Updated: Oct 16
When I first saw a copy of Ms. Marvel at my local bookstore in 2015, my jaw dropped. The cover art portrayed a South Asian woman with a lightning bolt printed across her black t-shirt. As I snatched Volume I off the shelf, my initial impression was confirmed: Marvel had published a comic about a South Asian superhero. I opened the first issue and was elated to find that our hero, Kamala Khan, was a Muslim, Pakistani American. Created by Willow Wilson and Sana Anamat, sixteen-year-old Kamala hails from Jersey City and discovers she has shape shifting abilities after being exposed to Terrigen gas.
Despite my reliable disinterest in superheroes at the time, I was immediately captivated by Kamala Khan. Since then, I’ve garnered a cautious appreciation for superhero movies, specifically those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The MCU’s greatest strength is not in its awe-inspiring set pieces and fight scenes, but in its portrayal of humanity, redemption, and relationships.
But, as I binged my way through the MCU films during the early days of the pandemic, I began to understand why I had never been eager to see them in theaters. Growing up, I never saw films like Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor, as stories that were meant for me, an Indian-American girl. The Avengers too, are overwhelmingly white and male— it took 15 films for Marvel to produce a film with a non-white lead (Black Panther). And though these stories resonate with some of my friends of color, the lack of diversity in the MCU turned me away from it as a teenager.
Kamala’s story, on the other hand, immediately pulled me in. Much like the Avengers, Kamala immediately sets out to better her community after discovering her powers. She longs to emulate the tall, blond Carol Danvers, whom she feels fits the super hero image, but soon finds that she, Kamala, is what Jersey City needs. She ditches her Captain Marvel get-up and dons a red and blue burkini akin to a salwar kameez, emblazoned with her signature lightning bolt. She completes the ensemble with a bangle she inherited from her grandmother, who had survived the Partition of India in 1947.
Though Ms. Marvel shares the absurd premises and surrealism of other Marvel comics (including talking parakeets and non-sentient clones), Kamala’s experience speaks to that of the majority of first generation Americans. We are caught in a continuous struggle of living up to the expectations of others, be they our parents, peers, or coworkers: “Will this career path please my immigrant parents? Will it make their struggle worthwhile? Does this outfit make me look fresh off the boat? Do I sound white enough for my American friends? Am I brown enough for my brown friends?” Despite having the ability to shape shift, Kamala chooses to subvert those expectations and remain true to herself, an idea that I hope resonates with South Asian American teens.
Unlike other Marvel hero’s stories, Ms. Marvel’s world makes me feel like I belong in it. The family dynamics and Kamala’s struggles with her parents are so familiar, that when Kamala’s mother reprimanded her, I could hear my own mother’s voice. Her brand of irreverent sarcasm toward her parents, her parents’ over-reactions to her rebellion, and their subsequent guilt-tripping transported me to my teenage years. Seeing myself and my experiences jump off the pages of this superhero story felt empowering. This comic sends an unambiguous message to its South Asian and minority readers: You, too, can be a hero. You, too, can be powerful.
The Ms. Marvel series also achieves authenticity in its nuanced portrayal of Islam. Although her hero’s journey remains the dominant narrative, Kamala’s faith plays a key role in her decision making and interactions with others. She seeks counsel from her Imam when she feels that she is failing as a hero and uses the principles of her faith to guide her as she helps others. Additionally, the comic accurately portrays diversity amongst Muslims. Though Kamala struggles with her faith, her brother is a staunch Muslim. Her best friend Nakia wears a hijab, while Kamala does not. Ms. Marvel also destabilizes the stereotype that all Muslims are Arabs and portrays Islam across ethnicities.
In addition to debunking stereotypes, Ms. Marvel, like other Marvel comics, touches on several prescient social issues, including racism, gentrification and teen alienation. To my surprise, the series also broaches colorism. When Kamala’s older brother, Aamir, announces he plans to marry Tyesha, a black Muslim, his parents react poorly. Instead of attempting to placate them, he unabashedly confronts his parents’ colorism. Colorism remains rampant in both the South Asian and Muslim communities. Seeing Amir identify and challenge his parents’ discrimination felt cathartic for me, as someone who has has responded similarly to my own family’s racism and colorism.
This summer, Ms. Marvel will come to the small screen. Disney+ plans to release a six episode series starring Pakistani-American actress Iman Vellani. The show will be spearheaded by Muslim writers and directors and feature a mostly non-white cast. The diverse cast and crew make me hopeful that the show, like the comics, will offer South Asian teens a nuanced portrayal of family, culture, and faith. As much as reading the Ms. Marvel comics was a validating experience, I anticipate that seeing Kamala on screen and in future Marvel films will feel profound; a character whose experiences mirror my own is going to be a cinematic hero. Disney and Marvel have failed to authentically represent minorities on several occasions, but because of the source material, I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. Here's to Kamala Khan, the hero that South Asians deserve.