Iman Vellani can recall the exact moment she first saw a superhero in a comic book who looked like her.
Vellani fangirled over superheroes as a high-schooler in Markham, Ontario, where her family had moved after leaving Pakistan when she was 1. Many school days ended with a quick sprint to the local comic book shop across the street, where she would spend almost all of her $20 monthly allowance (and the rest was on McDonald’s). It was there she developed a love of Iron Man, the Silver Surfer and all things Marvel.
The Iron Man devotion, the result of a crush on Robert Downey Jr., led her to the fifth issue of “Invincible Iron Man,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Stefano Caselli. But it was the Pakistani American girl blowing a bubble and holding up a peace sign on the cover that caught Vellani’s eye.
It was Ms. Marvel.
“It was like a comic book was holding up a mirror in front of me,” Vellani recalled to The Washington Post.
Vellani went from curious fan to expert in a flash, grabbing any comic book she could featuring Marvel’s first Muslim superhero. She was mesmerized by the superpowered exploits of Ms. Marvel, while also identifying with Kamala Khan, the girl behind the mask. Now, at 19, she finds herself starring as the titular hero in “Ms. Marvel,” which debuts Wednesday on Disney Plus.
“I didn’t even realize representation was something that was missing … because I never saw it until I read those [Ms. Marvel] comics for the first time and I got representation,” she said. “I was like wow, these comics are written about me, for me and only me. And I just really felt seen as cheesy as it sounds.”
The teenage superhero debuted in “Captain Marvel” No. 14 in 2013 before starring in her own series that began publishing at Marvel in 2014. She was created by Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and Stephen Wacker as a part of Marvel Comics initiative in the 2010s to develop a more inclusive slate of superheroes, including the Puerto Rican and African American Spider-Man, Miles Morales.
Ms. Marvel’s superpowers include super-strength, super-speed and shape-shifting, though they’ve been tweaked slightly for the series. She’s been a member of the Avengers in the comics and is featured in animation and video games.
“Film and [television] really do shape how we see people in this world,” Vellani added. “Marvel being one of the most accessible and popular franchises in the world taking steps in striving for more inclusivity and creating space for characters like Kamala to exist is just setting the example for more studios and more creatives to contribute to that and tell their stories.”
Amanat, one of Ms. Marvel’s creators, was tasked by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige with helping head writer Bisha K. Ali produce the show. She got a call from the company’s renowned casting director, Sarah Finn, saying that Vellani’s audition was something special.
Ms. Marvel is obsessed with the other superheroes in the world around her - and Amanat said those traits came naturally to Vellani, who loved superheroes even when the cameras were off.
“She’s a Marvel super fan and she’s quirky and she’s funny and she makes weird facial expressions just like Kamala does,” Amanat said. “Like it’s just crazy how similar she is to the character. So, it really felt like it was just meant to be.”
Vellani was a huge fan of Amanat, a Pakistani American whose real-life experiences helped shape the creation of Ms. Marvel. She read comics Amanat edited and watched videos where she talked about her work. A siblinglike bond was built between the two on the set.
“It took a solid year for me to believe that we have the relationship that we do,” Vellani said of Amanat. “I think she has the coolest job. She’s a Marvel fan like me. She’s Brown like me. She works at Marvel. That is like the coolest thing ever … and she’s really been my biggest support system throughout this entire process, because it can be really intimidating. And just having people like her, it makes it so much easier to get through everything.”
Just as Amanat worked with writers and artists to ensure respect was given to her own Pakistani culture in the comics, she served in a similar role on set, even going so far as to tie Vellani’s hijab in a messy arrangement during the filming of a mosque scene to reflect the look of a young Muslim girl who doesn’t wear one all the time.
“I think when you have those [authentic] voices behind the scenes, it makes the process, frankly, much easier, but ultimately much better,” Amanat said. “In order to make progress, you have to inject change. And I think change is different kinds of voices.”
The duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah grew up as Muslim Moroccans in Belgium, and directed the first and final episodes of “Ms. Marvel,” on the heels of their first big American hit in theaters, 2020’s “Bad Boys For Life.” In Kamala Khan’s origin story of a Muslim Pakistani American girl in New Jersey just trying to fit in and be a teenager, they saw parallels to their youth.
“We were trying to explain our experience, and how we lived through that, to Iman,” El Arbi said. “I think that we really had a big connection in that. She understood what we lived through.”
Fallah, who became a Marvel fan through the “X-Men” animated series of the ‘90s, says he hopes both Muslims and non-Muslims see themselves through Vellani’s performance.
“For us, it’s like a homage to all the Muslim women in our lives,” Fallah said. “What is so good about Kamala Khan is also just she’s a teenager trying to find her way. It’s a coming-of-age story. And I think the whole world, no matter which race, or gender or religion, are going to relate to her. Like we connect to Peter Parker from Queens, we are going to connect to Kamala Khan from New Jersey.”
Vellani is bringing the character back in 2023’s “The Marvels,” a sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel.” In the comics and in her streaming series, Kamala Khan is a huge fan of Captain Marvel, so Vellani starring in the sequel is a logical progression. Just don’t ask if she’s going to be an Avenger. She honestly doesn’t know yet.
“I can barely think of tomorrow. I’m kind of just going where they tell me to go,” Vellani said. “If anything happens with this character in the future, I’m excited for it. But as of right now, it’s just this and ‘The Marvels.’ “
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