Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Among the few recent comic creations to stick in the public consciousness, Ms. Marvel—the Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan—is one of Marvel’s better known newcomers, and she’s all set to headline her own Disney+ series starting tomorrow. Her self-titled comic line, which began in 2014, was a joyful update of Marvel’s traditional superhero fare, infusing a Spider-Man-esque tale of power and responsibility with the cultural specifics of a first-gen South Asian Muslim story. Ms. Marvel borrows the basics of that source material (not to mention, its young adult tone), but remixes them in intriguing ways, some of which miss a few vital beats from her comic origin, but some of which are arguably even more befitting of her cultural background.
The show’s first two episodes—which arrive June 8 and June 15 respectively, with the remaining four episodes every subsequent Wednesday—depict a smaller corner of the now-sprawling Marvel universe: the diverse Jersey City. With Manhattan looming across the Hudson, high school junior Kamala (newcomer Iman Vellani) turns memories of the Avengers’ metropolitan battles into stop-motion fan art. She’s a particularly big fan of Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), and with the first ever AvengerCon about to take place, she hopes to attend and win a big cosplay competition using the rudimentary Carol costume she designed with her best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz). The only thing standing in her way is her strict immigrant parents. It’s a typical generational dynamic that seems ripped from every run-of-the-mill South Asian American story of culture clash, however, it eventually gives way to something more powerful and interesting.
Kamala’s parents, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and Yusuf (Mohan Kapur), put much more trust in her older brother Amir (Saagar Shaikh) and give her much shorter leash, so she needs to find a way to sneak out to the convention without her family noticing. With smaller, more personal stakes than Marvel’s average apocalyptic battles, the show initially seems to follow the familiar mold of younger first-generation Asian American characters trying to reconcile Western desires for freedom and individualism with their parents’ “oppressive” cultures. However, Ms. Marvel isn’t quite so simplistic, and it throws personal complications Kamala’s way with how it changes her origin story, making it less about a binary east-versus-west outlook, and more about family secrets.
In her early comic appearances, Kamala was revealed to be part of a superhuman lineage known as the Inhumans, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s operatic regal saga that never quite caught on as much as their similar creation, the X-Men. The Inhumans had begun creeping their way back into major comic storylines when Kamala was introduced, owing to the approaching production of an Inhumans movie. This, however, would eventually be canceled in favor of a short-lived TV series in 2017, and once the group’s importance waned in the comics, they became but a minor detail in the tapestry of Kamala’s story. Ms. Marvel appears to sidestep the Inhuman aspect altogether, and while this results in a slightly less interesting inciting incident, it offers some unique and exciting potential despite what it’s forced to sacrifice.
Rather than an Inhuman origin—a mysterious fog known as a “Terrigen Mist” catalyzing her powers, as they do for every Inhuman—Kamala’s abilities on the show are unlocked by a family heirloom. Her Nani (maternal grandmother) delivers Muneeba a box of old trinkets, among which Kamala finds an ornate bangle belonging to her great grandmother, Aisha, about whom the Khans seldom speak. Muneeba hints at a shameful family story, but little else about Aisha, as she stashes the bangle in the attic (she seems to know more about it than she’s letting on). But when Kamala gets her hands on it, and adds it to her cosplay for some personal flair, she suddenly finds herself able to emit rays of shining light, mostly pink and purple beams, which harden like diamonds and take the form of any physical objects she can think of, before they quickly disintegrate.
It’s far more reminiscent of DC’s Green Lantern than of Kamala’s comic origins, in which she’s able to stretch and contort her body (or “embiggen” it, as she says). Like Green Lantern, her abilities are an extension of her imagination, an idea which fits neatly alongside one of the reasons her mother chastises her, calling her a “fantasizing, unrealistic daydreamer,” since she dedicates so much more time to her Carol Danvers fandom than to her studies. In a micro sense, this has the potential to turn her perceived weakness into a strength, but as for the wider reasons this change was implemented, Marvel Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Kevin Fiege—the shepherd of the long-running continuity known as the MCU, or Marvel Cinematic Universe—provided some insight in an interview with Empire Magazine. He said: “[Kamala] came about in a very specific time within the comic-book continuity. She is now coming into a very specific time within the MCU continuity. And those two things didn’t match.” While the “specific time” he refers to in the comics is likely the Inhumans’ temporary importance, he offers no such hints about what he means going forward in the live-action Marvel movies and shows. However, a brief occurence when Kamala’s powers first manifest in the first episode may provide some answers.
When Kamala first begins emitting her diamond light beams, she also appears to temporarily travel through a shining portal, something no one else around her can see. Perhaps it’s a vision (or a premonition), but as she passes through this mysterious realm awash in purple light, other humanoid shapes and entities appear briefly in the background. It’s particularly reminiscent of a scene in Marvel’s 2021 theatrical release Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which a crack between different universes—through which alternate versions of existing characters travel from “parallel” realities—appears in the sky, offering brief glimpses of villainous silhouettes. Many of Marvel’s current stories (the live-action series Loki, the animated show What If? and the recent movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) deal with these parallel worlds, a concept dubbed “the multiverse.” So, it stands to reason that Kamala’s new powers may have some connection to this concept, and will eventually tie in to a large crossover event in the vein of an Avengers film, where the heroes are forced to battle these colliding realities. After all, no Marvel shows or movies exist in isolation. Their purpose is, at least partially, to set up future stories involving other popular characters (Kamala, for instance, is also set to appear in The Marvels, a sequel film to 2019’s Captain Marvel), but thankfully the wider MCU continuity hasn’t invaded Ms. Marvel and its character-centric story just yet.
Until the specifics of Kamala’s powers become clearer, all we know about them is that, rather than contorting her physical mass—in the comics, Kamala often “embiggens” her fist to punch the villain of the week—her Nani’s bangle helps her tap into some kind of energy, which allows her to project an enlarged fist as a beam of light, which then takes material form. It’s dazzling to witness, but the fact that these bodily extensions are something she emits, rather than a physical transformation she undergoes herself, initially feels like a thematic missed opportunity.
Like the comics, the show introduces the idea of Kamala’s physical insecurities, especially as they brush up against Western beauty standards. It does so in subtle ways, like how she reacts to her slim, white “it girl” classmate Zoe (Laurel Marsden) entering a room, or how glancing at herself in a full-length mirror makes her decide to add a sash to her cosplay in order to cover up her hips. After all, even her idol, Carol Danvers, is a blonde white woman who fits the image of what’s seen as most desirable in the West. In the comics, this outlook leads to a “be careful what you wish for” fable in her very first issue, wherein Kamala’s uncontrollable power of bodily transformation—itself a distinct metaphor for puberty—causes her to turn into a version of Carol. When Kamala’s story begins, the only way she’s capable of perceiving herself as beautiful is by impersonating whiteness, leading to an arc of self-acceptance.
This isn’t the way things unfold on the show, and while they certainly needn’t—it’s an adaptation after all, not a one-to-one recreation—Kamala’s bodily insecurities don’t inform the central conflict. They certainly make for a meaningful character detail by adding to her overall tapestry, but where the comics used them as a fundamental building block for her story, the show finds no substitute for the missing transformation saga (instead, her powers first manifest as destructive blasts, which put her on the radar of a government entity led by Agent Cleary, Arian Moayed’s character from Spider-Man: No Way Home). However, despite excising this element of Kamala’s comic history, the show’s re-tooled origin fits much more directly into the family drama and generational conflict introduced in the comics, and it even imbues them with a certain nuance.
The Khans, while strict, have a fairly personable relationship with Kamala, as does the larger Muslim-American community of Jersey City. The local aunties, many of them Pakistani immigrants like Muneeba, are all lively gossips, and they usually have no filter in front of Kamala. However, everyone seems to either sidestep stories about Aisha, the bangle’s original owner, or whisper vague speculation about an illicit affair—an assumption, perhaps, about why the Khans and their closest friends choose not to speak about a woman who seems to have dishonored them in some way. Unbeknownst to Muneeba, Kamala’s search for answers is about understanding her abilities, but it also ties into a culture of shame and silence in many South Asian households.
It just so happens that the few stories the Khans have about Muneeba’s mother and grandmother also coincide with Partition, the bloody mass migration of Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan when Britain’s colonial rule ended in 1947. This aspect of Kamala’s backstory, in which her great grandparents moved from Mumbai (then Bombay) to Karachi amidst horrible violence, was present in the comics, but it was a minor detail that came about in later issues. In the show, it appears front and center, as yet another chapter of volatile family history which the Khans rarely discuss.
While Ms. Marvel sacrifices the comics’ metaphor for racist beauty standards, it instead focuses on an intimate family saga. With no overt supervillain of which to speak in the first couple of episodes—other than looming government forces investigating superhumans—the nexus of violent Partition history, and a potential story of Aisha bringing shame upon the Khans through sexual impropriety, turns familial, generational silence in South Asian households into Kamala’s biggest hurdle. The show may ignore the broader, overarching Western perceptions that lead to Kamala’s insecurities, but it instead elevates her more specific familial and cultural dynamics, turning them into a key obstacle on her journey towards understanding and self-acceptance. In the process, it also sidesteps the kind of cultural rejection frequently found in stories of Asian immigrant first-gen clashes, and it instead turns Kamala’s desire to understand her own culture and history into a central dramatic tenet.
Whether or not it can follow this path to a meaningful conclusion is yet to be seen—in Marvel shows, “shared universe” connections frequently threaten to derail the story—but in its initial two episodes, Ms. Marvel proves to be an alluring cultural remix of one of comics’ recent mainstays, whose specific ethnic and religious origins are a key part of her success.
Published on June 7, 2022