It’s not often in America that you turn on the TV and see a show or a movie with a Muslim protagonist. While Muslims make up about 24% of the world’s population, they only make up 1.1% of characters in American films according to a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study. In their rare appearances, Muslim characters have historically been portrayed as foreigners, terrorists, and threats. Their religion has sadly been reduced to dangerous extremism in most movies and TV shows.
Marvel has not helped with this stereotyping. The MCU’s first movie, Iron Man, set a precedent for negative Muslim and SWANA representation in the franchise. The villains are a group of Afghan terrorists who kidnap billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark to make him build them a missile. The writing for this movie was military propaganda at its finest.
14 years later, Ms. Marvel has hit our screens via Disney+ and it couldn’t be more different. It’s a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani American teenage girl named Kamala Khan obsessed with superheroes who discovers that she has her own superpowers. This show is changing the game when it comes to Muslim representation in mainstream American media. Ms. Marvel is quirky, cute, and hilarious. It tackles serious topics surrounding the Muslim and Pakistani communities. If you haven’t seen it already, you should be watching it because it’s one of the best shows streaming right now.
Everything about this show is charming, from the acting to the music to the visuals. Iman Vellani is the perfect casting, embodying Kamala’s geeky superhero obsession, teenage awkwardness, and relentless optimism. She’s a treat to watch onscreen. Elements like the Indian and Pakistani music; casual usage of Urdu; title cards in Urdu, Hindi, and more South Asian languages; and multiple cultural jokes make this show feel distinctly Muslim and Desi. The visuals throughout make this show look so unique. Kamala’s imaginary sequences are incorporated as animated drawings that interact with her surroundings. This show also integrates texting in the most creative way by making text conversations a part of the physical setting. The bright colors and fast-paced editing make for an engaging feast for the eyes when watching.
Ms. Marvel’s pacing is the best of the Disney+ shows. It never feels rushed and wraps up its storylines satisfyingly by the end of the season. The first two and last two episodes provide a strong beginning and end. The emotional epicenter is the show’s exploration of the Partition, a historical event that most Americans don’t know about, but that “every Pakistani family has a story” about. The intergenerational trauma and healing that comes from this drive part of the story. However, episodes 3 and 4 struggle to stay afloat with the introduction of an unnecessary and uncompelling villain group and the retcon of the origin of Kamala’s powers.
Kamala’s power change from the comics was already controversial, but the overly complicated explanation of its origins pulls focus from the narrative and is offensive to the Muslim community. The show uses the word “djinn” to describe Kamala’s heritage. In Islam, djinns are considered very real, like angels, but praying to one is considered a sin. Making Kamala a “djinn” takes essential aspects of a real religion and fictionalizes them in a way that is disrespectful to Islam. While the “djinn” label is later changed, it still feels like a strange step backward in the middle of a show with primarily positive Muslim representation.
Ms. Marvel is at its best not when it’s focusing on Kamala’s superpowers, but when it’s focusing on her culture, her community, and her family. These are Kamala’s strengths as a superhero and as a character. Although her mother is a bit strict (but not that strict for a Desi mom, let’s be honest), she loves and supports Kamala wholeheartedly. To finally see any superhero with a support system like this is very heartwarming. The show seamlessly includes the generational and cultural gap into the dynamic between Kamala and her parents while still highlighting that they have a powerful, loving bond. Kamala’s older brother Aamir and his wife Tyesha are also wonderful characters that show a sweet, equal partnership between a Muslim man and woman instead of the stereotypical portrayal of a Muslim marriage where the man dominates and the woman obeys. Tyesha is a Black hijabi convert, someone extraordinarily rare to see onscreen. The Muslim representation in Ms. Marvel is both specific and diverse, which makes it all the more important.
Kamala’s friends are great, too. Nakia has been changed from the comics to be half-white and more of a feminist, but the changes are handled well. The show acknowledges her struggle with identity and belonging as a mixed kid. Nakia also gets a crucial moment to talk about what it means to wear her hijab. The hijab has often been depicted negatively in American media as a symbol of oppression that must ultimately be removed by its wearer to achieve “freedom.” This westernized view of the hijab doesn’t accurately reflect the various reasons women wear the hijab. So, Ms. Marvel’s counterargument to that harmful stereotype is powerful and affirming for any Muslim women who wear the hijab as part of their identity.
As part of a teen girl’s coming-of-age story, there is also the classic love triangle (or, more of a love square here). Kamala’s three love interests are all such charming, kind young men that it’s easy to root for all of them. Kamran, in particular, gets a compelling character arc that becomes a metaphor for immigration and discrimination of South Asian Muslims in America.
The romantic subplots never overtake Kamala’s journey of self-acceptance in the face of Islamophobia and racism, though, and that’s what the true “villains” of Ms. Marvel are. This show tackles surprisingly harsh topics head-on, like the U.S. government’s very real surveillance of Muslim communities. This show fearlessly criticizes the institutionalized Islamophobia in U.S. federal law enforcement. And Kamala and her community fearlessly challenge these things. When Kamala succeeds with the faith and the family people like her have been discriminated for, that’s when this show becomes truly marvelous.
Ms. Marvel gets a 4/5 General score for its excellent pacing and storytelling but faltering middle. It gets a 5/5 Incluvie score for positive Muslim representation in its characters onscreen and the writers, directors, and crew offscreen who did such a fantastic job telling this endearing story.
Ms. Marvel is streaming now on Disney+.