Ms. Marvel can walk through the air and fire giant energy “fists”. She battles bad guys in a costume fashioned from a blue burkini accented with a gold lightning bolt.
But for the girls at Dr. Ronald McNair University High School in Jersey City, here’s her real superpower: she makes them feel seen.
For McNair’s group of young Muslim students, these are exciting times. On Wednesday, Disney+ will launch a new streaming series starring Ms. Marvel and her teenage alter ego, Kamala Khan, with much of the action taking place at a school inspired by the Jersey City Academy.
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For the McNair girls who proudly cosplay Kamala at school events, it’s a revolution in representation. After years of feeling stereotyped or sidelined in the media, here is a teenager who looks like them and who balances her Islamic faith, culture, school and relationships as they do in their daily lives.
And she’s a superhero tasked with saving the world, to boot.
“All girls like us need to see someone on the big screen who looks like them and empowers them to think, ‘I can do great things. I can do great things,'” said Noran Nazir, a McNair senior and a fan of the Ms. Marvel comic book series.
The Record and USA TODAY Network got a sneak peek at McNair Academic High School, chatting with students and staff about their unique connection to the new star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The school embraced its comic kinship with dramatic readings, Ms. Marvel-themed artwork, an online “Kamala Khan convention,” student trips to Comic-Con, and comic lectures Designers born in Jersey.
There’s even a Ms. Marvel-themed club called Coles Kamala Korps, whose members have donned the superhero costume for school spirit events and children’s story time at the public library. Teacher and club counselor Holly Smith, who taught comics in English class, will take several students to Manhattan on Thursday for a screening and panel discussion with cast and crew members.
Kamala Khan’s Coles Academic, under another name
On a typical school day last month, students at McNair moved through the hallways where, in the comic book universe, Kamala Khan has awkward encounters with peers who mispronounce her name.
They played volleyball in a gymnasium that serves as a bomb shelter in the comics when Jersey City is besieged in a supernatural civil war. They climbed the steps to the rooftop where Ms. Marvel and fellow hero Captain Marvel talk about the privilege and burden of saving lives.
In the comics, Kamala Khan attends Coles Academic High School – a nod to Coles Street, on which the actual high school is located. In the brightly colored panels, Ms. Marvel’s high school, with its imposing colonnaded entrance, looks a lot like McNair, a magnet school of about 700 students from diverse backgrounds.
New Jersey’s footprint isn’t just in the decor; the creative minds behind the character also have Garden State roots.
Sana Amanat, co-creator of the comic book character and co-executive producer of the series, was inspired by her upbringing in Morris County. Montville, in a Pakistani American home. G. Willow Wilson, former writer and co-creator of the comic book series, is from Marlboro, Monmouth County. Both women are Muslim.
Khan was introduced to Marvel comics in 2013 as a Captain Marvel fan before getting her own book, which debuted the following year.
“You save the world”
In trailers for the show, 16-year-old Kamala – played by Pakistani-Canadian actor Iman Vellani – is seen daydreaming at school, having dinner with family and praying at a mosque.
In a conversation, his father quotes a famous Koranic verse stating that “if you save a life, you save the world”. She was also seen crushing on a boy and being teased for her beloved Avengers t-shirts.
Kamala marvels at her new superpowers, unlocked when a gas mist triggers powers in people with latent “inhuman” bloodline. In the comics, she can lengthen her arms and legs and change her shape; in the show, she projects the energy of glowing hands as she battles evildoers on the streets of Jersey City.
Pariza Hassan, a junior, liked that the superhero and his Pakistani-American family were portrayed as complex and loving in the comics. Kamala struggles to balance responsibilities at home and in her community, which seemed familiar to 16-year-old Hassan.
“Every time I go to school, there’s another person I have to be,” she said. “Every time I’m home, there’s another person I need to be.” It’s a clash she experiences every day, but she finds a way to balance it.
McNair senior Fatimah Khalid, 18, admires how Kamala Khan has evolved in Marvel tales, embracing her role as a hero while staying close to her roots. As a shapeshifter, the character first took on the appearance of white, blonde Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel.
As Kamala grew in confidence, she created her own costume out of a burkini, an all-covering swimsuit worn by Muslim women. She added a lightning bolt as a tribute to Danvers and completed the look with bold touches: blue boots, a mask, red tights and a scarf.
The image resonates with young Muslim Americans, many of whom do their own mix of American fashion trends and conservative attire, including head-covering hijabs, to honor their culture and faith.
“It was cool to see how she brought Pakistani culture into her outfit,” Khalid said. “She was defining that as her identity, turning the superhero into herself. It was awesome.”
coming of age story
In interviews and discussions over the years, Amanat and Wilson said they strive to create a strong and nuanced portrayal of Kamala’s Muslims, family and friends.
But their stories, they also pointed out, carry universal themes that cross cultures.
Ms. Marvel is a coming-of-age story about a misfit who becomes a hero. The character has been compared to Peter Parker, the teenager from Queens who poses as Spider-Man. (In a later incarnation, the crawler’s alter ego is biracial Miles Morales.)
Vellani told USA Today last month that she shares a love for superhero stories, just like the character she plays now.
“When you think of comic book readers, you never think of the brunette girl, and I was that,” she said. “Kamala represents everything about nerd culture. She’s a fan like us, that’s why we support her when she gets her powers.”
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As excitement builds at McNair, the students are also a little nervous. They hope, they said, that the series can “do it right.” They have seen television and movies portray Muslims as villains or victims, relegating them to minor characters or distorting aspects of their faith.
They hate the trope of Muslim women as oppressed, they said. Several teenagers have mentioned a scene from the series “Elite”, where a Muslim character takes off his hijab and it’s supposed to be liberating. They saw it as offensive.
Like most Muslim American women, Kamala Khan does not cover her hair. But for students like Parizi, the hijab is part of religious identity and a choice she embraces.
She sees Ms. Marvel as an empowering figure, but also enjoys quirks like her obsession with superheroes and her hobby writing Avengers fanfiction. Pariza is a proud member of the Ms. Marvel fandom, devouring comic books and going to conventions. She hopes the show promotes understanding even as it entertains.
“It means a lot to me because when I was growing up I didn’t see any positive portrayal of American Muslims,” Pariza said. “This is a big deal.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity journalist covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, prejudice and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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