By Ahmed Sharma | South Asian American Advisory Board
Imagine being a superfan of something that you couldn’t necessarily relate to, but you dreamed that someday you could experience a small part of that. For Iman Vellani, she got the best of both worlds in her role as the titular character in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Ms. Marvel.
The series made its debut on Disney+ Wednesday, but for avid fans, it was almost surreal. This is because when the comics first released Ms. Marvel in 2013 as Kamala Khan, a teenage Pakistani American girl from New Jersey, who also happened to be Muslim, there was so much excitement for its representation.
Naturally, that elation would only become intensified when the announcement came for a live-action series, especially for South Asians and Muslims, who were excited to see themselves represented on screen as superheroes. According to Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige, in A Fan’s Guide to Ms. Marvel, even creators and producers were thrilled to see everything come to fruition.
“It’s finally happening,” Fiege said. “We’re finally bringing Ms. Marvel to the screen first on a Disney+ series, and then she’ll be joining Carol Danvers in the next Captain Marvel movie. So, it’s very exciting to be able to review a plan that we’ve been working on for many years. Finally, now it’s underway.”
With Vellani at the helm of it all, the show seems complete because when you google Ms. Marvel and you look up the Canadian actress, viewers can’t help but compare the two and notice the uncanny resemblance. (Go ahead, look it up right now!) It’s a plus that she was a huge fan of Ms. Marvel, to begin with!
Of course, while making her on-screen debut for a role like this, where you’re asked to represent an ethnic and religious group and simultaneously continue to strengthen a series more than 10 years in the making, there’s admittedly a ton of pressure. However, despite what some sour rejected candidates might say, it’s almost as if Vellani was born for the role.
“There is that giant pressure with this being a first of a lot of things,” Vellani adds in the Fan’s Guide. “ I just have so much love for the character which is why I auditioned in the first place. I had no choice. I know my 10-year-old self would hate me if I did not audition.”
Granted, When Kumail Nanjiani first graced the big screen in Marvel’s Eternals, it was a huge win for South Asian men like myself, to finally see themselves as superheroes. During the same year as the release of Shang-Chi: Legend of the 10 Rings, it was important for people like myself to see ‘history in the making’ but we could appreciate it more Ms Marvel on Disney+if the main character resembled us slightly more. This was coupled with Nanjiani’s Adonis-like transformation to add credence to his character as a Bollywood actor, not only demonstrating South Asian men as ‘cool’ and dare I say, hot?
Vellani as Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, takes up the mantle for South Asians and Muslims by playing on her strengths as a fan girl making her dreams come true. What are the odds of that happening with how infinitely vast this universe is? Even Vellani’s character admits in one scene that the odds are stacked against her from the beginning.
“Let’s be honest, it’s not really the brown girls from Jersey who save the world,” she says.
We can also take comfort that Ms. Marvel’s focus is on her superpowers and not on her sex appeal – obviously because she’s a teenager. The only reason I mention this is because the main character, Kamala, has to deal with her parents’ inability to comprehend her interest in superheroes; particularly, Captain Marvel, where she wants to cosplay as her but Kamala’s parents only see it as her dressing in a scantily clad outfit. She even wonders herself in one scene if her admiration of the heroine is an unhealthy obsession.
“It seems like every single thing I like [my mother] seems to hate and it’s like she thinks I’m some kind of, you know, weirdo,” Kamala says.
There’s a tear-jerking scene (at least for me, because I’m almost 30) where Kamala’s parents are willing to let her go to the comic convention, on the condition her father (also in cosplay) accompanies her. I’m not a parent, but I can see how it’s the perfect demonstration of a parent trying to take an interest in their child’s life; and I had to dive deep down to remember what it’s like to remember why having your “mommy and daddy” at a party made you feel – cause other kids are jerks. Based on that, it’s understanding how the child feels their parents are “humiliating” or embarrassing them.
In highlighting Kamala’s struggles as a child in the show’s premiere episode, viewers can overall empathize with her teenage angst i.e., generational gaps with parents, the complex balance of wanting to be treated as a grown-up but not prepared for the responsibilities that lie ahead, or how with time your mentality and perception on EVERYTHING changes. The fact that Kamala is Pakistani and Muslim is purely coincidental at that point.
In other words, the show does a tremendous job at capturing the family dynamic and catches viewers by surprise with the ability to relate – even if they don’t “look” like the characters on screen. It doesn’t even have to be the parental aspect of the show, where Ms. Marvel’s story succeeds. There’s a recurring theme in the premiere episode that continues to be discussed, where Kamala is criticized for “daydreaming.”
Even her guidance counselor tells Kamala at the beginning of the episode that she needs to “think of [her] future.” That’s a scary concept as a child, especially as a teenager cause in school, you’re just trying to get through the damn day. At the very end of the episode, everything comes full circle when Kamala’s frustrated mother, ably played by Zenobia Shroff, scolds her for just that and tells her, “it’s time to stop fantasizing.”
“I wish that you would just focus on you,” Kamala’s mother, Muneeba Khan continues.”Your grades, your family, your story; I mean who do you wanna be in this world, huh? Do you want to be good like – we raised you to be? Or do you want to be some, you know, this cosmic head-in-the-clouds person?”
Those words arguably strike a nerve for any individual whose relatives do not recognize their potential. However, for South Asians, perhaps even Asians in general, it hits differently because there’s a certain expectation among immigrant parents to have big careers, and achieve grandeur, that’s often joked about by American-born children.
The truth of the matter is, it’s frightening when you’re unsure of what the future lies ahead for you; and while the rest of the world may not understand why you feel the way you do, sometimes you just have to believe in yourself. That’s exactly why despite Kamala hearing such somber words from her mother, it should have made her keep her head down. Instead, she smiles and stares in awe at her newfound superpowers. There’s probably a hidden message behind that, but it’s for the viewer to interpret themselves.
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