‘IN. Marvel’: Muslim and South Asian representation innovates

When Iman Vellani booked the role of Kamala Khan – the Pakistani American superhero aka Ms. Marvel – was the 19-year-old newcomer’s first acting gig. But in taking on the mantle, Vellani also took on the responsibility of playing the first titular 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. Variety. At the same time, she says, “There’s so much weight in being first for anything.”

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

“This is what I keep telling myself: I don’t really have to go out of my way to stand up for Muslim and Pakistani representation,” she explains. “This is the story of a girl. We cannot represent all two billion Muslims and South Asians, but this is definitely a good start.”

This methodology has been the cornerstone of the central creative team behind “Ms. Marvel,” which debuts June 8 on Disney+. Along with the mostly South Asian and Muslim cast, the team includes head writer Bisha K. Ali, executive producer Sana Amanat (who co-created the comic in 2014), and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Meera Menon and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

“It’s this crossover of being the other in the room to being the room, that’s the best way to describe it,” says Zenobia Shroff, who plays Kamala’s mother Muneeba. “Not just on set, but behind the scenes as well. We were basically driven by strong women from Brown, and that’s how we like it.”

The six-episode series features Kamala’s origins as she also navigates the turmoil of being a teenager – from the nuances of her relationships with her family and her experiences at home to her high school friends and her Jersey City mosque. The aim is to invite the public to experience Kamala’s Muslim and Pakistani heritage without holding anyone’s hand.

Iman Vellani and Yasmeen Fletcher in ‘Ms. Wonderful.’
Daniel McFadden / Courtesy Marvel Studios

“We try to be as authentic and realistic as possible, and the characters don’t explain what that means,” says El Arbi. “That’s what we wanted to do with this show.”

Ali adds: “I’m very cautious with justifications, with pointing things out and explaining very openly. I prefer that she come from a place where she is just who she is.”

The series weaves together cultural references, such as the Khan’s familiar observation 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, is the everyday life of an American girl,” says Ali.

Menon directed the episode that features Eid and says he “kind of couldn’t believe” that Disney and Marvel provided the resources for the show to “dial” the Eid celebration “to look like a full-on carnival.”

“We certainly had a lot of consultations about this with the cultural advisors who were present throughout the show,” she says. “Sana really guided these conversations, making sure it felt authentic to an experience specific to this community and specific enough to be universal.”

Amanat notes that Marvel Studios executives, including creative director Kevin Feige, have not expressed concern about alienating non-Muslim audiences or non-South Asians with the show’s detailed cultural references. Instead, they fully embraced the nuanced perspective.

“Every time we had a Muslim reference or a joke from Brown, and Kevin was like, ‘What is this? Is it Brown?’” Amanat says. “When we said ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘All right, great. More of the same. He really supported that flavor because he knows that’s what makes it so unique and special.”

Even the biggest change from “Ms. Marvel” for the series — namely, Kamala’s powers and how she obtains them — involved her inheritance. In the comics, Kamala is part of a subset of people known as the Inhumans, many of whom are unaware they have superpowers until their dormant abilities are unleashed – as is the case with Kamala.

Image loaded with laziness

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Inhumans aren’t a factor in the current MCU, however, and as a series, “Ms. Marvel” is coming into the early stages of any longer-term story (or stories) that Marvel Studios is planning to follow in the Infinity Saga. By necessity, this meant that Kamala’s powers needed to be, as Amanat puts it, “attached to the beginning of something in the MCU.”

Amanat declined to give more details about what This one means, but she and Ali also saw this change as an opportunity to tie Kamala’s powers more closely to her identity. As the premiere episode revealed, they are triggered after Kamala puts on a bracelet her grandmother had sent from Pakistan, and subsequent episodes will delve even further into exploring how the bracelet’s origins – and the abilities it unlocks in Kamala – are. deeply intertwined. with Kamala’s family history.

“What makes her powers unique and special doesn’t just come from this bracelet, but from something much bigger and much more personal,” says Amanat. “That resonates much more intensely, at least for me, for Kamala’s story.”

With so many cultural references, big and small, Ali has included a glossary at the top of the scripts explaining some of the language.

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

The approach presents an opportunity for curious fans to get an education about another culture while also having fun. “We’re not trying to hit the head. We are presenting a different aspect of a lived experience,” adds Amanat. “But at the end of the day, we’re telling a fun, geeky fan story about a young woman coming of age.”

Carson Burton and Jordan Moreau contributed to this story.

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