Iman Vellani and six women dressed as Ms. Marvel

Centering the Family in ‘Ms. Marvel’

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Thursday evening the Paley Center for Media in New York City held a screening of Ms. Marvels first episode followed by a Q&A with cast members Iman Vellani (Kamala Khan) and Zenobia Shroff (Muneeba Khan), Executive Producer Sana Amanat, and Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The audience was packed with fans, many in costume, and the atmosphere was one of pure celebration.

Ms. Marvel, based on the comic book of the same name, is the latest MCU series available on Disney+. Like all of them, it takes place in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame and tells the story of a superhero. But Kamala Khan is not the typical Marvel superhero. She shares the most in common with Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop (Hailee Stanford)—they are both young women who grew up with the Avengers and are now poised to join their ranks. But their trajectories were very different. Kate’s family is wealthy, if distant, and she was provided every opportunity to follow in her hero’s footsteps. Kamala looks up to Captain Marvel, the Air Force pilot turned cosmic being, but she had no plans to become a hero. The main point of her arc is that Kamala doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. For now, she just wants to enjoy it. Kamala writes and draws and makes videos about the Avengers, and she cosplays Captain Marvel at a local convention. She’s a superfan, just like us.

There are other ways Kamala is a different kind of Marvel hero. She’s not a prodigy, she’s a typical teen girl. She lives in Jersey City, not New York or California. She wasn’t inspired by tragedy or recruited into service. And most significantly, she comes from an intact family and a wider community of South Asian immigrants.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Sana Amanat, Zenobia Schroff, Iman Vellani on the Paley Center stage. Photo: Anika Dane

The character and story of Kamala Khan grew out of conversations editor and now producer Sana Amanat had with coworkers at Marvel Comics. Like Kamala, Amanat grew up in New Jersey surrounded by stories about heroes like Captain Marvel and Spider-Man. Those stories were about universal good, but they didn’t reflect her lived experience as an American-Pakistani child of immigrants. “Why not have a character for the young Sanas of the world?” she thought, and that’s just what she did.

Iman Vellani was born in Pakistan, but her family moved to Canada when she was just one year old. She was a “young Sana of the world” when she found and fell in love with the Ms. Marvel comics. “I felt like I was Kamala when I read the comics,” she told the Paley Center audience. Flash forward a few years and now she’s bringing that sense of belonging to Brown girls all over the world. “The comics were about me and for me and I’m so excited the show can be that for other girls.”

Iman is Kamala in more ways than one. The experience of being cast in the role, her first professional acting job, and working with a production that is purposefully predominantly run by women, specifically South Asian women, has given Iman new respect and joy for her own culture. “I’m not only Muslim or only Pakistani or only a fanfic writing cosplay nerd,” she explained with a big smile. She’s all of it and more. She’s Ms. Marvel!

Iman also agrees with Kamala’s annoyance that the adults around her, at home and school, want her to figure out her whole life right now. On the red carpet, I asked her what she’d want to tell the kids and teens watching the show. “I hope they’re comforted by Kamala,” she answered, “I think it’s so unfair that kids have to figure it all out in high school and, you know, when you’re sixteen you should find something you’re passionate about and explore it. You don’t need to, like, figure out life. That’s not how it works. And for me, life didn’t even figure itself out now and I have a job!” I laughed with joy because, as a mom of a kid in high school, this is a particular soapbox of mine. “So I think it’s just—it’s really great because we can just show a kid having fun and look where passion gets us, like, look where it got me.”

Sana Amanat, Iman Vellani, Maureen J. Reidy, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, and Zenobia Schroff on the Paley Center red carpet. Photo: Anika Dane

Sana Amanat echoed these sentiments when I spoke with her. “[Ms. Marvel] is a story about the persistence of love despite the challenges of being young and confused and trying to figure out who you are. I mean, there’s so much love that surrounds her in the form of her family, in the form of her community, and her friends. And I think, for me, the celebration of that fact is sort of the center point of the show like we keep coming back to that. And as you’ll see in the entire story it sort of expands and expands and tells a story about connectivity. And connectivity with, you know, Kamala and the women in her family, her mother, her grandmother, and I think that is really like the thing that is going to ground the show. It feels so different from the—really just all the other shows out there period.”

Another way this show is different from the other shows out there is the deliberate choice to center on women—and South Asian women—throughout the production. Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy spoke loudly and proudly of looking around the set and seeing so many women and so many Brown faces. “It feels good to be Brown!” she declared and the audience erupted in applause. She also encouraged us to “look around the room and see how many young women are dressed as Ms. Marvel.” One group of these cosplaying young women were students at McNair High School in New Jersey, where Kamala attends in the series. They are the young Sanas and young Imans of the world and Ms. Marvel is making a point to surround them with role models.

And to really drive home the family connections, also in the audience were Sana Amanat’s mother and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s ninety-three-year-old grandfather. Ms. Marvel is a celebration of them, too. Amanat’s father died early in the production of the series, and Zenobia Shroff, who plays Kamala’s mother, lost a parent soon after. Both women consider a series a part of their legacy. “This entire production is very emotional for me,” Amanat said, and Shroff echoed. “This is for our parents.”

Iman Vellani (Kamala Khan) and Zenobia Schroff (Muneeba Khan) on the Paley Center red carpet. Photos: Anika Dane

Though not a mother herself, Schroff “has mothered many children, and mentored them,” now including Iman through Kamala. “Being a South Asian mother is instinctive,” Schroff said. “But I wanted to add layers to her and humor.” Ultimately, that was the goal of the entire production: to center on a South Asian girl and her family, add layers and humor, and superpowers, and watch her take over the world.

Ms. Marvel is now streaming on Disney+, with new episodes Wednesdays.

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