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Canadian Iman Vellani is the next big star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel (premieres on Disney+ June 8), the MCU's first Muslim superhero, a character co-created by Sana Amanat, with showrunner Bisha K. Ali (Sex Education, Loki) leading the series.
Blowing us away in just two episodes, Kamala is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City, and a huge fan of the Avengers, with a particular affinity for Captain Marvel. While she has her two closest friends by her side, Bruno (Matt Lintz) and Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher), she doesn’t exactly feel like she fits in, in high school.
At the outset of the series, Kamala has a goal, to get her parents to allow her to go to AvengerCon, specifically dressed as Captain Marvel. But when a family heirloom leads to her unlocking superpowers she never knew she had, things start to take a turn.
“There was so [much] mining of teenage experiences and sharing our embarrassing moments,” Ali told Yahoo Canada. “It’s such a collaboration…we had so many great writers on the show who were so open to being vulnerable, and giving of themselves and sharing their stories.”
The collaboration was also something that was both important to Amanat, co-creator of the character, and a highlight for her during the process of transforming the story to the screen.
“It was a lot of fun, obviously it was scary for me to bring something so close to my heart and let other people play with it, but that is the gold of collaboration,” she told Yahoo Canada. “One of my favourite things is working with other creators, and looking at an idea and thinking how to expand and build on it.”
Of course, much of the Ms. Marvel story for the show came from the comics, but as Ali explains, she along with her fellow writers and producers had to condense that down to a place where it could be effectively represented on screen.
“[One of our writers] Aisha [Bhoori] in particular, is from New Jersey, she’s also Pakistani-American and she had just graduated college and I gave her her first job ever as a staff writer on Ms. Marvel,” Ali revealed. “She was such a resource in terms of that youthful voice, in terms of what it is to grow up specifically on the East Coast, in the Muslim community, and also teenage girlhood, and how you experience it now versus how I experienced it.”
“I escaped social media as a teenager,...so it was important for us to capture that in a real way, and that meant being open and listening to other people's experiences, which I love doing because I'm just so nosy and I want to hear everybody's stories all the time.”
In terms of showcasing Kamala’s teen life more broadly, aside from just her superpowers, Amanat stressed that, that point in your life when you’re trying to figure out your identity is reflective of the fact that “just being a human being is so challenging at that age.”
“I've always been fascinated by those stories and that's kind of why Kamala exists in the first place, is because I just really wanted to tell a story from that perspective, a coming of age story, and leaning into that in the MCU is just so fun because we only have one other movie that does that, and that's Spider Man,” she said.
“I think having a coming of age story mixed with super heroics is, I think, just a great adventure and hopefully one that people are going to have a lot of fun with.”
Ms. Marvel’s coming-of-age story grabs you right away, assisted by the fact that it features some fantastic music, like “Come Around” from MIA, and mixes in some great animations.
There are so many things to celebrate about Ms. Marvel and Kamala and her journey is universally relatable, those battles she’s having as a teenager with her parents and relationships with her friends, while also showcasing the specifics of her Pakistani-American family.
If you’re like us, you’ll even be taken aback by how accurate the interactions Kamala has with her parents are to our own teens years, like when they initially say, instead of not exactly not trusting her, they “just don’t trust anyone else.”
It feels young, it feels fresh and funny. Ultimately, it feels like exactly what we needed in an MCU expansion.
When it came to finding the perfect actor to play Kamala, Canadian Iman Vellani from Markham, Ont., was the perfect choice. She is so incredibly captivating and witty, we can't imagine anyone else in this role.
“She's electric,...as soon as you see her, you just get it,” Bisha K. Ali said. “It’s so clearly her, she embodies the character.”
“She also had a great deal of maturity in her that we could see, which I think doing this kind of job is going to require because…it's going to change your life very quickly and I think she's seeing that now, we're all seeing that.”
Just like Kamala, Vellani is a massive Marvel fan personally, also putting her on a path similar to her character, in terms of a fan being quickly placed into the world of her obsession.
Kamala’s obsession with these Marvel superheroes also has a connection for the series showrunner.
“I'm such like a hardcore nerd, I was raised on Final Fantasy VII, I was playing all the Final Fantasy games, I was a gamer in the early 2000s,... Kamala, she's a gamer as well, but gaming is cool now, gaming is mainstream, but that wasn't the case when I was a kid,” Ali said. “But seeing it represented in Kamala is awesome and I was really, really drawn to that.”
“Those elements of her, her fandom, certainly I could relate to, having been a fan of everything myself..., reflected in my journey... My Bish weird version of Kamala getting superpowers is me joining Marvel Studios.”
'We only get to do this because other people pushed through boundaries'
As press and screenings of the Ms. Marvel series have ramped up in recent days and weeks, the show’s stars have been vocal about their appreciation for the series, being able to see Pakistani culture part of mainstream entertainment, celebrating Ms. Marvel’s commitment to representation of the Muslim, Pakistanti-American community on such a massive scale, and how inspirational and aspirational it is for people to see that.
“I think it's the scale of what we're doing, is the kind of new element,” Bisha K. Ali said. “We only get to do this because other people pushed through boundaries to make their shows and to make their change in the industry, we only get to do that because of the work that other people of colour and other people from minority backgrounds...put in.”
“Someone tweeted his daughter in a Ms. Marvel outfit at me and I full on burst into tears, and I can't even like it, because then I'm showing too much,...and then my friend went to MCM ComicCon last week…and he was like, ‘there are so many people dressed as Ms. Marvel here, are you aware of that?’ It's a lot, it feels huge and I am one part of the huge creative team,...now I'm in the phase of pinching myself that I can't believe this is going to be in front of the world.”
It’s moments like Kamala questioning her abilities saying, “it’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who saved the world,” or when Nakia, Kamala’s friend, confides to her about feeling "too white" for some, "too ethnic" for others, adds to the dynamics of the story in ways that feel naturally part of the narrative.
With even more eyeballs coming to her Ms. Marvel character, Sana Amanat is “wrapping her head around it all.”
“[Our cast] have such love for the character and the comics themselves, and are really finding ways to bring that authenticity of the original character to the run, which I love and I appreciate, and they have such an appreciation for this existing,” she said.
“It brings me a lot of pride that they have brought these characters to life with such talent and grace, and wit, and that's really what I am so happy about. I feel like she's in good hands.”