NEW IDENTITY: Iman Vellani (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
WITH great power comes great responsibility,’ are words etched in Marvel folklore, thanks to Spiderman.
But now, these words are just as important to Iman Vellani, Marvel’s first-ever Muslim superhero. The 19-year-old plays Kamala Khan, aka Ms Marvel, in the new Disney+ series of the same name.
“We’re really shifting the perspective on how we see Muslims in mainstream media,” Vellani tells Eastern Eye.
Like other superheroes, she has superhuman abilities and faces off against supervillains. But Kamala has the added responsibility of representing a community which, for so long, has been accused of being closed off and failing to integrate with society – especially in the US.
“It’s so crazy because if you go up to any person and ask them to describe a Muslim, they are never going to picture the fun, outgoing, making jokes type of person. It’s always like a very serious, deadpan [individual] and that’s not how I grew up,” says Vellani.
“We have fun family members who are brown, and that’s kind of what we wanted to showcase – our normal.”
In the show, Kamala lives with her over-protective Pakistani immigrant parents, Yusuf and Muneeba, and her strict older brother Amir. She spends her time in school with best friends Bruno and Nakia, and at night she is an artist, a YouTuber and reads every comic book under the sun, especially anything related to the Avengers and her favourite superhero, Captain Marvel.
She is basically a typical American teenager dealing with the pressures of school and family life. Her life is, however, transformed thanks to superpowers she gains through a mystical bracelet she inherits from her grandmother.
Ms Marvel is the creation of two female Muslims – G Willow Wilson, an American comics writer who converted to Islam; and Sana Amanat, Marvel’s director of character development.
Wilson told Marvel.com in 2013 that Kamala “struggles to reconcile being an American teenager with the conservative customs of her Pakistani Muslim family”. So, “in a sense, she has a ‘dual identity’ before she even puts on a superhero costume”.
Amanat said she expected “negativity”, both from people who were anti-Muslim as well as Muslims who “might want the character portrayed in a particular light”.
She wasn’t wrong. A senior Marvel executive blamed a drop in comic book sales because “people didn’t want any more diversity or female characters”.
And some Muslims were not happy with the fact that Kamala does not wear a hijab, although her friend and religious mentor Nakia (played by Yasmeen Fletcher) does wear the headscarf.
“Kamala doesn’t wear a hijab, but Nakia is a hijabi fashionista who wears highend brands,” Amanat says. “We wanted to show that you can be a Muslim woman and stay true to your beliefs without wearing a hijab. However, if they chose to wear it, she can also be stylish.
“The intention was to make it feel real and honest. I think that’s why it works. It’s because we didn’t really force it, we didn’t educate people. We weren’t talking like ‘this is what it is to be Muslim.’ It’s like, ‘this is what it is. That’s it. There’s nothing else, you know?’”
Vellani, who is Pakistani-Canadian, believes her character is a fair reflection of a 16-year-old Muslim girl, living in New Jersey, struggling to balance school, family, culture and tradition.
“We want to change how people view Muslims because film and TV literally shape how we see people in this world. And if you are always showing Muslims and south Asians in a certain tone, that’s how we’re going to see them in real life,” she says.
“So I think it’s really great that Marvel is kind of creating space for these types of characters to exist.”
For Vellani, the show gave her a chance to reconnect with her roots.
“I was born in Pakistan, and we moved to Canada when I was one,” she says. “My parents really did try to make me as connected with my culture and religion as possible, because they were in touch with that part of themselves.
“But growing up in Canada and being so enamoured with American pop culture and Hollywood, I was super dismissive of being Pakistani. It was never something I saw value in up until filming the show, where my eyes were opened.
“I was meeting so many Muslims and south Asians who are so in touch with their roots, and that made me go back and reconnect with mine. It’s so cool [that] I can kind of find myself again.”
Watching the series, it’s hard to believe this is Vellani’s first acting role. She perfectly essays the role of a superhero nerd who idolises Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers. But when the actor says she is a self-proclaimed “comics geek”, you realise that Iman Vellani and Kamala Khan are almost one and the same.
“She was my total comfort character,” Vellani says. “She felt so much like me, and a lot of that comes from not just her background and ethnicity but also because she’s such a fan of the Marvel Universe, too.
“I’m a huge Marvel nerd. I grew up with the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]. My top favourite people in the entire world are Robert Downey Jr [who plays Iron Man], Billy Joel and Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios).
“So this was such a huge thing for us, you know, seeing our faces after the Marvel flip logo (the opening animation in all Marvel productions). And it’s very surreal. I can’t even put it into words. I’m still processing it,” she admits.
And what about her fellow Marvel superheroes? Has she met any of the stars who portray those characters yet?
“We shot Ms Marvel right next to Loki and Spiderman. I’m there two weeks and I go to our Marvel’s head of security, ‘yo, Barry, I’ve been here two weeks and I haven’t met any of the Toms yet (Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki, and Tom Holland, who is Spiderman). And then he comes back 15 minutes later and he’s like, ‘Tom Hiddleston wants to meet you’.
“I came to work in my pyjamas and I was like, ‘I can’t do this’. It was terrifying. And he was the sweetest person ever. And he actually ended up living in our apartment. We worked out with Tom Hiddleston. We ran into him at the gym and then suddenly we were just like doing reps together,” Vellani says.
She adds: “I met Tom Holland as well. Seeing all these people on screen is so normal for me. And then having them, in real life, enter my space and we’re breathing the same air is so bizarre and strange. And it feels really unnatural because they are supposed to be on my laptop. They’re not supposed to be [here] in real life, but they are. And they’re basically our peers now, which is so crazy.”
For Vellani, this is just the start of her Marvel journey. She will appear alongside Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) in next year’s The Marvels film.
“Brie Larson reached out to me two days after I got the part,” she told Esquire magazine. “She talked to me on FaceTime for a while and she’s been my greatest resource and mentor throughout this whole process. Even though she was [an] Oscar winner beforehand, Marvel has completely changed her life.