Disney’s first Muslim superhero movie draws critical acclaim

Iman Vellani as Ms Marvel
Iman Vellani

Critics have hailed the release of Ms Marvel, Disney’s first on-screen Muslim superhero story, as a “joyful” slice of “pop culture history”.

The show centres around geeky teenager and Avengers comic book fangirl Kamala Khan, played by Pakistani-Canadian newcomer Iman Vellani. She struggles to fit in until she gains superpowers, becoming Ms Marvel.

In a five-star review, The Guardian said: “She’s funny, charming and effortlessly bats off preconceptions.”

The paper’s TV critic Lucy Mangan wrote: “Normally, you would fear for a young actor, but Vellani seems so born to the purple [the colour of her powers] that you almost have to shrug and say, as an elder might to a nascent superhero in – oh, I don’t know, the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] perhaps – that it is her destiny.”

Mangan said the two available episodes of the six-part Disney+ series were “full of charm, wit, warmth, brio and truth”. Marvel superheroes have been leaping off the pages of comic books and onto TV and film screens since the 1970s, but more recently there have been attempts made to diversify its characters.

Early in the new series, Khan notes the lack of superheroes that look like her. “It’s not the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” she sighs, focusing her attentions on being an artist, vlogger and Avengers superfan instead.

However, that that soon changes when she happens upon an old bracelet that belonged to her reputedly mystical great-grandmother. “The bangle allows her powers to be tied to Kamala’s Pakistani heritage and the trauma of Partition in particular,” Mangan continued.

Ms Marvel

In a four-star review, the Financial Times said Vellani’s on-screen debut “charms” in “an adventure story as much about heritage as battling evil”.

Journalist Dan Einav described the series, which depicts the Khans as an ordinary family, as “a small yet significant piece of pop culture history”. He wrote: “That Kamala is a practising Muslim of Pakistani origin isn’t treated as incidental.

“Like the recent Pixar film Turning Red (and everything from Bend It Like Beckham to The Big Sick), the series humorously and sensitively reflects on the cultural gulf between parents rooted to tradition and children caught between their sense of identity and the desire to assimilate.”

Khan first appeared in a solo comic book series in 2014, and Rolling Stone magazine described the character as “a genuinely great addition to the Marvel superhero ranks in print”.

Alan Sepinwall’s review of the streaming adaptation said that, in the first two episodes, she is still a “fascinating” character in the context of an on-screen teen drama, but cast doubt on her “uninspired” superhero credentials.

“The best and worst thing I can say about Ms Marvel is that there are long stretches where it’s easy to forget it’s a Marvel show,” he wrote.

He added: “The show’s first two instalments do such a strong job of establishing Kamala, her family, her friends… and the local Muslim community, that the MCU tie-ins can feel almost beside the point.” Her newfound superpowers, he underlined, serve as “a metaphor for Kamala trying to expand what she can be beyond familial and societal expectations”.

The actress, who secured the role at an open casting call on her last day of school, seems to agree with his assertion, telling The Express Tribune: “I think that’s the main theme of our show – to subvert expectations and throw away all the labels and become your own person.”

She noted how her Pakistani heritage was something she had been “very dismissive about” and “disconnected from” before making the show.

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