Ms Marvel Review: How Identity Became Kamala Khan’s Superpower

By Raiyah Butt


Illustrated by Manal Mirza


Spoilers for Ms Marvel if you haven’t seen the show.


Ms Marvel has just completed its six-episode run for season one, by writer and executive producer Bisha K.Ali. Based on the comics, Ms Marvel follows 16-year-old Kamala Khan’s journey to figuring out who she wants to be, grappling with her identity as a Pakistani-American Muslim and as a rookie superhero.


The show starts off light and comical, letting us get to know Kamala (Iman Vellani) as an Avengers super fan and Captain Marvel wannabe. From the get-go, Kamala’s identity is central to the story. We meet her dad Yusuf (Mohan Kapoor) and mum Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) that Kamala often conflicts with at the beginning of the show. Her brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) is also getting married. She navigates her life with the help of her best friends Bruno (Matt Lintz) and Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) and crushes on new boy Kamran (Rish Shah).


Kamala finds an old bangle sent by her Nani from Pakistan, which she unknowingly wears to AvengerCon. During a Captain Marvel cosplay competition, the bangle activates and Kamala finds herself with new powers. She starts learning how to work with them with Bruno’s help, whilst also evading the Department of Damage Control (DODC), going on a journey to figure out the bangle’s secrets and who she wants to be as a superhero. This journey takes her back to Karachi, Pakistan, uncovering a darker history of her ancestor’s past.


First, let’s talk about representation.


I’ll start by saying this: I’m not someone who thinks representation will solve all the problems of the South Asian community, and if we’re honest it does little to advance the causes that really matter. Yes, it’s nice to see us on screen, but the desire to see yourself reflected in Western, white-centred media usually leads to disappointment. Especially when it’s intertwined with Islam, as Muslims on screen are often depicted negatively. In Riz Ahmed’s Muslim inclusion in the media report, 181 out of the 200 most popular films between 2017-2019 had no Muslim characters. If there were Muslim characters, 53.7% of them were targets of violence and 39% were perpetrators of violence. Out of the small percentage of Muslim characters on screen, less than a quarter were women. But I was hopeful for Ms Marvel because for once, the Pakistani characters were front and centre and it stars a female lead. And the show succeeded, for the most part.


It was so wholesome to see things that are normal to me be shown as normal on screen. Showing waduu, the traditional washing ritual before prayer, Kamala’s family speaking Urdu, and using music from South Asian artists (yes, of course, they played Jalebi Baby). My personal favourite was Kamala’s mum saying “Captain Marvel, astaghfirullah” when Kamala tells her parents she wants to go to an Avengers convention. Even the stylistic choices of the show contributed, such as the Ms Marvel title screen appearing in Urdu. One episode featured Eid celebrations and the all too familiar gossiping Illumin-Aunties. Another episode featured Aamir’s wedding and traditions such as hiding the groom’s shoes and the inevitable family-and-friends-surprise-choreographed-Bollywood-style-wedding-dance. As a Pakistani watching the show, it finally felt like I was on the inside of the joke, not the target of it. Kamala’s identity becomes a source of connection with others - such as bonding with Kamran over Bollywood movies - and she has no shame in her heritage, even if she is still trying to figure herself out.


But as well as these positive depictions, the show managed to capture the nuances of the culture and the reality of Muslims every day in America. One of my favourite scenes was Nakia talking about how she feels wearing the hijab: “My whole life I’ve either been too white for some people or too ethnic for others, and it’s been this very uncomfortable, sucky in-between. When I first put this on, I was hoping to shut some people up, but I kinda realised I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Like, when I put this on, I feel like me, like I have a purpose.” Not only was this a poignant reflection of the experience of many young Muslim girls, but it allowed Nakia’s character to offer us an alternative to the stereotype that hijabs are always oppressive and forced. Nakia is also vocal about the disparities between men and women in the mosque, with women often facing disadvantages because of the segregation, and successfully runs for a position on the mosque board.


The Muslim community as a whole are the backbone of the show and demonstrates the power of community. They support Kamala’s superhero alter-ego in the last episode and routinely stand up to the DODC. The interactions between the DODC agents and mosque-goers highlight the surveillance and antagonisation faced by Muslims in America at the hands of the state, military and police infrastructures. Alongside the imperialistic expansion of drone warfare and surveillance technologies abroad in Muslim majority countries, reports have found that in recent years, the US military has collected data on Muslims in America through third parties such as prayer apps such as MuslimPro. This more insidious, covert form of domestic surveillance and targeting of Muslims is felt deeply whilst watching Ms Marvel, with imam Sheik Adbullah (Laith Nakli) noting that the DODC infiltrating the mosque, without even the courtesy of taking off their shoes, is not their first rodeo. However, in the final episode, the NYPD unrealistically sided with the community and protected Kamala from the DODC, circumventing the opportunity to continue highlighting structural Islamophobia and opting for the “it’s just one bad agent” narrative. But I guess there’s only so much you can expect from a show made by Disney.


Partition, Immigrant Parents, and Generational Trauma


Whilst the representation of identity was clear throughout, what makes Ms Marvel outstanding from other shows is its inclusion of our culture’s history with Partition and its impacts on previous generations. Early in the show, Kamala’s mum Muneeba is at odds with Kamala because she doesn’t want her to get caught up in fantasy land. In a touching mother-daughter scene, Muneeba describes how she and Yusuf dreamed of coming to America but the reality of it was much harder. “He [Yusuf] worked very long hours for very little money, and Aamir was barely out of diapers,” she says, “My English was not so good. I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt so alone in my whole life.” A small scene but one with a large impact, illustrating the hard endured struggles of immigrants in a country foreign to them and trying to give their family a better life. There’s also a scene of the family sat around the dinner table, Yusuf explaining to Aamir’s fiancée Tyesha (Travina Springer), that Muneeba’s family were displaced during Partition, her mother Sana only just making it to her father on the last train and her grandmother Aisha going missing. Both of these scenes, upheld by heartfelt acting from Zenobia Shroff, give us a window into the generational trauma that lingers through Muneeba - much like many of our elders.


Ms Marvel then takes us to Karachi after Kamala learns that the bangle harnesses the power of Noor, an alternate dimension. Kamran and his mother Najma (Nimra Bucha) are enhanced beings known as Clandestines from the Noor realm, who claim to be Djinns, revealing that her great-grandmother Aisha (Mehwish Hayat), the original owner of the bangle, was one of them. Djinns are spirit beings with roots in Islamic folklore, and although this inclusion was (I think?) an attempt to connect her origins to something Islamic based, it bothered a lot of viewers. A fair criticism by some on social media was that the departure from the comics where Kamala was not a djinn, but inhuman, was a disservice to her character, especially because the narrative around her potentially being a djinn was largely negative. This was, as one review described it, “following an Orientalist pattern in Western media of associating Muslims with mystical beings”. This is one of the ways in which the show falls short, and as the djinn storyline was later dismissed it seemed a misfire to include it in the first place given it wasn’t developed very well.


When in Karachi, Kamala meets Kareem (Aramis Knight) and Waleed (Farhan Akhtar) of the Red Daggers, who explain the Clandestine’s plan to steal the bangle and break the Veil of Noor would destroy the human world. She also discovers more about her great-grandmother Aisha and the origins of the bangle. Kamala’s grandmother Sana (Samina Ahmad) describes to her how her passport is Pakistani but her roots are in India. She delivers one of the most moving lines of the show: “Between all of this, there is a border marked with blood and pain.” She then goes on to say “People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishman had when they were fleeing the country.” This scene has drawn opinions from multiple viewpoints - some claiming the historical erasure of violence against minority communities which contributed to Partition, or attributing the idea itself to the British rather than, for example, the Muslim League’s call for their own state at the time. But the general interpretation of Sana’s comments are in reference to the Radcliffe Line, as in the arbitrary border named after its architect Cyril Radcliffe (the old Englishman), rather than the ideology of Partition itself. A border is drawn with little consideration to geography or cartography, cutting through ethnic and religious communities and separating people from their ancestral homes. Given the dialogue is focused on borders it makes sense to interpret Sana’s words with this in mind, but the online chatter about this particular scene shows that touching on Partition in mainstream media is still a walk on a tightrope.


And Ms Marvel does wobble a few times whilst walking that tightrope, but overall the narrative focuses more on how the Partition impacted Kamala’s family through their generations, with episode five finally revealing the story of Aisha. The show really makes us root for the romance between Aisha and Hasan (Fawad Khan), only to tug on our heartstrings by watching them clash with neighbours who were once friends, flee from their home and get separated at the train station. Partition - a historical event that caused the forced migration of 15 million people and an estimated 2 million deaths - isn’t even taught about in school history lessons, so to see it on screen as a pivotal part of the story was a big moment for South Asians. The visual of Kamala standing on top of a train, looking around at the hundreds if not thousands of people desperately trying to get on a train was truly breathtaking. I won’t tell you everything that happens in the end, because the emotion really hits as a viewer watching the show and uncovering the story alongside Kamala herself.


Overall, whilst the show missteps in a couple of places, it was a significant departure from most other shows in the way it represents Muslim and Pakistani identity and the fact that it covers a history that is still so prevalent to South Asian families both in the sub-continent and the diaspora. It could’ve been improved by sticking to its source material more, but the show left room for that development in (I hope) future seasons. Iman Vellani shines as Kamala Khan, a superhero who gets her costume and her name meaning “marvel” from her parents. Her identity lends her strength, confidence and connection with others. After her journey of trying to find out who she wants to be, she finally looks in the mirror and embraces all parts of her.

 

About the author

Raiyah Butt is an International Relations graduate and TLP’s Senior Editor


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