Why Ms Marvel is ground-breaking

Luckily, Disney struck gold with the casting of Pakistani-Canadian actress Iman Vellani as Ms Marvel. She seems to perfectly embody all the elements that made Kamala Khan such a lovable character in the comic books. She is an adorable bundle of charisma every time she is on the screen. Much like Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man or Emma Watson as Hermione Grainger, it’s not hyperbolic to say she it seems like this role was tailor-made for her.

While the series does feature some of the cliches of coming-of-age stories, the Pakistani-US background of the main character helps set it apart. But that comes with its own challenges. The show seems to walk a tight rope between pronounced representation and stereotyping and doesn’t always get the balance right. The amount of time the word haram gets bandied about becomes almost comical, verging on becoming parody. While exploring important themes such as finding one’s own voice and identity at the risk of clashing with familial expectations, the show approaches them in a heavy-handed manner –  lacking the deft touch of the comics.

But the show also made me relate to it in a way I have with very few series, and that has a lot to do with the characters. Ms Marvel feels like a celebration of diaspora communities. Like Kamala, I grew up straddling different cultures, often at odds with one another and with my parents’ vision of who I should be. I knew a Bruno, the white friend happily immersed himself in Islamic culture because of his social circle, while other characters who felt very familiar to me include Nakia, the hijab-wearing girl you know is going to change the world, even as, behind her back, people question why a strong intelligent woman like her would choose to cover her hair. And Kamran, the boy in school who was effortlessly cool but annoyingly likeable in spite of that. Never, too, would I have thought that the scourge of many a mosque goer – the shoe thief – would be mentioned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In fact, there’s a lot about the show that stands out positively. It is aesthetically vibrant and seamlessly incorporates comic book-inspired animations with live action. The main group of actors portraying Kamala’s school friends have great chemistry together. The series also has a fantastic soundtrack. It was just as surreal to hear the 1966 Pakistani pop classic Ko Ko Korina playing on a Marvel show as it was the contemporary hit Peechay Hutt.

There was apprehension amongst fans of the comic books about the changes the show would make to Kamala’s powers and backstory. In the comics, Kamala activates her polymorphic abilities, allowing her to change her size and shape, after being exposed to a cloud of Terrigen Mist. In the series, she seems to activate the power to construct objects using energy through a mystical bracelet (similar to Green Lantern). According to the Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, these changes were necessary for a smooth transition into the MCU. Whether fans warm to it remains to be seen, but I am optimistic they will.

The series has a chance to carry on the legacy of the comics on a bigger stage than ever before – not only showing Muslim children a superhero who shares their background and religious belief being a superhero, but inspiring audiences from all walks of life. As Sue Obeidi says, “I hope this character and this series is going to be a springboard for many more empowering stories of female Muslims and authentic Muslim representation.”

Episode 1 of Ms Marvel is out on Disney+ today, with further episodes released weekly

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