people or too ethnic for others, and it’s been this very uncomfortable, sucky in-between. When I first put [my hijab] on, I was hoping to shut some people up, but I kind of realized I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. When I put this on, I feel like me — like I have a purpose.”
There’s also an entire episode devoted to the 1947 Partition of India, a distressful historical event about which I’m guessing many Westerners would be uneducated if they didn’t see it on this show (not unlike how HBO’s Watchmen series raised awareness of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre).
But, as with all great genre storytelling, the theme is also present in less-literal ways. The plot of Ms. Marvel involves inter-dimensional beings chasing a MacGuffin that will allow them to return to their home, but will destroy our entire world in the process. These antagonists are, in other words, traditionalist zealots unwilling to adapt in any way to their new surroundings, even if that conservatism means others will perish. Kamala, we soon learn, is descended from one of these visitors, and her journey to save the world takes her from New Jersey to Pakistan and back again. As is the case with her Pakistani heritage, Kamala is a bridge between two societies.
Of course, you don’t have to be Muslim to find Ms. Marvel relatable. Anyone who grew up with one or more immigrant parents will definitely see themselves in Kamala. But even if you just have or had a big family that was beholden to long-held Old World customs in which they took great pride, Ms. Marvel will strike a chord. I’ve often joked with friends of differing ethnic backgrounds that the biggest differences between us isn’t the religions we practice, but the way we prepare our starch-based foods. Overwhelmingly loud and opinionated elders? Severe pressure to succeed? An abundance of guilt trips? That aforementioned tension between acclimation and complete abandonment of one’s roots? Who CAN’T relate to Kamala Khan?
There’s not a weak spot in the cast of Ms. Marvel. Particularly notable are Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur as Kamala’s parents and Polite Society’s Nimra Bucha as the lead antagonist.
But the anchor that holds it all down, of course, is Vellani. Born in Pakistan and raised in Canada, Vellani is charming and funny and vulnerable and sincere, giving a performance akin to an amalgamation of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future and both Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. You buy it when she’s being nerdy, you buy it when she’s being insecure, you buy it when she’s kicking ass. And she is, of course, very much an audience surrogate, right down to her geeky public “debates” with Kevin Feige regarding Marvel lore. Kamala Khan’s return is, by far, the most exciting prospect of seeing The Marvels.
A big, BIG part of why Marvel Studios has succeeded up until this point has been their casting: People became so invested in Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow that whether or not their movies were actually good was almost a secondary consideration. In a just world, Vellani would now join that pantheon. She was only eighteen when Ms. Marvel began filming, and I assume that both the recent SAG-AFTRA strike and her busy schedule portraying Kamala are the reason she has yet to announce any other roles. But unless her performance in Ms. Marvel is a total fluke - and I can’t imagine it is - she will likely be worth watching in just about anything she does for the rest of her career. If she’s not already on your radar, well, she absolutely should be.