‘Ms. Marvel’ isn’t just a superhero story. It’s an exploration of Pakistani-American religion and culture.
In 2013, the Pakistani-American Marvel comic book editor Sana Amanat was telling her boss Stephen Wacker a funny story about growing up as a Muslim-American. As Amanat told The New York Times, that story got them talking about how few comic series come out of a specific cultural point of view. So they went to writer G. Willow Wilson, a Boston College grad from New Jersey who had converted to Islam at the age of 21, with the idea of writing a book about a female Muslim-American superhero.
Together Amanat, Wacker, Wilson and the artists Jamie McKelvie and Adrian Alphona created Kamala Khan—a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American high school kid from Jersey City who gets the power to alter her size and shape. From the very first issue, the character was a smash hit. In some ways she was like Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man), but without the tragic backstory, a cheerful kid with great friends and a seemingly never-ending well of hope.
When it came to bringing Kamala Khan to the screen, Marvel has made all the right choices.
But what made the title really interesting was the deft way that Wilson wove in culture and religion. Popular media portrayals of religion are often hamfisted, blunt and monolithic in a way that doesn’t fit people’s lived experiences. Characters who have a religious practice tend to be intensely devout about them. And often religion becomes synonymous with an attitude of judgment and inhumanity.
Wilson takes a much more gentle and often playful approach. The religious practices of Kamala’s family and their Pakistani-American community are elements of her life, just like her school, her relationships or the fact that she’s from Jersey City. The Ramadan fast, a visit from the imam or having to get to the mosque on time for Friday prayers become part of the web of life and challenges Kamala has to face in her joyful, zany way.
The religious practices of Kamala’s family and their Pakistani-American community are elements of her life, just like her school and her relationships.
In June Kamala came to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Ms. Marvel,” a new miniseries on Disney+. It was an open question whether the show could do justice to the character. Marvel’s TV shows have been kind of a mess; while some, like “WandaVision” or “Loki” have been creative in their storytelling, they have mostly resembled longform advertisements for upcoming movies. (“Hawkeye” was a wonderful exception, a delight of a show that never ceased to surprise.)
Marvel’s track record with diversity has also been spotty; though they have made steps in the right direction with the introduction of characters like America Chavez in “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” or Kate Bishop and the Native American hero Echo in “Hawkeye,” a deep-seeded ambivalence remains. Just last weekend in the new “Thor: Love and Thunder” movie, the charismatic character of Valkyrie, a black bisexual woman introduced in the previous film, was more or less pushed to the margins so as to make more room for the stories of the white, straight characters.
Where most Marvel heroes are either orphans or set out from the crowd, Kamala is always presented as part of something bigger than herself.
But when it came to bringing Kamala to the screen, Marvel has made all the right choices. It hired female British-Pakistani writer and comedian Bisha K. Ali as the series’ creator and built a writers’ room that included a number of writers of South Asian descent. All six episodes were also directed by men and women of South Asian or African backgrounds. The effect of that is really noticeable; there is an energy and a visual flair to the storytelling that is completely original and unlike anything that Marvel has done before.
And just as in the comic book, Kamala’s cultural and religious heritage is presented in a way that seems fresh and normal. Her best friend Nakia wears a hijab and runs for a leadership position in the mosque; their imam is a major supporting character (and a lot of fun). The dialogue has Urdu sprinkled throughout in a way that reads absolutely true.
Above all there is an abiding sense of community. Where most Marvel heroes are either orphans or set out from the crowd in some other way (usually a tragedy), Kamala is always presented as part of something bigger than herself—in fact multiple things: her family, her Pakistani-American Muslim community and the broader community of Jersey City. When she struggles or fails as Ms. Marvel she does so in full view of them all, and when she is in need they are there for her. In fact, the season finale has the entire town coming to her rescue; any community that has ever struggled with law enforcement officers mistreating their children will be able to relate to what is an unexpectedly powerful ending.
But more than anything, what makes the show work is the joy with which Kamala lives her life. Actress Iman Vellani absolutely captures the openness and wonder of the character; Yasmeen Fletcher and Matt Lintz as her friends Nakia and Bruno bring their own sweetness, strength and idealism. Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapoor as Kamala’s ammi and abu (a.k.a. mom and dad), and Saagar Shaikh as her brother Aamir, add emotional depth and playfulness. Whether it’s Kamala’s dad dressing as the Incredible Hulk so that she can go to her Avengers fan convention, the family celebrating Aamir’s marriage or Nakia talking about why she wears a hijab, there is an impressive verisimilitude to the performances. In many ways the show is less a superhero show than a great story about a Pakistani-American kid from Jersey.
In the end we do get a tie-in to a Marvel movie; this is still the M.C.U., after all. But rather than negating the significance of the series itself, this reveal seems to be the next step on Kamala’s journey. Hopefully Disney won’t wait too long to produce another season of her TV show. In a world mired in division and conflict, “Ms. Marvel” is a well-needed respite, a show about celebrating the life and family you have, and believing that you can make a difference.