Iron Man. Captain America. Black Panther. Captain Marvel. Thor. The last decade of Marvel has made a variety of superheroes into household names, cultural phenomena, and topics of mainstream conversation. Some have even changed the way we think about the world around us. My world was changed forever once I saw my first Marvel film, having no introduction to the comics whatsoever.
Arguably, though, the most important Marvel superhero of the last decade isn’t on that list: Kamala Khan, otherwise known as Ms. Marvel.
To be clear, there’s no such thing as Marvel Studios without Tony Stark/Iron Man. And Robert Downey Jr portraying that role on the big screen. That performance turned Marvel into a movie-making juggernaut. But although Marvel has come to define blockbuster movies, it’s a comic book publisher first and foremost.
The most emblematic example of Marvel’s rich tradition of storytelling, heart, and underdog spirit. Specifically, pioneered by Marvel godfathers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, isn’t Iron Man, however. The character’s time in the spotlight has effectively wrapped. Instead, it’s important to look at what the future holds for this formidable force in entertainment — and in that sense, it’s the comic book star that Kamla Khan, the character that matters most.
Marvel’s heroes have always represented the best of humanity. But historically, they haven’t done a great job of reflecting the diversity of humanity. Although fans have often been asked to imagine themselves as the heroes they admire. The pervading idea has been that comic books feature legacy heroes. And you guessed it, they were mostly men — and mostly white men at that. Whereas they were the only ones that could be successful. Since they traditionally had the biggest sales (correlation and causation be damned). But this show’s impact on culture is incomparable.
The Ms. Marvel Comics
Ms. Marvel changed that narrative. Since the series launched, its protagonist Kamala Khan and its massive success have proved for Marvel. Mainly that not only could its A-list heroes stand to look more like the wide array of people who read and love Marvel comics. But also that its loyal readers could relate to a hero who doesn’t look like the traditional model. The stories Marvel went on to tell after her debut — and will continue to tell on the big screen for years to come — are indebted to this show.
Previous focus of Marvel Comics
Before Ms. Marvel’s introduction in 2014, Marvel’s comics division was deeply focused on its long-standing core characters. Including the Avengers (thanks in large part to the movies). And the X-Men (whose film franchise became well-established. And whose characters, like the iconic Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, dominated popularity in the ’90s). It was also beginning to push the race of superhumans called the Inhumans (stars of a dismal television series). That meant most of the featured heroes were generally men. Mostly white; though the X-Men. For example, featured mutants of all colours, shapes, and sizes, burly Wolverine was often the featured star of the comics.
Heroes who weren’t the boring stereotype, like alt-universe Spider-Man Miles Morales and Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel. All of them had loyal followings too. But none of them had the same level of recognition. As well as the success as that of Peter Parker or Tony Stark.
Enters the show on Kamla Khan.
Ms. Marvel Creators
Written by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by artist Adrian Alphona, and overseen by editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker. The Ms. Marvel comics stars Kamala Khan, a Muslim and a Pakistani-American teen living in New Jersey. She leads a pretty normal life, complete with all of the usual insecurities. Specifically, schoolwork, crushes, heartaches, disappointments, triumphs, parties, groundings, and melodrama. That is, until a green mist sweeps across the world (while Kamala is at a party to which she snuck out to go). This activates her latent alien Inhuman genes and unlocks her shape-shifting abilities.
Kamala faces a Peter Parker-like challenge: to continue living life as a teen. But also as the hero she always dreamed of being. Most of the time, one comes at the expense of the other, with hero-ing getting in the way of school or first kisses. Or with things like doting parents, and overprotective siblings. And the need to maintain grades at school interrupting hero time.
The Distinction in Kamala’s Story
What’s so distinctive about Kamala’s story is its contemporary and relatable nature. Considering how different she is from the popular superheroes who preceded her. Mainly, her religion, the colour of her skin, and her being a suburban teenage girl. It’s a testament to Wilson and Alphona’s touching storytelling about Kamala’s life. Moreover, its highs and lows are so universal and yet specific to her experiences. Marvel’s comic books have always asked their readers to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes. And someone else’s experiences and Kamala’s turned out to be no different.
In Kamala’s case, it’s not that fans couldn’t imagine themselves in her shoes — it’s that they’ve never really been asked to.
The Commercial Success of Ms Marvel
Ms Marvel #1 was a critical and commercial hit, earning high marks from reviewers while going into seven printings; the demand for the issue was so high, that it required Marvel to create more comic books seven times over to keep up. According to Comic Chron, a site that tracks and estimates comic book sales, 75,280 physical issues of Ms Marvel #1 were sold in 2014, landing it among the top 105 issues sold that year (keep in mind that multiple issues of comics from multiple publishers are released every week).
Digitally (where sales aren’t reported by comic book companies thoroughly), we know that Ms Marvel has traditionally been one of Marvel’s bestsellers and that over 500,000 trade paperbacks (collected, physical editions of the comic book) have been sold as of 2018. Ms Marvel currently stars in the also successful The Magnificent Ms Marvel, written by Saladin Ahmed and drawn by Minkyu Jung.
This show’s breakaway success, in a space crowded with recognizable legacy costumes, was undeniable proof to Marvel that racial, religious, and gender diversity were worth the investment. While if we talk about the television adaptation on Disney+, I’ve been keeping an eye on the show reviews, and now with 161 critical reviews scored, it’s probably time to make it official. Ms Marvel is not only the highest-scoring Disney Plus MCU TV series with its 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, that score puts it above every MCU movie as well. I couldn’t have been happier.
The Reason for its Success
The idea of readers, kids especially, seeing themselves in the superheroes they admire has fueled Marvel comics’ success. With Kamala, an entire swath of Marvel fans was able to finally see someone with their skin colour, their religious beliefs, and within their age group saving the world — that’s a nice sentiment. But Marvel is a business, and for it to get fully on board with representation, high-profit margins are a big help. Ms. Marvel certainly brought those both through its comic sales and its television adaptation ratings.
Ms Marvel, the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seamlessly integrates audiences into Kamala’s world—specifically, the world of an immigrant, Muslim, a Pakistani American family living in Jersey City. In an industry that has rarely portrayed Muslim characters outside of harmful stereotypes, it’s important to see a character like Kamala.
While Kamala is not the first Muslim superhero to appear in the MCU—Sooraya Qadir, a member of the X-men, wears a niqab and was born in Afghanistan—she is the most fully developed. Some Marvel fans have criticized the character of Sooraya as being written from an orientalist perspective. Ms Marvel offers an opportunity for Muslim girls and women to relate to a superhero. The excitement felt by Muslim communities ahead of Ms Marvel’s release is similar to the enthusiasm around Black Panther and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—and how those films resonated deeply with Black and Asian viewers.
The creators of the show were intentional in building a world that showcases South Asian culture and history through its scenes and dialogue. The show’s matter-of-fact portrayal of different Muslims shows there are many ways to practice Islam and treats each with equal validity.
To ensure the storytelling is authentic, Ms Marvel is packed with big-name South Asians on camera and behind the scenes. It features appearances from Pakistani actors Nimra Bucha and Fawad Khan, as well as Bollywood actor Farhan Akhtar. Obaid-Chinoy is known in particular for her social justice documentaries centring on women, like Saving Face, about acid attacks on Pakistani women. The rest of the cast is as follows:
- Matt Lintz as Bruno Carrelli
- Yasmeen Fletcher as Nakia Bahadir
- Mohan Kapur as Yusuf Khan
- Zenobia Shroff as Muneeba Khan
- Saagar Shaikh as Aamir Khan
- Rish Shah as Kamran
- Fawad Khan as Hasan
- Arian Moayed as Officer P. Cleary
- Laurel Marsden as Zoe Zimmer
Samina Ahmed joins ‘Ms Marvel’ as Kamala Khan’s Nani
As usual, when something ground-breaking airs, there are bound to be contingents attempting to review bomb Ms. Marvel on the user side. Rotten Tomatoes has already deleted large swaths of low-scored user reviews. While IMDB has seen 1-star rating spam to drive its overall score down below every other Disney Plus series. It’s part of the eternal “woke” culture war, except when questioned, no one can point to anything defined as “woke” in the show. Other than the fact that she exists as a lead character who is a Pakistani Muslim girl. Most professional critics view that sort of focus on a new kind of hero as a plus.
Ms. Marvel Costume
In the comics, Kamala wore a biokinetic polymer suit. During her Terrigenesis, Kamala Khan had a vision of Captain Marvel, and stated she wanted to be a heroine like Carol, wearing “the classic, politically incorrect costume.” When she awoke, her shape-shifting powers had turned her clothes into a yellow and gold outfit. Kamala eventually regretted it, deeming it uncomfortable. After foiling a robbery dressed as Captain Marvel, Kamala eventually made a costume of her own out of a burkini. That one was the basis for Kamala’s final suit, made by her friend Bruno Carrelli out of a malleable “super snot” that made the outfit change alongside Kamala.
The original version of Ms. Marvel’s Suit was primarily red, blue, and black, as well as somewhat reminiscent of what Mar-Vell wore at the time – as described by artist Dave Cockrum,
“a female version of Captain Marvel’s costume with only an open belly”,
though it stopped exposing the midriff on issue #9.
Amanat ( one of the creators of the show) stated that Khan’s costume was influenced by the shalwar kameez. They wanted the costume to represent her cultural identity but did not want her to wear a hijab. Mainly because the majority of teenage Pakistani-American girls do not wear one.
Ms. Marvel Visual Style
The new Disney Plus show Ms Marvel has already been declared a hit, but it’s the graphic design behind Marvel’s new show, the brand’s first Muslim superhero, that caught the eye. The first episode is a masterclass in design, and its 18 hidden Ms Marvel logos are genius.
The Kamla Khan live-action show embraces the comic that it draws inspiration from, with a beautiful teen-scrapbook approach to its design and logos. Every frame of the show is filled with subtle references; you can see it for yourself by checking out our Disney Plus show.
The scrapbook, pop-art approach of these and the main Ms Marvel logo isn’t the first time Marvel has done this. The recent Spider-Man movies all embraced the school book scribble approach. It also took a year for Marvel to decide on the She-Hulk logo, which is another triumph for Ms Marvel – she gets 18 in one episode.
The screenwriter and creator of Ms Marvel Bisha K. Ali recently explained the show’s unique visual style. The Kamala Khan series for Disney+ presented the popular character live for the first time and complemented the impressions with a bright visual style. Thanks to the use of graffiti, animated drawings and clever framing, some episodes look like comics. In the first two episodes of the show, this style was used for moments when Kamala’s mind drifts, when she dreams, or when the character communicates with her friends via text messages.
The Music of Ms. Marvel
While first episode featured several South Asian artists. While the second episode soundtrack had ‘Jalebi Baby’ by Tesher, ‘Sage‘ by Ritviz, ‘Peechay Hutt’ by Hassan Raheem, Justin Bibis, and Talal Qureshi, ‘Anthem‘ by Swet Shop Boys (Heems and Riz Ahmed) among others.
The episode also features songs including ‘Feel So Good” by Mase, ‘Come Around’ by Timbaland and M.I.A., ‘Keep on Movin’ by B. Stew, ‘Attitude‘ — pay attention, and ‘Be My Baby‘ by The Ronettes. Best of all is the trailer music that you have listened to over and over again. It’s Blinding Lights by the Weeknd.
A superhero – and a star – is born in Ms Marvel (Disney+), the latest small-screen foray into the MCU. The superhero is Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim headliner, whose solo comic book series made its debut in 2014.
The star is Iman Vellani – incredibly, given her charisma, comic timing and dramatic chops in every scene – her first acting role. Her second will be in the next Marvel film outing, The Marvels (I hope you’re clear about us being in a Marvel universe for the duration of this piece), a sequel to Captain Marvel and focusing on the adventures of Carole Danvers/Captain Marvel and our Kamala Khan. Normally, you would fear for a young actor, but Vellani seems so born to the purple that you almost have to shrug and say, as an elder might to a nascent superhero in – oh, I don’t know, the MCU perhaps – that it is her destiny. Every Muslim, Pakistani, South Asian and immigrant, especially young girls are screaming in joy at the ground-breaking representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.