For her first acting job, Iman Vellani scored a plum gig in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: She pretty much plays herself.
Like her character Kamala Khan, Vellani is the teenage daughter of Pakistani immigrants who adores comic books and all things Marvel. (Her bedroom posters and the Avengers shrine in her closet can attest to this.) But while Kamala lives for Captain Marvel, Vellani counts Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark as her all-time fave.
“As cheesy as it sounds, being a part of the Marvel fandom just makes you feel like you’re a part of something, and isn’t that kind of what we all want?” says Vellani, the 19-year-old Canadian star of Disney +’s “Ms. Marvel ”series (premiere June 8). “It’s comfortable, it’s what we know. I can not do my taxes, but I’ve seen ‘Iron Man 1’ a hundred million times. “
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The coming-of-age show introduces Kamala as the first Muslim superhero in the MCU, a Jersey City, New Jersey, high school kid who writes superhero fan fiction until she gains superpowers herself. She’s inspired by the do-gooders she looks up to and navigates her new role as her hometown’s protector. Vellani’s rookie hero, who garnered a loyal following after first appearing in Marvel comics in 2014, will also factor into the “Captain Marvel” sequel “The Marvels” (in theaters July 28, 2023), directed by Nia DaCosta and starring Brie Larson.
Kamala offers a “much more grounded perspective,” says Sana Amanat, co-executive producer and a co-creator of the comics character. She’s “a young woman who happens to be South Asian and Muslim” but also a teen “looking at the MCU with bright and eager eyes.”
The teen crusader is surrounded by close friends like Bruno (Matt Lintz) and Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) as well as loving parents (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur), but her safe place is this landscape of larger-than-life, Thanos-defeating heroes. Because of that interest some folks, including Kamala’s guidance counselor, believe she lives in a “fantasy land” and suffers from a lack of direction.
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So when she gets extraordinary abilities, being a part of the Avengers’ world is “the life she pines for, of just that simplicity,” Vellani says. “Being 16 and dealing with high school and boys and relationships and family drama and culture and religion – it’s so confusing and complicated. Whereas being a superhero, you fight crime and you look cool doing it. ”
“Ms. Marvel ”executive producer / writer Bisha K. Ali (“ Loki ”) says she wanted to import the“ whimsical and magical ”qualities from the comics into a show that is Marvel’s take on the American high school movie. John Hughes films from the 1980s are an inspiration, as are “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade” and “Booksmart.”
And because she’s a kid in 2022, Kamala leans on the internet to learn how to be a superhero. “She does not really know how to fight, so she just copies everything that she sees online,” says Vellani, who’s been “practicing my super pose since I was 10. I got it in the bag.”
The first time she first noticed Kamala, though, “I felt so seen,” Vellani says. “When you think of comic book readers, you never think of the brown girl, and I was that. Kamala just represents everything about nerd culture. She’s a fan just like us, which is why we root for her when she gets her powers. “
Hardcore comic fans can expect some alterations from the stretchy, shapeshifting teen they know. Amanat says she gets daily tweets asking about the changes since on the page her distinctive abilities were “a really strong metaphor” for Kamala’s character. But “the essence of what we’re doing with our origin story still gets to the same place,” she says, and there will be familiar aspects like her “embiggened fist” in the on-screen power set, which is “linked to a larger story in the MCU (and) where Kamala’s going to go next.”
Vellani enjoys that “Ms. Marvel ”features scenes“ within Kamala’s community of just brown people having fun. ”
And it was important to Ali, a British screenwriter who’s also a child of Pakistani immigrants, to capture the “beautiful and aspirational” dynamics of Kamala’s family from the comics.
“They’re her rock. And she’s very open with them, ”Vellani adds. “And that’s the same case for my family and a lot of other South Asian families: They live together and they care about each other. I wanted to see that growing up, just the importance to showcase children of immigrant parents who do not neglect their culture but are proud of it. ”
Ali says it’s quite thrilling to chart Kamala’s debut alongside this next wave of MCU heroes, including America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and Shuri (Letitia Wright), who are the future protectors of the world and the new stories we need to tell. It is indicative of a really hopeful future where it’s about togetherness rather than division. She’s going to play a big part in that. ”