Why Marvel Strikes Gold With Muslim Superhero Ms. Marvel

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Fortunately, Disney struck gold with the casting of Pakistani-Canadian actress Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel. She seems to perfectly embody all the elements that made Kamala Khan such a lovable character in the comics. She’s an adorable bundle of charisma whenever she’s on screen. Much like Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man or Emma Watson in Hermione Grainger, it’s no exaggeration to say that she seems like this role was tailor-made for her.

Although the series features some of the clichés of coming-of-age stories, the main character’s Pakistani-American background helps set it apart. But that comes with its own challenges. The show seems to walk a tightrope between pronounced portrayal and stereotype and doesn’t always strike the right balance. The length of time the word haraam we are talking about becomes almost comical, bordering on parody. While exploring important themes like finding your own voice and identity at the risk of clashing with familial expectations, the show tackles them in a stark way – without the deft comic book touch.

But the show also made me identify with it in a way that I have with very few shows, and that has a lot to do with the characters. Ms. Marvel feels like a celebration of diaspora communities. Like Kamala, I grew up straddling different cultures, often at odds with each other and my parents’ view of who I should be. I knew a Bruno, the white friend happily immersed in Islamic culture due to his social circle, while other characters who are very familiar to me include Nakia, the hijab-wearing girl you know will change the world, even though behind her back people wonder why a strong, intelligent woman like her would choose to cover her hair. And Kamran, the boy at school who was effortlessly cool but still annoying. Never, either, would I have thought that the bane of many mosque-goers – the shoe thief – would be mentioned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In fact, there are a lot of things about the show that stand out positively. It’s aesthetically dynamic and seamlessly integrates comic book-inspired animations with live action. The main group of actors portraying Kamala’s school friends have great chemistry together. The series also has a fantastic soundtrack. It was just as surreal to hear the 1966 Pakistani pop classic Ko Ko Korina perform in a Marvel show as it was the contemporary hit Peechay Hutt.

Fans of the comics feared the changes the show would make to Kamala’s powers and backstory. In the comics, Kamala activates her polymorphic abilities, allowing her to change size and shape, after being exposed to a cloud of Terrigen Mist. In the series, she appears to activate the power to build objects using energy through a mystical bracelet (similar to Green Lantern). According to Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, these changes were necessary for a smooth transition to the MCU. Whether fans are in favor of it remains to be seen, but I’m optimistic they will.

The series has a chance to carry on the comic book legacy on a bigger stage than ever – not only by showing Muslim children a superhero who shares his background and religious beliefs as a superhero, but by inspiring audiences from all walks of life. As Sue Obeidi says, “I hope this character and this series will be a springboard for many more empowering stories of Muslim women and authentic Muslim representation.”

Ms. Marvel Episode 1 was released on Disney+ today, with more episodes releasing weekly

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