How 'Ms. Marvel,' starring superfan-turned-MCU superhero Iman Vellani, fights back against Muslim hate

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·4 min read

The new Disney+ series Ms. Marvel is drawing plenty of attention for the fact that it introduces Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It also introduces arguably the biggest Marvel superfan ever cast in a major role in the MCU in 19-year-old Iman Vellani. (Fitting considering the character of Khan herself is also a hardcore Avengers fangirl — most partial to Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel — while growing up in a strict Pakistani-American family in Jersey City, N.J. before the arrival of her great-grandmother’s bangles unlock the teenager’s superhuman abilities.)

Vellani, who was still attending high school in Toronto when she tried out for the role, impressed Marvel chief Kevin Feige and company so much that she was plucked out of obscurity for the part despite having no previous acting credits. None. Zilch. Nada.

Maybe it was fated. Vellani, who rates on her Marvel fandom at 11 on a scale of 1-to-10, had dressed up as Ms. Marvel when she was 16.

Sana Amanat, who co-created the character of Kamala Khan for Marvel Comics in 2013 and produces the series, witnessed Vellani’s super-fandom while looking at the first-time actress’s bedroom during a pre-screen test Zoom call. “I just saw Avengers, Avengers, Iron Man, Iron Man, Iron Man, Captain America, just a bunch of stuff,” Amanat recalls. “Then she showed me around her entire room. She showed me her Iron Man cologne, which is very weird. And then another door opens [to] her closet, and there’s even more paraphernalia… She’s got notebooks of theories and ideas, and just has opinions on the Marvel Universe that honestly rivals Kamala and even Kevin [Feige].”

Like the Tom Holland-starring Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Ms. Marvel is a coming-of-age comedy that draws inspiration from 1980s John Hughes movies. But its creators also count more recent, more-female centric coming of agers like The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Lady Bird (2017) and Booksmart (2019) as influences. The animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, too, informed the show’s sometimes-hyper-stylized comic book aesthetic.

And then of course there’s its cultural significance, which Vellani acknowledges is deeply important even if she doesn’t want Kamala’s ethnicity or religion to define her.

“Film and TV really do shape how we see people in this world,” she says. “And so often Muslims and South Asians haven't really been shown in a positive light, or they've been stereotyped and misrepresented. And so it's just so wonderful that a company as big and accessible as Marvel is providing space for characters like Kamala to exist... Because this show is not about a Muslim-Pakistani teenager. It's about a fanfic-writing, Avengers-obsessed nerd who just so happens to be Pakistani and Muslim. And that's how it was for me growing up. Being Muslim and being Pakistani wasn't the entirety of my identity. It's just one part of it. And this is how we wanted to showcase that in the show.”

(clockwise from left) Mohan Kapur, Iman Vellani, Saagar Shaikh and Zenobia Shroff in 'Ms. Marvel' (Disney+)
(clockwise from left) Mohan Kapur, Iman Vellani, Saagar Shaikh and Zenobia Shroff in Ms. Marvel. (Photo: Disney+)

Still, Vellani’s castmates say Ms. Marvel can help combat the prejudice many Muslim-Americans have faced, particularly since the events of 9/11.

“While it's not a show about a Muslim family, we happen to be Muslim,” says Zenobi Shroff, who plays Kamala’s mother Muneeba.

“And I hope that that helps shift the needle a little bit because there is a very deeply ingrained hate for Muslims in this country. I hope that the bias shifts just a little bit [and] they just see us as a normal, joyful middle-class family.”

Watch our full interview with the show's cast and creators above.

Ms. Marvel is now streaming on Disney+.

— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo

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