There’s something missing from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s not just the mutants. New York’s been blown to bits, Thor became unworthy AND then worthy again, Captain America saved the world from Nazis and the Avengers assembled – twice! Yet despite the explosions, heart-racing action and Robert Downey Jr.’s exceptional timing, the soul of Marvel Comics remains hidden.
Marvel first set itself apart by creating flawed, recognizable characters that gave readers an instant empathetic connection – a hallmark to which the company has stayed true. Spider-Man isn’t interesting because of his powers, he’s interesting because he’s Peter Parker, a nerd granted incredible powers who learns that with those powers comes responsibility. The X-Men have always been a metaphor for marginalized communities’ struggles for acceptance.
The most recent films adapted from DC Comics have made questionable choices that have sometimes felt at odds with the characters. Batman is seldom as unrelentingly serious as he is in Nolan’s films; Superman would rather take a fight to another planet before harming a single innocent or raining down massive amounts of destruction upon a city. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have yet to let the company’s guiding spirit shine.
It can, though. Marvel has the perfect character waiting in the wings. It’s not Spider-Man or an X-Man. It’s a Pakistani-American, 16-year-old high school student named Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. Marvel.
Khan debuted in February 2014, the creation of editor Sana Amanat, writer G. Willow Wilson and artists like Adrian Alphona (who’s drawn the majority of the issues) Jacob Wyatt, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc. The launch coincided with other Marvel books prominently featuring strong female characters like Captain Marvel and She- Hulk. It became one of Marvel’s best books and one of its most important.
Ms. Marvel is the hero Marvel needs on screen because she’s emblematic of everything that makes a great Marvel book. Khan is an immediately relatable, empathetic and engaging character. The book has the perfect blend of drama, action, romance and humor. Culturally, Marvel hasn’t produced a book this important or relevant in quite a while.
Kamala is split between worlds: the world of her Abu and Ammi (father and mother), a traditional Muslim family, and her world in Jersey City, which has boys and parties and alcohol, things her conservative parents don’t want her to associate with.
She just wants to be a normal teenager, or at least her concept of a normal teenager. That’s something everyone has experienced, as Amanat said in an interview with Hero Complex:
“She’s awkward and unsure in terms of where she fits in and what she wants and who to believe about who she is,” said Amanat, in an interview with “I think those are conflicts that we can all connect with and we continue to connect with whether we’re teenagers, adults – just kind of figuring out where we are in the world and what our place is and where we want to be.”
One night, after disobeying her parents and sneaking out to a party, Khan gets enveloped in Terrigen Mists. If someone with Kree DNA comes in contact with the mist, they’re enveloped in a cocoon which brings forth their latent Inhuman abilities. For Khan, her latent ability is the power to transform and stretch her body.
Her morphogenic powers are an extension of her psyche. At first, when she feels small (like when she hears the voice of Zoe, the white, blonde classmate who’s Kamala’s ideal of pretty), she shrinks to the size of a cockroach. When she wants to be someone else, her entire appearance transforms – in fact, she emerges from her cocoon as the blonde Ms. Marvel, complete with the inappropriately short-skirt costume. Eventually, she maintains control of her powers. They’re not the sexiest of abilities. She doesn’t have claws (though she does team up with Wolverine in a hilarious two-issue run), she can’t shoot energy blasts from her eyes or hands, nor can she fly. They’re clunky, awkward, and incredibly endearing, just like Kamala.
In Ms. Marvel we get to see both a superhero and a 16 year-old-girl grow up before our eyes. Issue after issue perfectly balanced the everyday struggles with high school life and the not-so-normal struggles of trying to save the world. Kamala’s first villain is a Thomas Edison clone mixed with the DNA of a cockatiel who kidnaps or coerces millennials and uses their bodies to power his inventions. Silly? Absolutely. Yet, thanks to Willow’s deft hand, it’s also poignant. Not only is it Kamala’s first villain, it’s her first defeat, victory, and chance to emerge as a leader. She becomes more sure of herself, not just as a hero, but as a millenial during a time in which they’re blamed for nearly every problem on Earth.
Later on, she falls in love with Kamran, the son of a family friend who appears to be absolutely perfect. He’s nerdy, he’s going to MIT, and he just so happens to be an Inhuman too. He’s also evil, as Kamala learns when he kidnaps her and tries to recruit her to an evil sect of Inhumans. They fight, she breaks his thumb, but he breaks her heart. This is an all too-familiar pain – not of being kidnapped by someone with superpowers, but of betrayal, of finding out the person we love isn’t perfect (or even good) after all.
Through it all, Kamala’s religion remains central to her identity. She seeks advice from her mosque’s Sheikh (albeit reluctantly at first) and is misunderstood and even teased by some of the other kids at school because of her family’s beliefs. Even her costume – a modified “burkini,” a swimsuit for women that satisfies the Quran’s charge for women to wear modest clothing – harkens back to her religion. This strong identity what makes Kamala such a perfect choice for Marvel’s next franchise, and if ever there was a time for a well-rounded, sympathetic depiction of a Muslim character, it’s now.
Marvel hasn’t put a relatable character like Ms. Marvel up on any size screen, but that could change soon. Their television department recently partnered with FX to produce Legion, a show about David Haller. In the comics, Haller is Professor X’s son, the most powerful mutant in the world and also the most mentally unstable. He most recently appeared in Simon Spurrier’s exceptional X-Men Legacy, which was as much a book about Legion saving the world as it was a metaphor for managing mental illness. Similarly, Ms. Marvel is a metaphor for feeling comfortable in your own skin. “For a while, I just kind of felt weird and gross,” she tells her idol Carol Danvers (the first Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel). “Now I feel weird and awesome!”
Marvel is also fast-tracking production on Spider-Man — one of the standard-bearers for Marvel’s flawed, relatable superhuman characters — ever since they reacquired the rights from Sony. But as great as Spider-Man could be now that he’s back in-house, he’s been done before. We’ve become anesthetized to the struggles of Peter Parker. We need someone new, someone whose struggles are at once alien to us yet all too familiar.
It’s hard to see ourselves in big-screen Steve Rogers’ transformation from rail-thin wimp with a heart of a gold to chiseled Adonis, in Thor learning what it means to be worthy of his godlike abilities, or in Tony Stark’s transformation from billionaire arms dealer to billionaire superhero. What makes these heroes relatable in the comics, such as Stark’s alcoholism, have been blurred out or smudged away altogether in the films. Instead, we’re left with transformations that are too Hollywood and rarely reflected in real life.
We can see ourselves in Kamala Khan, though. We can see our first love and our first heartache; we see us wanting to be someone we’re not, then embracing who we are; we know the pains of feeling pulled between cultures, of wanting to be our own person while not letting go of our heritage.
We can invest in Kamala Khan. It’s time Marvel did too.