Who is Ms. Marvel? Inside the revered backstory behind TV’s newest superhero
Like many fans, the first time Iman Vellani encountered Marvel superhero Kamala Khan was on the cover of a comic book.
With a comic book shop right across from her high school, Vellani — a self-professed Iron Man superfan — used to spend all her allowance there “just buying as many ‘Invincible Iron Man’ comics as I could.”
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“Kamala was on the cover of one of those comics [with Ironheart Riri Williams] and I just went into a rabbit hole of Ms. Marvel comics,” said Vellani. “She felt so different from all the other Muslim teens I’m used to seeing in mainstream media. Her culture and religion was something that motivated her and was really used to kind of elevate her story as a whole. [But] the comics were never about being Muslim or being Pakistani … [they were about] a fanfic-writing, Avengers-obsessed nerd.”
Vellani makes her debut as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s incarnation of Kamala Khan in “Ms. Marvel,” premiering Wednesday on Disney+. Created for television by head writer Bisha K. Ali, the six-episode series is an origin story that sees Kamala, a Pakistani American teen living in Jersey City, N.J., acquire superpowers from a mysterious family artifact. These powers give her the potential to become a superhero like her idol Captain Marvel, but saving the day is much easier said than done.
Who is Kamala Khan?
Kamala has a much shorter comic book history compared to other “Avengers” characters like Captain America, Thor and her idol, Carol Danvers.
After making a couple of unnamed cameos in other comics, Kamala’s comic book origin story was launched in 2014’s “Ms. Marvel” No. 1 (by writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona). The series generated plenty of buzz even before launch as the first Marvel comic to feature a Muslim and Pakistani American teen as the title character.
In the comics, Kamala gains polymorph and other enhanced abilities after being exposed to a special mist that awakened latent powers that are tied to a race of superpowered, human-ish aliens. A superhero superfan, the first time Kamala’s power is unleashed she took on the form of Carol Danvers in her former Ms. Marvel costume.
The series launched to critical acclaim and has been beloved by fans, including those who it introduced to comic books. Beyond the representational milestones, the comics were noted for their vibrancy and fun.
“Everyone who worked on this [series] adores the comic books,” said Ali, who also serves as an executive producer on the show. “We just love and revere them completely.”
Carol Danvers did not have any superpowers when she made her Marvel Comics debut, but she was always meant to be a star.
The origins of the origin story
In addition to Wilson and Alphona, among Kamala Khan’s co-creators are Sana Amanat, an executive producer on “Ms. Marvel,” and Stephen Wacker.
According to Amanat, Kamala eventually came to be after a nudge from her “old boss.”
When both Amanat and Wacker were Marvel comics editors, Amanat used to share stories about her experiences growing up as a Pakistani American teen — from going to prom without a date to playing lacrosse during Ramadan.
“My life just moved a little differently, and Stephen Wacker was like, ‘It would be nice to have a character like that for the young Sanas of the world,’” said Amanat. “And I sprung into action.’”
So she reached out to Wilson, a Muslim American writer she admired, to brainstorm. Ultimately they landed on a story about identity.
“A young girl growing up in the Marvel universe, who is she looking at?” said Amanat. “She’s looking at all these big heroes. She’s looking at Carol Danvers, one of the most iconic women in the Marvel Universe, and she is tall and she’s beautiful and she’s blond and she’s white.
“What does that mean for a young girl who sees that image all the time saving the world? What does that mean about what she thinks of herself and what she thinks powerful is? That’s really where the idea popped for us.”
How the show is different
One of the most obvious changes made for Kamala’s live-action debut are her superpowers and their origins.
In the comics, Kamala has the ability to shape-shift, which includes taking on the forms of other superheroes as well as growing, shrinking and stretching out her body. But in the “Ms. Marvel” TV series, Kamala’s powers appear to involve a sort of energy field that she can create and manipulate with the help of a bangle.
Because the story of Kamala’s powers will unfold over the course of the series, Ali could not delve into details about the changes, but she did have a message: “Trust us. We’re doing something.”
As a comic book superhero fan, Ali understands the impulse to be skeptical of any changes, let alone to a character’s power set. But she also points out that the story in the wider MCU is different from the comic books and that part of the arc of “Ms. Marvel” is setting Kamala up for her future adventure in “The Marvels.”
“What was really important to everybody, and certainly important to me, was the way that in the comic books, [Kamala’s] powers are directly connected to how she feels about herself [and] directly connected to her internal world,” said Ali. “That interconnectivity between character and powers was imperative in the comics. In the same way, the interconnectivity between Kamala onscreen and her power set, what they mean to her and why they are what they are, they’re inherently connected and important too.”
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday, June 8
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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