Actor Iman Vellani has always been an avid fan of the Avengers and comics — so making the move from Markham, Ont., to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to portray its first Muslim superhero is an achievement she finds almost indescribable.
"It feels a lot … just a lot of feelings," she said, trying to put it into words at her Toronto red carpet debut. "To be in Toronto and celebrate this with all my friends and family is super weird. But yeah, I'm excited."
Vellani, 19, stars as Kamala Khan in the upcoming series Ms. Marvel, launching on June 8 on Disney+.
Vellani's role also marks the franchise's second South Asian hero — and the first female one. In 2021, Kumail Nanjiani played Marvel's first South Asian superhero in Eternals, taking on the part of Kingo, a Bollywood film star turned superhero.
Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Before this, despite the abundance of South Asian characters present in Marvel comics — think Thunderbird, Timeslip and Omega Sentinel — the films have limited South Asian roles to supporting characters like Dr. Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man (Irffan Khan) and Dopinder in the Deadpool franchise (Karan Soni), parts critics suggest were largely built around stereotypes.
Criticism about the lack of diversity for lead actors in the superhero franchise had also been growing.
And Vellani said she sees this role as also being about representing her community and showcasing South Asian culture.
"Film and TV literally shape how we see people in this world. And so, you know, when you're only representing Muslims in a certain type of light, it gets very one-note," the Pakistani-born Canadian actor said.
"I'm so glad that Marvel's providing space for a character like Kamala to exist and to just take up space and tell a very specific story about a very specific girl."
WATCH | Iman Vellani shares what it's like to don Ms. Marvel's mask:
South Asian representation in film
The show focuses on Khan, a Muslim-American teen and superhero mega-fan growing up in Jersey City. She deals with the pressures familiar to many teens: struggling to fit in at school and finding support at home.
Then, she finds out she has superpowers of her own.
Brie Larson, known for her role as Captain Marvel, the franchise's first female superhero, reached out to Vellani shortly after she was cast.
"She was just holding my hand throughout all of it," Vellani said. "It was really nice to kind of have that guidance of someone who's gone through all of this and everything that I'm experiencing right now."
Celebrating fan culture in Ms. Marvel
The storyline presents a unique parallel to Vellani's daily life. Being a fan herself, she describes stepping into the world of Marvel as "so much fun."
"I was on set and I was just, like, totally gushing over everything I'm seeing around me," said Vellani.
The show's team didn't let her see the set of the first episode's "Avenger Con" convention until the day they shot the scene — they knew her reaction would be just as exuberant as Kamala's.
"They were like, 'Whatever your reaction is going to be in real life is what we want ... so just be yourself,'" she said, describing the energy she brought to the character.
"That specificity is really what makes a character believable and what is going to represent people … not generalizing all of the brown people into one character."