Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) launched in 2008 with Iron Man, it has primarily focused on the staples of the comic book industry, many of them originating in the 1960s. As a consequence, the majority of the larger-than-life heroes that have graced our screens the past 14 years have been American, male, and white. Ms. Marvel breaks that mold.
Centering on the life of Pakistani-American teen Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), the six-episode show—premiering in Pakistani cinemas as three “movies” that package two episodes together every two weeks—carries a heavy burden of expectations for not only Muslims, but also Pakistanis and the wider South Asian community. To its credit, the world constructed by the show feels real, depicting a coming-of-age tale centered on a migrant family from Karachi. Unfortunately, despite the appreciable specificity offered by the New Jersey-dwelling Khans, there are some aspects of the show that reinforce stereotypes of Muslims and South Asians already popular in the Western cinematic canon.
Kamala is, in many ways, a typical Pakistani-American teen, trying to stay true to herself while meeting the expectations of her migrant parents and elder brother, who strive to retain their Muslim and Pakistani identities in Jersey City. Routinely, we see the negotiations she must make to find acceptance: using a scarf to cover a form-fitting Captain Marvel costume; accepting classmates’ inability to pronounce her name; being duped into drinking an alcoholic drink. As external pressures mount, she escapes into fantasy—art, comics, YouTube videos—and imagines a world that gives her the agency she feels slipping from her grasp; a world in which she takes on the role of her hero, Captain Marvel.
A through-line, which becomes more apparent in the second episode, is how Kamala navigates the differing cultures of Pakistan and the U.S. Meera Menon, who directed the second of the two episodes already shown, has said the show utilized cultural consultants to inform the accurate use of references that are liberally sprinkled throughout. From Shah Rukh Khan’s iconic ‘90s Bollywood thriller Baazigar to the music of the Swet Shop Boys, Ms. Marvel displays a commendable familiarity with the content produced and revered by South Asians. A scene between Kamala and Kamran (Rish Shah) depicts the connections that form through shared art, and how her parents’ culture has shaped Kamala’s own interests.
A particularly poignant example of this occurs in the first episode, which features the art of Shehzil Malik, a digital artist who creates feminist art as a form of resistance. In the larger context of the episode, it serves to remind the viewer of Kamala’s own use of the comic world as a means of envisioning different futures for herself, accentuating how the imagination and creativity that bemuse the adults in her life give her the power to define her own.
The show deftly displays Kamala’s imagination using animated sequences, cut-aways and unique camera angles. A highlight of the first episode is Kamala texting her best friend, Bruno (Matt Lintz), and the conversation playing out for the audience on the walls, lights and buildings around them. This imaginative construction of space showcases new possibilities for navigating the city, with communal spaces playing a pivotal role in establishing the show’s world and commenting on how people’s ties to various locales inform their identity. The point is further stressed in a storyline involving another of Kamala’s friends, Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher), who seeks a seat on the mosque board to end the inequitable distribution of resources for its women’s section. For Muslim communities, this is a valuable reflection into how they can accommodate diverse concerns.
For 16-year-old Kamala, the process of discovering herself is ongoing, with the audience seeing her pulled between the demands of her family and her life as an American teenager. A major theme throughout the show is that of familial relationships in the South Asian context and the intergenerational wounds many carry with them. In a scene with her mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) after she fails her driving test, Kamala is reminded of the expectations she bears. Muneeba’s anxious harangue reflects the pressure faced by many children of migrants, who are encouraged to validate the immigration process by embracing all opportunities available to them—even as they must also adhere to the cultural and religious beliefs of their parents. The impact of generational trauma is also deftly explored, with the Partition that led to the creation of Pakistan apparently playing a key role in explaining Kamala’s powers and their connection to her great grandmother, Aisha.
Highlighting the Eurocentrism of the history taught at American schools, Nakia laments the dearth of knowledge about non-white populations. The show responds to the questions she raises by dedicating a scene to discussing Partition, the impact it has had on generations of South Asians, and the consequences of colonial rule. While the conversation is appreciable, it is hoped it continues in future episodes, as the subject can’t help but provoke complicated and painful memories for not only residents of Pakistan, but also India and Bangladesh.
To their credit, the creators and cast of the show are cognizant of how meaningful the representation in this show is for South Asian audiences. In an interview with Cinema Blend, director Menon says the show aims not to represent all Muslims or Pakistanis, but rather a slice of a very specific experience. Muslim experience is not a monolith, she says, in comments echoed by Shroff and Vellani, who have expressed hopes for the show to serve as positive reinforcement against Islamophobia and racism in America. However, while the show’s recognition of a diverse Muslim experience is commendable, its reliance on some familiar tropes in its depiction of South Asians and Muslims serves as reminder that it is merely the first step in a much longer journey for the wider community.
Struggling with stereotypes
At times, Ms. Marvel seems to feel the need to exaggerate the characteristics of Kamala and her family as a means of centering their South Asian identity. Uncomfortably, this recalls Padma and Parvati Patil from Harry Potter and their bright pink and orange lengha choli. The otherwise fleshed out characters become heightened versions of themselves, including in a scene from the first episode when Kamala’s parents present her with a hulk costume as an alternate to her Captain Marvel outfit. Made of bright green and purple fabric, the costume is sewn in the style of kurtas with embroideries. “Chakde Phadde!” Kamala’s father, Yusuf, (Mohan Kapoor) belts out, covered in green paint. A comedic sequence, the scene nonetheless comes across as more caricature than a reflection of reality.
The same scene has Muneeba questioning Kamala’s desire to attend AvengerCon, which she describes as having “much haram.” This unfortunately reinforces the manner in which many Muslim families have been traditionally depicted in Hollywood, refusing to accommodate the desires of their daughters. This scene in particular stands out because Ms. Marvel, overall, eschews the typical, unidimensional portrayals of Islam and immigration. A more truthful engagement with how the process of immigration produces a complicated nexus of identities might have helped to bring to the fore ways in which Muslims are politically expressive—beyond conservative parents, an ‘ethnic’ color palette, and jokes about ‘cousin’ Kamran.
A key scene at AvengerCon, with Bruno encouraging Kamala to incorporate aspects of her Pakistani identity into her Captain Marvel cosplay, represents a crucial junction in the show and its struggle with identity and representation. Just as Bruno wishes for Kamala to incorporate her immigrant identity in a manner that is exciting for the AvengerCon audience, the show must also grapple with a way to present identity in a manner both marketable and exciting for its global audience. Kamala’s eventual adorning of a bracelet sent to her by her grandmother from Pakistan, and the unlocking of exciting, new powers, also appears to have been designed to evoke the Western ideals of “mythical” South Asia. References to djinns lend an exotic and exciting lens to Muslim immigrant identity to make it more palatable for audiences; for the MCU, representation must be balanced with alignment within an established structure.
Despite these minor concerns, the show remains a visual treat that goes a long way toward giving global audiences fresh and interesting insights into South Asian representation. Vellani, in an interview, discussed how she felt energized by the number of South Asian cast and crew involved with Ms. Marvel, adding that she hopes this paves the way for more work produced by South Asians in Hollywood. Kamala’s entry into the MCU, much like entry to the comics in 2013, has undeniably opened avenues of conversation around South Asian representation in popular media; a discussion that will hopefully continue to have impact far beyond the show.