‘MS. Marvel’: Muslim, South Asian representation breaks new ground

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 'MS.  Marvel': Muslim, South Asian representation breaks new ground

When Iman Vellani booked the role of Kamala Khan – the Pakistani-American teenage superhero also known as Ms. Marvel – it marked the first acting stint for the 19-year-old newcomer. But in taking on the mantle, Vellani also took on the responsibility of playing the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“I’m honestly so privileged that Marvel trusts me to bring a character like Kamala to life,” says Vellani diversity. At the same time, she says: “It carries so much weight to be the first of everything.”

The advice she received from Marvel leadership was simply to be herself. “They say, ‘You don’t go to work thinking you’re the first Muslim superhero; You just go to work and have fun,” Vellani recalls.

“I keep telling myself that I don’t really have to bother to represent Muslims and Pakistanis,” she explains. “This is a story about a girl. We can’t represent all two billion Muslims and South Asians, but it’s definitely a good start.”

This methodology was the cornerstone for the core creative team behind “Ms. Marvel,” which debuts June 8 on Disney+. In addition to the predominantly South Asian and Muslim cast, the team includes head writer Bisha K. Ali, executive producer Sana Amanat (who helped create the 2014 comic), and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Meera Menon and Sharmeen Obaid. Chinoy.

“It’s that transition from other in space to space, that’s the best way to describe it,” says Zenobia Shroff, who plays Kamala’s mother, Muneeba. “Not just on set, but also behind the scenes. We were basically led by strong brown women and that’s how we like it.”

The six-episode series presents Kamala’s origins as she navigates the turmoil of her teenage life – from the nuances of her relationships with her family and experiences at home, to her high school friends and her Jersey City mosque. The aim is to invite the audience to experience Kamala’s Muslim and Pakistani heritage without shaking hands with anyone.

Iman Vellani and Yasmeen Fletcher in “Ms. Wonder.’
Daniel McFadden / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“We’re trying to be as authentic and realistic as possible, and the characters didn’t want to explain what that means,” says El Arbi. “That’s what we wanted to achieve with this show.”

Ali adds, “I’m very careful about justifications, pointing things out and explaining things very openly. I’d prefer it to come from a place where she’s just who she is.”

The series weaves together cultural references, such as the Khan’s family’s observance of the Eid holiday, as naturally as the Christmas celebrations in “Hawkeye.”

“The celebrations and events that we see and the way she interacts with elements of the community, that’s the everyday life of an American girl,” says Ali.

Menon directed the episode featuring Eid and says she “kind of couldn’t believe” that Disney and Marvel provided the resources for the show to “dial in” the Eid celebration “to feel like a full blown carnival.” .

“Of course we consulted extensively with the cultural advisors who were present throughout the show,” she says. “Sana really guided these conversations and made it feel authentic for an experience specific to this community and specific enough to be universal.”

Amanat notes that Marvel Studios executives, including Chief Creative Officer Kevin Feige, have expressed no concern about offending non-Muslim audiences or people who are not of South Asian origin with the show’s detailed cultural references. Instead, they fully embraced the nuanced perspective.

“Every time we’d have a Muslim reference or a Brown joke and Kevin would be like, ‘What is that? Is it Brown?’” says Amanat. “When we said ‘yes,’ he said, ‘Okay, great. More of that.’ He was very committed to having that aroma because he knows that’s what makes it so unique and special.”

Even the biggest change from the “Ms. Marvel’s comics on the series – namely Kamala’s powers and how she gets them – referenced her legacy. In the comics, Kamala is part of a subgroup of humans known as the Inhumans, many of whom are unaware that they have superpowers until their dormant abilities are unleashed – as is the case with Kamala.

Lazy loaded image

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

However, monsters play no role in the current MCU, and as a series “Ms. Marvel is in the early stages of any long-term story (or stories) that Marvel Studios plans to follow the Infinity Saga. Inevitably, that meant that, as Amanat says, Kamala’s powers “had to be tied to the beginning of something in the MCU.”

Amanat declined to elaborate on what the means, but she and Ali also saw this shift as an opportunity to more closely tie Kamala’s powers to her identity. As revealed in the premiere episode, they will be triggered after Kamala dons a bangle bracelet her grandmother sent from Pakistan, and subsequent episodes will delve even deeper into the exploration, like the bracelet’s origins – and the abilities he found in Kamala unlocks – are deeply intertwined with Kamala’s family history.

“What makes her powers unique and special comes not just from this bracelet, but from something much bigger and much more personal,” says Amanat. “It resonates much more intensely, at least to me, with Kamala’s story.”

With so many cultural references, large and small, Ali included a glossary at the top of the scripts that explains some of the languages.

“Just so everyone can agree, whether they speak Arabic or Urdu,” she explains. “It was really about bringing so many people into this process behind the camera that it felt like they were a part of it, and I think it will extend to our audience as well.”

The approach offers curious fans the opportunity to learn about another culture while being entertained at the same time. “We’re not trying to hit it over the head. We show a different aspect of a lived experience,” adds Amanat. “But ultimately we’re kind of telling a kind of nerdy, funny fan story about a young woman coming of age.”

Carson Burton and Jordan Moreau contributed to this story.

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