It’s not every day that you see the subject of a Muslim teenager growing up in the U.S. addressed in a Marvel film or television program.
In fact, it’s something that you’ve never seen at all — until now.
Marvel Studios’ “Ms. Marvel”, which premieres on Disney+ starting June 8, is a ground-breaking, original six-part series whose teenage protagonist is a Pakistani Muslim growing up in New Jersey.
Kamala Khan (played by newcomer Iman Vellani) is just an ordinary girl navigating her way through all the usual adolescent dramas — struggling to fit in, homework and grades, crushes and failing her driver’s exam. She daydreams her way through classes, imagining herself as Prom Queen and more, which we see through a number of fancifully animated sequences, cleverly sewn into the fabric of the story.
But Kamala’s dreams are not always those of a typical teenager. Kamala is in fact rather atypical, as she fantasizes and writes about her favorite Super Hero, Captain Marvel. She even cosplays (dresses up) as the character in an elaborate outfit. All of this often causes a strained relationship with her parents, her mother in particular, who envision a much more “normal” and acceptable path for their daughter.
And then something amazing happens. Kamala discovers she has super powers not unlike those of her amazing Marvel heroine. The question then becomes — what does she want to do with them? For Kamala, the answer is not so easy, torn as she is between her daydreams and the reality of the life her parents want for her.
This highly relatable storyline is pulled from the 8-year-old Marvel comics series of the same name, with a character created by Marvel writer and series executive producer Sana Amanat. One of the most amazing things about the comics character, Amanat said at a recent press conference, is that it has had people who never read comics before showing up in comic book stores everywhere.
“I’m very proud of bringing new characters to the screen,” says Marvel Studios president and series executive producer Kevin Feige at a recent press conference. “Every once in a while something catches the audience’s imagination and this character did… Disney+ really gave us a chance to tell her full story in six episodes, so that she can then transition into a feature [in the Marvel Cinematic Universe].”
With its fresh and positive perspective on a culture that may be foreign to many viewers, series head writer Bisha K. Ali has ensured that “Ms. Marvel” will continue to appeal to those comics readers, while also resonating with young adults no matter their background.
In fact, the care and passion with which the series has been crafted is evident, at least in the first two episodes that were available for screening. The team paid careful attention to details to ensure that the show was not only entertaining, but authentic. The music is a mix of contemporary “bangers” from artists like The Weeknd and South Asian melodies, including some Bollywood undertones. Along with the animations, Marvel enthusiasts will also love the many action sequences, like those directed in the first episode by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, directors of the 2020 hit film “Bad Boys for Life.”
Still, despite what is sure to be its broad appeal, the show remains extremely unusual because the protagonist is not only female, but a South-Asian Muslim.
The significance of this is not lost on the cast and crew, which is also predominantly from that same background. In that recent press conference, they spoke to the importance of this representation. Little cultural and religious references like Kamala wearing a necklace with her name written in Islamic calligraphy or going to a mosque, for example, demonstrate both how different and how normal her life is as compared to the other American students she goes to school with.
“But this is not a political statement,” adds Mohan Kapur, who plays Kamala’s father. “We are not shouting from the rooftops… this is a story of an ethnically rich and culturally diverse community.”
Without giving away too much more, I will say that the first two episodes absolutely tell that story. In the lead role of Kamala Khan, Iman Vellani is as authentic a teenage girl as I have ever seen on the screen, complete with her dreamy stares, awkward looks and apparent sense of wonder at her newfound powers. Kapur and the rest of the cast, which includes Matt Lintz and Yasmeen Fletcher as Kamala’s best friends, and Nimra Bucha as her mother, also seems very — for want of a better word — real. These are people you know, they are your neighbors, your co-workers, your classmates. The fact that they happen to be from a South-Asian or Muslim background truly becomes secondary as you become engrossed in Kamala’s adventure, which starts out rather whimsically, but is clearly set to become a bit darker, with higher stakes at risk.
I’m looking forward to seeing how “Ms. Marvel” evolves, as it continues to tell Kamala Khan’s story and shares the South-Asian Muslim experience with its viewers.
Ms. Marvel, an original series from Marvel Studios, starts streaming June 8 on Disney+. You can get a taste of this new show by watching the official trailer below: