Why Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani Is More Than Just Marvel’s First Muslim Superhero

Image courtesy of Disney+
Iman Vellani in Ms. Marvel
Iman Vellani's first TV role doesn't even feel like acting. According to the 19-year-old, she's long been living the life of Kamala Khan, Marvel's first Muslim superhero and the lead protagonist of six-part series, Ms. Marvel.
"I honestly feel like I lived Kamala’s life when I read those comic books for the first time [when I was 15]," Vellani tells Refinery29 Australia during a Zoom roundtable interview.
"So there wasn’t a lot of acting per se. It’s just me on set having fun and trying to put as much of myself into this character as possible because I truly felt like we lived a very similar life and it was just so much easier for me to slip into into her shoes because of that."
The character Kamala Khan is a Pakistani American teenager from Jersey City, New Jersey, who idolises Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) and discovers that she has superpowers to stretch her body into shapes, as well as make parts of it bigger.
Vellani recalls immersing herself into the world of Marvel comics growing up, and speaks fondly of her grandmother helping her make a Ms. Marvel costume when she was 15 years old. The cosplay photo from then has since become a viral sensation. "I think I’ve been practising my superhero pose for quite a while, long before I even got cast," she laughs.
Superpowers aside, the series also strives to hone in on the second-gen migrant experience. As seen in the first two episodes, trips to the local mosque, being forced to wear a salwar kameez by her mother, and discussions about Bollywood movies are just the start in the show's representation of the realities of growing up with two cultures as the daughter of South Asian Muslim immigrants.
Vellani was born in Karachi, Pakistan, before her family moved to Canada. She says that she struggled to embrace her heritage and playing the role of Khan actually helped her reconcile her cultural identity.
"I honestly felt quite disconnected from my culture growing up," she says. "And it's crazy because the parallels between Kamala and I are absolutely insane — like her getting powers and me getting this part really went hand-in-hand — and I felt like I went on this journey of self-discovery with her.
"I get to share with the character and I definitely reconnected with my Pakistani heritage."
Bonding with co-stars Saagar Shaikh and Rish Shah, as well as Sana Amanat, the Pakistani American woman who wrote Ms. Marvel, inspired Vellani to revisit her roots for her own sake, as well as that of her character.
"They were also in touch with their roots and that just really made me want to go back and reconnect with my own, because I just I admire them so much and they use their culture and religion to elevate themselves and then add that to their own characters," she explains. "And I really wanted to do that with Kamala as well."
Without giving away too much, Ms. Marvel viewers will hear Khan telling her best friend Bruno, "It's not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world", to which he responds, "Sure they do".
It's a line many young South Asian women including myself will resonate with. We can recall our own moments of self-doubt, either after being told by our own community to adhere to cultural norms, or after feeling othered by wider society because of the way we look.
"Definitely, it hit close to home for me," Vellani reflects on the dialogue.
"I didn't even think that being in Hollywood or being in this industry was something I could even dream of because I never get to see myself in that light," she says. "So I just didn't think those two things went hand-in-hand.
Image courtesy of Disney+
Matt Lintz and Iman Vellani in Ms. Marvel
"My entire family is very academic. My brother’s an engineer, my mum’s a nurse practitioner and my dad’s an accountant, so I was like, 'Am I supposed to be the lawyer or something?' But here I am, going for the arts.
"It’s wonderful that there’s even space [in the industry] for people like me to kind of exist. The fact that Marvel, a franchise as big and accessible that these movies play all over the world, is creating space for Kamala and characters like Shang-Chi is so wonderful."
It's undeniably a huge deal to be Marvel's first Muslim superhero, but Vellani says she didn't feel the pressure to uphold a certain image of the Muslim community through this role.
"I really wasn't worried about that," she says, explaining the show did "a wonderful job in organically incorporating diversity and culture into Kamala's story in a way that uplifts her hero's journey".
"Honestly I was more feeling pressured on the fan culture side of things," she admits.
Khan's also just a geeky high-schooler trying to navigate her studies, crushes and friendships, and Vellani wanted to deliver a relatable and realistic performance for young Marvel fans.
"Honestly, just to be a nerd and represent other nerds, that was scary because I wanted to do the fandom justice because the Marvel fandom can be very picky... I would know!" she laughs.
Ultimately, Vellani hopes the show paves the way for more diverse representation in TV and film. Like Netflix's Never Have I Ever and Bridgerton, it's portrayed female South Asian protagonists in its own unique light, but there are more diverse narratives from the diaspora yet to be told.
"I hope Ms. Marvel is not the end of seeing Muslims and Pakistanis in Hollywood. I really think that we are creating space for more inclusivity and hopefully this show inspires more South Asian creatives to tell their stories," she says.
"This is just one story of one girl of one family of one character arc, and we can't represent all two billion South Asians and Muslims, right? So hopefully this does kind of get the ball rolling on more representation in Hollywood."
Ms. Marvel premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, June 8.
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