When news recently broke last week that the Disney Plus streaming service will be creating a live-action series based on Marvel Comics’ Kamala Khan, I whooped for joy. The superheroine, Marvel’s first Muslim protagonist, was introduced to the world as a reincarnation of Ms Marvel in 2013 after her predecessor Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel. So far, her audience has been limited to comic-book aficionados, although the new character has captivated a whole new reading audience. The live-action series will introduce her to brand new followers, and I for one could not be more pleased that a Muslim superheroine will be centre stage on a global platform.
At last, it will not be the stereotyped oppressed and helpless Muslim woman, just waiting to be rescued, being depicted on screen. An empowered Muslim girl is going to be doing the saving and it is through her eyes that we will see the world.
Khan is a teenage Pakistani Muslim from New Jersey who admired superheroes and eventually became one, complete with shape-shifting superpowers. She took on the mantle of Ms Marvel, a character who first appeared in 1968. What set Khan apart and undoubtedly contributed to her being a more rounded character, with nuanced personality traits, was that she was co-created by two Muslim women, Sana Amanat and Gwendolyn Willow Wilson. This gave her character's experiences and struggles a raw honesty. That will continue with the screen series with the announcement that Bisha Ali will be the series' writer and showrunner. Ali is a young, upcoming British talent and stand-up comedienne who has been working with Mindy Kaling on her latest TV series Four Weddings and a Funeral and is one of the voices on the Guilty Feminist podcast.
When Khan first appeared, Marvel was criticised for jumping on the diversity bandwagon. And there will undoubtedly be similar criticism levelled at the screen series. The level of online abuse already being heaped on Ali is a disgrace; trolls have pointed out that she has deleted her Twitter history but as the co-creator of a children's TV series, particularly one with the family-friendly Disney empire behind it, this would have presumably been expected of her, particularly as she had previously worked on adult shows. It was only last year that writer-director James Gunn was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 when inappropriate tweets emerged from his Twitter history. He was rehired but the incident no doubt served to remind Disney to be more cautious in the future. Ali's targeting feels more personal, particularly as she is relatively unknown, and one cannot help but wonder if racism plays a part.
The diversity debate will no doubt continue but as Willow Wilson wrote: "Diversity as a form of performative guilt doesn't work. Let's scrap the word diversity and replace it with authenticity and realism. This is not a new world. This is the world."
As it turned out, the critics were wrong on all counts. Khan's comic adventures made it to number two on the New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels and won the Hugo Award for best graphic story.
The authenticity and realism that Willow Wilson spoke of were key, breathing life into the experiences of Muslim women and girls. It humanised us and showed we face the same universal struggles as everyone else. The story was about a Muslim girl but the messages were for everyone.
The fact this series comes from the Marvel stable and will stream via Disney Plus is part of the reason this is such a momentous move. Our female Muslim superhero will be beamed into homes worldwide and watched the world over, with the potential to become a global icon. Disney Plus, launching primarily in the US, Canada and the Netherlands in November, will be a competitor to the likes of Netflix and HBO Max. Given the costs of creating such content and its prime positioning, this is not a token effort. It is a huge commercial investment that will also a social impact.
One has only to look at the phenomenal success of Black Panther last year to see what is possible. Focusing on black characters' stories in an authentic and powerful way had massive universal appeal. It brought a previously untold truth to our screens. Like Black Panther, Kamala Khan is an American export, transporting us to a US-centred world, but with Ali on board, her stories will hopefully be universal ones. My hope is that it inspires a whole raft of strong female Muslim characters. Change happens one character and one story at a time. That those stories are being crafted by Muslim women is a step in the right direction.
When the series launches, I’ll be curling up on the sofa with popcorn and pizza to share the experience with my daughters. At last we’ll be able to see ourselves, our power and our humanity reflected on screen, beamed right into our home - and that is definitely worth cheering about.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World