Iman Vellani On Becoming Ms Marvel, The First Muslim Female Superhero And The Newest Star Of The MCU

Ms Marvel

“It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who saves the world,” a line from the Ms Marvel trailer that perfectly epitomised the sentiments of young South-Asian girls who grew up watching superhero flicks, but never dared to imagine themselves in it. This was until, Iman Vellani, a Canadian-Pakistani teenager entered the MCU as Kamala Khan in the Ms Marvel series. Within the first 5 minutes of our Zoom interview, I forget that I am talking to Iman and this isn’t actually the goofy teenager Kamala Khan from the much-awaited Ms Marvel trailer. Every inch of her room is covered in Avengers art, just like her character, if this isn’t a sign that she was destined for this job, I don’t know what is.

Kamla was first introduced in the Marvel Universe through the comics in 2013, where the eponymous title was held by her idol Carol Danvers, who played Captain Marvel. Following the same storyline, Kamala, a regular immigrant teenager with everyday problems, escapes into her fantasy land—where she fights the world of crime, alongside her hero Carol. In the comics, Kamala’s superpowers are activated when she walks into a street flooded by a blue gas Terrigen Mist. The narrative shifts in the show, as the source of her power, comes from an ancestral bangle, she unknowingly inherits—unlocking a dark family history. Besides the origin, the actual powers have also been altered in the show. For instance, after her exposure to the Terrigen Mists in the comics, she attains the power to ’embiggen,’ (shapeshift). But in the show, her bracelet emulates purple cosmic energy, creating shields and stepping disks to jump and fly. As contrasting the powers seem in the two mediums, it will be interesting to see the back story in the show to connect the dots.

Ms Marvel

Disney+ Hotstar’s Ms Marvel will be staking a claim on many firsts—A woman Muslim superhero, correction: A Muslim woman superhero who isn’t stereotyped around her religious customs. Characters making Bollywood pop culture references and showing the subtle nuances of a South-Asian home and the difference in upbringing—without making a mockery out of it and using it as a punchline. Traditions (Mosque gatherings) and festivals (Eid) will be integrated into the storyline, providing a launch pad for Kamala to become Ms Marvel, as opposed to being projected as a pigeonhole.

At the centre of it all is Iman Vellani, the teenager who manifested her dream. From writing fan fiction about the Avengers to becoming a superhero and joining their realm—the 19-year old speaks to ELLE about the responsibility of accurate representation, working with her heroes and living the dream that wasn’t even a part of her wildest fantasy.

ELLE: How does it feel to be Marvel’s first female Muslim superhero?

Iman Vellani:  “I don’t know how to take it all in. I come back to my childhood bedroom, the entire place is covered with Avengers posters—and now, these guys are basically my peers? It’s surreal. To be representing my people through this show is a whole new level of privilege—before this, the only representation we got was through the comics and that’s why I fell in love with them in the first place. I am very excited to see how it unfolds.

ELLE: Taking a cue from the trailer, Ms Marvel has managed to integrate your identity in the show, without taking the tokenistic approach of using it as a barrier or stereotyping it as a form of restriction, could you tell us a little about that? 

IV: “I think the most important part is that a lot of the creatives on our show have just done an incredible job of organically incorporating diversity. The story isn’t just about a Pakistani American Muslim girl—it’s about an Avengers-obsessed-fanfiction-writing dorky kid, who just happens to be Pakistani. We didn’t go out of our way to show her praying all the time, or showing her neglect the culture that we see so often in mainstream media. It’s really important to show the younger audiences that children of immigrant parents can be proud of their culture and fit in with the rest of the crowd—these two aspects aren’t mutually exclusive. Our show is pretty unique in that sense. Kamala’s culture and religion are a normal part of her life and it’s the same for me in real life—when I come home from school, I go to the mosque like a regular Muslim, but that doesn’t mean my life is ruined or I am forced to do so. It’s just a part of my life and that’s exactly how we chose to show it. This is just the beginning, right? This isn’t like the single representation of what a Pakistani Muslim family looks like, but it’s just one of many. I just hope that everyone can find some part of Kamala or her family or her culture or her community that they can relate to and feel seen by that.”

Ms Marvel
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ELLE: All the external pressure aside, this also happens to be your debut as an actor, how does that feel?

IV: “I come from a theatre background—granted, this is high school theatre, which cannot even compare to the Marvel Universe. The only notes I ever got were to be smart and learn how to react in a scene. I was super nervous from my last screen test and Sarah Halley Finn, who’s Marvel’s casting director called me the day before and she sat me down and talked through all the scenes with me. She gave me advice on all the scenes and I finally got the part. When I got cast, I was freaking out because I thought I have to do what I did in my audition and they were like, no, just don’t do any prep, we want you to be how you are and that’s how exactly we want Kamala to be. That was pretty reassuring—also, everyone on set made it such a comfortable environment to work in. They didn’t just throw technical jargon at me all the time, they were really cognizant of the fact that this is the first project of my life and I came from high school directly to a marvel set. It was a big leap for me, but they handled it really well and now I might just be a pro (JK).”

ELLE: They say never meet your heroes—from a fan to now actually being a part of the MCU, how was the experience?

IV: “It was really intimidating at the beginning—Because I’ve always put any person who has the Marvel Studios logo on their jacket, anyone who works at Marvel on the highest pedestal and idolized them like gods. I know it is blasphemous, but hear me out, it’s like the craziest thing because they all turned out to be great humans. I saw Kevin Feige (President of Marvel Studios) launch and that was my peak. Every time I meet someone new, I’m like, Oh, my God, it’s Chris Pratt—but they’re so refreshingly normal. And I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that my cast mates also stumbled on their lines like it’s not a big deal and everyone makes mistakes. It was just so refreshing to see that they’re not perfect because I literally went into Marvel thinking they have everything planned out 10 years in advance. I mean, it’s still Marvel and they know what they’re doing but to see the process personally was super humbling.” 

ELLE: Female Superhero costumes are generally designed to appeal to the male gaze, which is finally changing. The Ms Marvel Costume takes inspiration from Kamala’s identity by keeping it modest yet contemporary, nodding to her religion as well as individuality. Could you share a little about that? 

IV: “Costume designer Arjun Bhasin is so incredible, he was actually very inclusive and made me feel as comfortable as possible. He incorporated a lot of cultural designs in the print of the fabric which was very cool and then obviously you have the dupatta a.k.a the scarf, so we have a lot of elements like that. It’s like a long dress, which is modest but stylish. Cultural aspects aside, the costume by itself is pretty cool, I may sound biased but it’s one of my favourite costumes in the MCU. It’s really comfortable compared to what I’ve heard about the Spider-Man suit, so I’m happy. I dressed up as Miss Marvel when I was 15 on Halloween in a little suit that I made with my grandma—this is just like that but picture it to be a whole lot chic-er.” 

ELLE: Being a part of the MCU must have meant undergoing strenuous physical training and learning many new skills. Any recollection from the prep phase?

IV: As a high school kid, I’ve never been into a gym or anything, so I didn’t really want to change my body too much—and that’s very difficult to do in the span of a couple of months. I felt like that was kind of okay for me to just be a normal looking high school kid and Marvel never ever put the pressure on me to look a certain way. I just wanted to be strong enough to do my stunts and to build that endurance—because honestly, the stunts aren’t that bad. It’s pretty fun for me to just fly around in a harness and do all these cool fight scenes. I have an incredible stunt double and an amazing stunt team. But the tricky part is that you have to do the movements over and over again for like 10 to 12 hour working days—your body just hurts in places you didn’t even know it could hurt. A massage gun becomes your best friend.”

ELLE: A message you’d like to give young girls who have never seen this kind of representation on-screen let alone in a Marvel movie?

IV: God, I just hope we’re able to shift the perspective on how Muslims are seen in mainstream media. Showing brown people having fun on-screen, when have you seen that before? I just hope people can take something out of it. I want people to relate to what they see on-screen because we’ve tried to make her as universal as possible. Whether it’s the representation part that you’re here for or if you’re just a plain Marvel fan, people will find a little bit of themselves in it.”

Watch the complete trailer below:

 

 

 

 

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