Ms Marvel is Marvel Studios latest Disney Plus series centred on a Pakistani Muslim teenager. Kamala Khan is a fangirl of Captain Marvel and the Avengers and her world soon turns chaotic when she discovers she has superpowers of her own.
Much has already been said about positive representation in the series, however there was also a lot on the show that simply missed the mark. As a Pakistani, Muslim, Marvel fan myself, I found my relationship with the show to be quite complicated and my mixed opinion comes with these threefolds of my identity.
On the one hand as a Pakistani, I loved the show because it offered me the chance to connect with my cultural roots and appreciate my heritage more. As a Muslim though, I felt the Islamic representation on the show was fairly reduced to performative name drops of Islam and Muslim culture, rather than it being accurately representative of mainstream Islam and Muslims as a whole.
The truth is the vast majority of practising Muslims, unlike Kamala, don’t sneak out to parties with their best friend Bruno, end up accidentally drinking alcohol, or almost kissing a guy they just met. It’s for those reasons, that a lot of Muslims actually felt like they couldn’t see themselves in ironically what was meant to be “accurate” Muslim representation – the first of Marvel’s kind. I’m also quite disappointed that in a lot of cases, for people who aren’t too familiar with Muslims, this will be their first exposure to Islam, which will be assumed to be accurate.
However when considering the rising amount of Islamophobic and poor representations of Muslims in the media, it seems many of our standards and expectations from mainstream platforms are incredibly low. The Muslim community is ready to settle for the bare minimum, if it means escaping being portrayed as yet another terrorist or an exotic Oriental housewife in need of emancipation. But I argue that we shouldn’t settle or compromise on good representation in place of any representation.
And if Marvel are going to attempt to make a show about a Muslim protagonist, I believe they should go the full effort to make her actually practise Islam. Because who needs representation the most? – The practising peaceful Muslims who are vilified in mainstream media on the daily for being “anti-modern” or the non-practising liberal Muslims that readily fit in anyways?
Then there are muslims who argue that “we don’t need representation”, we should be representing ourselves, which I think is somewhat of an unrealistic fantasy. Yes we should be confident in who we are and should strive to create our own creative industries, but the crux of the matter is that the vast majority of Muslims teenagers grow up in the West watching mainstream Western fiction, and you shouldn’t underestimate how validating and encouraging it is for young Muslims to be able to see themselves represented on the screens and feel included in society. I personally believe we need more Muslims pursuing creative careers so that we can have better and accurate representation in the media for ourselves and for the sake of dawah (invitation to Islam) too.
The concept of a Muslim superhero in of itself is a very revolutionary one, because it implicitly showcases that Muslims can also be the ones to save the day and that Islam encourages us to help people and do good. In the comics Kamala mentions how:
“There’s this Ayah from the Quran that my Dad always quotes when he sees something bad on TV. A fire or a flood or a bombing. ‘Whoever kills one person, it is as if he has killed all of mankind – and whoever saves one person, it is as if he saved all of mankind.” This quote, which is a crucial point of origin for why Kamala chooses to be a superhero in the first place did eventually make its way into the season finale of the show. However, it was shortened and not accredited to Kamala’s religion or The Quran in any way, so many viewers may have even missed it entirely.
As a Marvel fan myself, I also have a lot of opinions on the structure and pacing of the show as a whole. I feel the first episode and the finale, which usually sets the tone for the series, were actually in my opinion the weakest plot points. I personally feel the show peaked and was most interesting in episode 5, when they explored the historic trauma of the Partition.
Now, I’m not going to be unfairly harsh and completely trash on the show, because I genuinely did enjoy it and there were some really great moments throughout. I think Iman Vellani’s debut performance as Kamala in particular was really enjoyable throughout.
So let’s get into my thoughts as Pakistani, Muslim Marvel fan as I explore the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the show.
The Good – South Asian ‘Desi’ representation
As a child of diaspora (third generation), I really related to Kamala and her experiences with navigating her culture and heritage, growing up in the West away from Pakistan.
I particularly liked the scenes showcasing the natural beauty of Pakistan, it’s really making me want to visit my homeland again.
Additionally the show’s impressive star-studded line up of Pakistani actors from Fawad Khan to Mehwish Hayat and Samina Ahmed also gave me something to talk about and connect with my grandparents over.
I admired the fact that Ms Marvel also showcased the legacy of the partition authentically and sensitively throughout. The show delved into the hardships of families torn apart and separated, forced to flee to a newly created country. It also showed Kamala interacting with the past history hands on by travelling to the very train her Nani (grandmother) was sent on during the partition.
This was actually a breath of fresh air from how the partition has been portrayed in other mainstream shows in the past. One such example of this was in the 11th series of Doctor Who during the ‘Demons of the Punjab’ episode, which glossed over the violence, and arguably romanticised the story of the partition as a love story between Hindus and Muslims, rather than its bloody reality.
While some Pakistani nationalists have critiqued Ms Marvel’s oversimplification of the partition, I feel it was sensitively weaved into the plot and it did highlight how the British Empire
played a huge part in the blame in the dividing and conquering of India.
The Bad – Muslim representation:
The portrayal of South Asia brings me onto my next point, which is Kamala’s Muslim identity, because arguably despite a few name drops of “Bismillah” and “Astagfrulilah” here and there – not much separates Kamala from any other non-muslim Desi (South Asian) girls.
Yes, we have the mosque scene and the character Sheikh Abdullah, but they’re arguably used as mere Muslim backdrops and props rather than a big part of Kamala’s identity and beliefs. In other words, her appearance of Muslimness is secularised and liberal – reduced to phrases rather than practice.
While I appreciate the fact that the show wasn’t Islamophobic in any way and it certainly passed ‘The Riz Test’ (a criteria much like the Bechdel to measure Muslim representation on the screen), I still don’t think the Islamic portrayal was entirely accurate. However since the picture for Muslims on the screen has been so bad in the past, I sense the show has been overpraised and heralded as an example of “positive” Muslim representation regardless.
The most unrealistic plot point in my opinion was not in fact Kamala’s superpowers, or the finale reveal of her being a mutant, instead it was her relationship with Bruno. The truth is Muslims aren’t meant to be best friends with non-mahrams (a person of the opposite sex who is not a relative and could be a potential marriage partner). We Muslims don’t talk about Bruno-no-no-no. It just doesn’t make sense especially when you have Kamala’s mum and a gossiping aunty unreasonably shame a girl for “gallivanting around Europe” and then spread rumours about her “getting close to a Gora (white man) named Rob”, and yet five minutes later is packing food to go for her own daughter’s best friend Bruno.
My question is – why does the first Muslim MCU female protagonist have to be best friends with a white dude? The whole “white boy finds Oriental Muslim girl exotic” romantic trope is just so overdone (you don’t have to look very far on Netflix to find a hundred films just like this).
Yes, I get it Bruno was a character written into the comics – but I personally think it would have been so much better if Nakia’s character doubled up on Bruno’s role as the science-techy person instead of him. That way we would have been able to see more of Nakia’s character and the show could be more about exploring Muslim identities – rather than humanising Muslims through the white gaze of Bruno.
And that’s another thing that bothered me – why does Kamala’s story arc have to revolve around men or romance altogether? Why can’t she just be a strong independent woman who doesn’t need anyone to complete her? Especially with the rise of Disney characters who have proven “the need for a romantic partner” rule wrong from Elsa to Hiro to Moana to Brave to even Marvel characters, which Kamala looks up to, like Carol Danvers herself. Yes, we get it, crushes are completely normal, but it doesn’t take away from the blaring fact that Muslims aren’t supposed to date.
Returning to my previous point, Nakia (a strong voiced hijabi character from the comics) was barely in the show, and arguably so was her hijab. From moments where her hair is showing, to turban-hijabs, to taking it off all together (which is albeit halal in female only company). As a hijabi myself, I’m not trying to judge how a woman chooses to wear her hijab, but I am pointing out that it is rather a shame that the only hijabi character in the MCU has to be one that doesn’t even wear it the way it’s traditionally or most commonly worn. This is also disappointing, especially since Nakia in the comics did wear the hijab fully covering her hair, neck and chest. The fact that Nakia in the show also participated in betting and joked about having a boyfriend was really disappointing to see.
The inclusion of Aamir praying, wishing ‘May Allah forgive you one day’ and reminding Kamala to say Bismillah before starting the car was a nice touch straight from the comics, but again it was watered down by the fact that Aamir’s Islamic voice was barely present throughout the rest of the show. When we do see him – it’s him dancing at his wedding which again is strange because the Aamir in the comics cringed at dancing in a mixed setting with loud music as an act of haram (sin). Aamir is such an important character in the comics because while he looks like a stereotypical “extreme” strict Muslim, you learn that he is actually a very caring brother and overall great guy, all without him comprising his strong values of faith.
Muneeba Khan (Kamala’s mother) was also meant to be a hijabi in the comics, but they unfortunately wrote this out of the show completely. Certain deviations from the comics are necessary to make the plot work, but this change seems completely out of place. So it beckons the question why did they make these changes to the hijabi or visibly Muslims characters and was it just to make them more digestible for non-Muslim audiences?
Aligning strict parents (who are more cultural than religious) to the Muslim identity somehow still leads to Islam being percieved as the barrier, which Kamala seemingly has to rebel from by sneaking out to go to parties or go on a secret date with Kamran etc. This normalises this behaviour and presents Islam as the backward religion of rules, which encourages teenagers to then abandom their religious values in order to fulfil their potential as a cool and aspiring “superhero” like Kamala.
The Ugly – As a Marvel fan:
Finally, I come to my nitpicking as a Marvel fan. In terms of the ugly, I think the CGI felt noticeably unrealistic at times (which isn’t uncommon for Marvel) and I do appreciate that Kamala’s “embiggening” superpower is hard to do justice on the screens.
Plotwise, the finale in particular felt a bit lacklustre to me, because it watered down so many aspects of the comics and it didn’t really do justice to the show.
I’m not the kind of person who thinks everything has to necessarily be comic-accurate though and there were plenty of changes they made in the show which I loved. For example, the use of Kamala’s necklace breaking and forming her lightning symbol was a really clever adaptation and I also loved the fact that Kamala means ‘Marvel’.
I liked how they tied in the family and culture to her origin with her superhero name being from her Dad’s nickname and by making her costume come from her mother, sewn in Pakistan (although I do wish they emphasised the fact that it was originally an Islamic burkini).
However, I didn’t particularly enjoy Zoe or Kamran’s characters, since their personalities felt completely watered down and in stark conjunction to the interesting spice they had in the comics. By discarding Zoe’s mean girl persona and blatant Islamophobia in the original, the show wrote out one of the major experiences Muslims face on a daily basis. Also by mellowing out Kamran’s villain arc, they also took out the most interesting element of his character and instead what we were left with was this weak, whining mummy’s boy.
Instead of focusing on character development, the show spread itself entirely too thin in its six episode format by trying to take on too much all at once. By introducing a wide array of characters in such a short time span, a lot of them were underdeveloped and lacking enough screen time.
After the djinn (which was yet another Oriental trope pointed out by fans) were dealt with, I found the Department for Damage Control Agents to be entirely uninteresting and under-developed. I do like the fact that they could be seen as a metaphor for ‘Prevent’ though in the sense that according to Nakia they represent the “whole good Muslim versus bad Muslim, let’s self-surveil our people routine”.
Overall, I think the finale wasn’t very memorable and the Home-Alone inspired plan didn’t seem very original or eventful either. It is such a shame that the show’s ending didn’t stick the landing for me, especially after the previous episode (ep 5) was one of the best episodes of the entire show in my opinion.
Ms Marvel was an enjoyable rollercoaster exploring history and culture, perfect for South Asian heritage month, but unfortunately the ride ended too abruptly and didn’t land in a satisfying final conclusion.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d call the best Islamic, Muslim representation, but I appreciate it was a start. I like the fact that Ms Marvel opened up a gateway for a lot of interesting discussions to be had and I just really hope this show will inspire more Muslims to pursue creative industries, so we can work to get braver Islamic Muslim stories told in the future.
By Shaheena Uddin