When Iman Vellani booked the role of Kamala Khan — the Pakistani American teen superhero also known as Ms. Marvel — it was the first acting gig for the 19-year-old newcomer. But in assuming 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,” Vellani tells Variety. At the same time, she says, “There’s so much weight that comes with being the first of anything.”
The advice she received from Marvel leadership was simply to be herself. “They’re like, ‘You don’t go to work thinking that you’re the first Muslim superhero; you just go to work and have fun,’” Vellani recalls.
“That’s what I keep telling myself: I don’t really have to go out of my way and advocate for Muslim and Pakistani representation,” she explains. “This is one story of one girl. We cannot represent all two billion Muslims and South Asians, but this is definitely a good start.”
That methodology has been the keystone for the core 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 from 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, too. We were basically run by strong Brown women, and that’s the way we like it.”
The six-episode series presents Kamala’s origins while 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 mosque in Jersey City. The aim is to invite audiences to experience Kamala’s Muslim and Pakistani heritage without holding anyone’s hand through it.
“We try to be as authentic and realistic as possible, and the characters wouldn’t explain what that means,” El Arbi says. “That’s what we wanted to do with this show.”
Adds Ali: “I am very wary of justification, of pointing at things and explaining very overtly. I’d much rather it come from a place of it’s just who she is.”
The series weaves in cultural references, like the Khan’s family observation of the holiday Eid, as naturally as the celebrations of Christmas in “Hawkeye.”
“The celebrations and the events that we see, and the way that she interacts with elements of the community, it’s the day-to-day life of an American girl,” Ali says.
Menon directed the episode that features Eid, and says she “kind of couldn’t believe” that Disney and Marvel provided the resources for the show to “dial up” the Eid celebration “to feel like a full-blown carnival.”
“Certainly we had a lot of consultation on it with the cultural advisors that were present throughout the show,” she says. “Sana really guided those conversations, making sure it felt authentic to an experience specific to this community and specific enough to be universal.”
Amanat notes that Marvel Studios execs, including chief creative officer Kevin Feige, expressed no concern about alienating non-Muslim audiences or people who aren’t South Asian with the show’s detailed cultural references. Instead, they fully embraced the nuanced perspective.
“Every time we would have a Muslim reference or Brown joke, and Kevin is like, ‘What is that? Is it Brown?’” Amanat says. “When we said, ‘Yes,’ he’s like, ‘Alright, great. More of it.’ He was really supportive of having that flavoring, because he knows that’s what makes it very unique and special.”
Even the biggest change from the “Ms. Marvel” comics to the series — namely, Kamala’s powers, and how she gets them — involved her heritage. In the comics, Kamala is part of a subset of people known as Inhumans, many of whom don’t know they have superpowers until their dormant abilities are unleashed — as is the case with Kamala.
Inhumans are not a factor in the current MCU, however, and as a series, “Ms. Marvel” is arriving in the beginning stages of whatever long-term story (or stories) Marvel Studios is planning to follow the Infinity Saga. By necessity, that meant that Kamala’s powers needed to be, as Amanat says, “linked to the beginning of something in the MCU.”
Amanat declined to elaborate further about what that means, but she and Ali also saw that shift as an opportunity to tie Kamala’s powers more closely to her identity. As the premiere episode revealed, they’re sparked after Kamala puts on a bangle her grandmother had mailed from Pakistan, and subsequent episodes will dive even further into exploring how the origins of the bangle — and the abilities it unlocks in Kamala — are deeply entwined with Kamala’s family history.
“What makes her powers unique and special, is not just coming from this bangle, but from something much bigger and much more personal,” Amanat says. “That resonates a lot more intensely, at least for me, for Kamala’s story.”
With so many cultural references, both big and small, Ali included a glossary at the top of the scripts explaining some of the language.
“Just so that everybody can be on the same page, whether they’re speaking Arabic or Urdu,” she explains. “It was really about bringing as many people into that process behind the camera, so it felt like they were a part of it, and I think it’s going to expand out into our audiences as well.”
The approach presents an opportunity for curious fans to get an education about another culture while also being entertained. “We’re not trying to bash it over the head. We’re showcasing a different aspect of a lived experience,” Amanat adds. “But, ultimately, we’re telling sort of a nerdy, fun fan story about a young woman coming of age.”
Carson Burton and Jordan Moreau contributed to this story.