Comic book movies haven’t been shy when it comes to breaking boundaries in recent years. Marvel has already given us the big screen’s first black superhero in a lead role, whether you date that achievement to 2018’s Black Panther or even earlier to the pre-MCU exploits of 1998’s Blade (though there’s room for debate about whether Wesley Snipes’s brethren-slaying vampire technically qualifies as either super or hero).
On Wednesday, however, simultaneous with the long-awaited launch of Disney+ in the Middle East, Marvel will be chalking up another first, and one that will have particular resonance across the region, when Iman Vellani pulls on the spandex to take on the role of Ms Marvel, aka New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan, the world’s first Muslim superhero.
Kamala Khan, who is 16, first appeared in an August 2013 edition of Captain Marvel, and landed her own comic book series in February 2014. She was in part created by comic book artist Sana Amanat, who previously told The National that the character was sparked by a conversation she had with her senior editor, Stephen Wacker, about her own experiences growing up in New Jersey as a Pakistani-American Muslim.
In the comic book, Khan develops polymorphous powers owing to "inhuman" genes and takes over the former identity of her hero Carol Danvers (Danvers drops the Ms Marvel moniker in the Marvel comics after taking on the mantle of Captain Marvel in 2012). She has the ability to shape shift and has powers of elasticity.
It’s a watershed moment, particularly given that, despite some notable recent trend-buckers such as Ramy and The Lovebirds, the representation of Muslims we’ve typically seen from Hollywood, whether on the big screen or the small, have tended to be liberally sprinkled with oppressed women, ruthless leaders and terrorists.
It’s a big responsibility for the Pakistani-Canadian actress, 19, and one that will be eagerly anticipated, and equally closely analysed, by millions of young, comic book-loving Muslims around the globe.
Scroll through the gallery below to see Iman Vellani in scenes from 'Ms. Marvel':
Vellani isn’t oblivious to the significance of her new role. “I just hope it opens minds a little bit, because so often it's the cis men who are portrayed as real individuals on screen, and everyone else is just a representation of their culture or their religion or their sexuality. It's like, ‘Oh, it's not Ms. Marvel, it’s The Muslim Show,’” she tells The National.
Vellani says Ms. Marvel will do things a little differently. “I think that the whole point of our show is subverting labels and expectations that are thrown at you and doing your own thing, because no one can ever be just one label and one thing, and Kamala’s whole arc is marrying the 50 million things that, when combined, make her who she is. I hope people relate to that arc, and seeing that Muslims can be people and brown people are shown having fun on screen — how cool is that?”
The actress makes a valid point. There’s no doubt that her character’s religion will be, and already has been, highlighted, including by Muslims who are thrilled to finally see a superhero of the same faith. Watching the show, however, we quickly see that Kamala Khan is much more than her religion. She’s also a student, a sister, a confused teenage girl and a huge Marvel fan who spends an inordinate amount of her spare time making cut-out animations for her delightfully postmodern Marvel fan channel on YouTube.
While Khan’s religion is, of course, an important part of her character, it doesn’t define her, and Vellani is confident she’ll appeal to an audience far beyond young Muslims looking for representation on screen — in particular the not-inconsiderable Marvel fan demographic.
“Kamala is a character who just represents so much about fan culture and just what it is being a Marvel fan, and I think that's going to be super-meta for a lot of the nerds out there,” she says, with a laugh. “I think we've also really hit the mark with the coming-of-age arc. That hit home for me as a kid who just came into the business, and we've included so many real parts of my life to make her as real a character as possible.
“I think, apart from the Muslim representation, people will find some part of themselves that they relate to through the characters and the fan culture in our show. We wanted it to be very much about a fan fiction-writing nerd who happens to be Pakistani and Muslim. It's not about the ‘Muslimness’ or the ‘Pakistaniness’."
Scroll through the gallery below to see the official posters for all 'Ms. Marvel' characters:
Vellani clearly feels as much responsibility to the Marvel fan community as she does to religious or national culture, and it’s a community she feels very much a part of. As with Khan, the actress loves the Marvel comics, has published numerous works of home-made Marvel fan animation online and even dressed as Ms Marvel last Halloween.
She says there was so much of her own character in Khan, and vice versa, that it barely felt like an acting job at all, although, she says some of the physical aspects of the role were new to her (“I had never been into a gym before. I still hate it”).
Vellani will doubtless have to struggle through a few more gym sessions for the cause, as Marvel has already confirmed that her character will be joining its main Cinematic Universe following her introduction in the Disney+ series.
While she's prohibited by Marvel’s usual strict secrecy rules that mean she can't reveal anything about where we might expect her character to go in the wider universe, that doesn’t prevent us from asking where she’d like to see the character’s story head, purely as a fan.
“I really want to see some cool team-ups,” Vellani fires back without even stopping to think. “Ironheart is coming, and I really like her as a character. I’d love to work with [Ironheart alias] Riri Williams or even [Hawkeye’s Young Avengers incarnation] Kate Bishop. They really have to start this Young Avengers thing, you know?
"I’d just love to see her interact with a bunch of other people in the MCU, even the Guardians [of the Galaxy], like, how would she interact with Groot? That'd be really funny. She just brings so much love and joy out of other characters that she's on screen with, so get her on screen with more.”
Over to you, Marvel – the superfan has spoken.