There is a moment about halfway through my interview with 19-year-old Iman Vellani, the actor shortly making her television debut as Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Ms Marvel (or Kamala Khan, as she is known without the cape), when I wonder to whom I am really talking: Vellani or Kamala Khan?
We are meeting over a video call to talk about the six-part Disney+ series and find ourselves discussing the essence of a hero. “Well, as a wise man once said: ‘If you’re nothing without your suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” Vellani muses, from what looks like a hotel room in Los Angeles. She delivers the quote with such a straight tone that for a moment I think she must be quoting someone historical. Gandhi? Oscar Wilde? “It’s Tony Stark,” she says. I nod, momentarily forgetting that I live in the real world, not the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (For the uninitiated, Tony Stark is better known by his alter ego Iron Man, played on screen by Robert Downey Jr.)
The more I hear about fictional Kamala Khan – a New Jersey nerd of Pakistani heritage who is obsessed with comics and one day becomes a superhero – and real-world Vellani, a Pakistani-Canadian teenager and self-proclaimed “geek” who is obsessed with comics and plays a superhero, the harder it becomes to know where one ends and the other begins.
It is not helped by the fact that the role is Vellani’s first and that she seems to be the only teenager in the world who doesn’t use social media, so that researching Vellani brings up only Kamala Khan. Talking to her is all just a bit meta. But then again, so is the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and that is precisely what fans love.
Kamala Khan first appeared in the comics in 2013. She is one of the newer Marvel characters and part of a superhero generation led by women and ethnically diverse characters (see also She-Hulk, Elektra and an X-Men series focused on women). She is Muslim American – like her creators G Willow Wilson, a comics writer who converted to Islam as an adult, and Sana Amanat, Marvel’s director of character development – and her religion and culture is embraced. Kamala Khan’s conflicts are not just with supervillains, but with her spirituality, family duties and traditions: “This is not evangelism,” Wilson told the New York Times. “It was really important for me to portray Kamala as someone who is struggling with her faith.”
But crucially – and realistically – Khan’s character and story is not just about being Muslim. It is much more about her adventures as a teenage dork with superpowers. She has crushes on boys and doesn’t know how to be cool around them. She argues with her parents. She stresses out about managing her schoolwork while saving the planet. And she is obsessed with Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, eventually naming herself Ms Marvel when she discovers the ability to make parts of her body huge and stretch into shapes.
Khan’s introduction was not without controversy: at one point, a senior Marvel executive blamed diverse characters for the overall slump in print sales, while Amanat has described having to brace for negativity from “people who are Muslim and might want the character portrayed in a particular light”. But Ms Marvel quickly found its fanbase. And one of those fans was Vellani.
“The first issue of Ms Marvel I picked up was when Kamala is celebrating Eid. I showed it to my dad!” says Vellani. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan, before her family moved to Canada, where she grew up surrounded by Marvel, when she was one. “I have a brother who’s six years older than me and we only ever watched stuff that he wanted to watch – Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and the MCU.”
In high school, the obsession fully formed. “My parents used to give me a $20 allowance and I’d spend it all on McDonald’s and Iron Man comics. It was an unhealthy obsession. One day, I picked up an Ironheart comic” – Ironheart is a related character to Iron Man – “and Kamala was on the cover. I was like: ‘Oh my God, who’s this brown person?’ That’s when I went on a whole Ms Marvel bender.”
Vellani never wanted to be an actor. But when the audition opportunity arrived in the most suitably “brown” way (she heard about the casting call through family, AKA Auntie WhatsApp), she decided to go for it. “They emailed me back with an NDA and scripts. And I was like: ‘Oh my God, I know exactly which comic books these are from.
It was scary for me, but honestly I knew my shit. I knew the character so well that I just had to rely on that.
“Also I made friends with [the casting director] Sarah Finn and [the executive producer] Louis D’Esposito on my first day [of auditions]. That was February 2020, but because of the pandemic they had to figure stuff out on their end. They were like: ‘You’re very much in the running. Just hang on.’ Hang on?! I have to go to school next year. What do I do? Am I working for Marvel or going to university?”
Vellani found out she had the role on her last day of high school. She was hanging out with friends when the video call came in. There are clips online of the moment; her face cannot contain the joy or the shock.
“I didn’t think I could be Kamala. I still don’t think it’s hit me,” she says.
She needn’t have worried. The decision was “unanimous”, according to Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige; whenever Vellani fretted about her inexperience, Finn would remind her: “You already are Kamala.”
For Vellani, it was a whirlwind, but Marvel, too, had stumbled on to a force of nature. “I had some opinions,” she chuckles. “ Victoria Alonso [Marvel Studios’ production president] was driving me home one night and said: ‘So tell me, what movies would you redo?’ And I just told her everything.” (Can I hear any of those opinions? I ask. “Nope,” she replies with a disarming smile.)
On set, Vellani would carry a notepad and scribble down ideas, regularly pitching them at Feige, who in this regard compared her to another fan turned lead, Tom Holland (Spider-Man). The comparison between Ms Marvel’s Kamala Khan and Spider-Man’s Peter Parker is a good one: both are high-school nerds, lovable underdogs, authentically teenage and deeply relatable.
But is it really true that Khan is Marvel’s first Muslim superhero? What about Scarlet Scarab from Moon Knight – an Egyptian protector played by the Egyptian-Palestinian actor May Calamawy? “She’s not specifically called Muslim,” says Vellani. “If she is, we have got to start labelling our show something else!
“We’re the first show that showcases religion, school-life balance – and it’s done so seamlessly, I feel. It’s very much like how it is in my real life: I go to school at this time, I have dinner at this time, I go to mosque at this time, I sleep at this time. It’s just a part of my schedule. And it feels like that when you watch the show, too.
“I went to a very diverse school and its so important to showcase a child of immigrant parents who is proud of their culture, doesn’t neglect it and doesn’t feel that they need to separate themselves from religion, their family or their culture to become their own person. I think that’s the main theme of our show: to subvert expectations and throw away all the labels and become your own person.”
It sounds to me like a personal journey for Vellani. “Growing up, I felt very disconnected from my culture and religion because I grew up in Canada. I didn’t have any brown friends that weren’t from my mosque and I didn’t hang out with them. Filming the show, I learned so much about my ancestry. That’s such a special thing I get to share with the character, and that’s because I was working with so many incredible creators who were from a Muslim or Pakistani background.”
I am about to ask another question about representation when I find myself sighing. Is she tired of talking about representation, too? Or is that just me? “I’m not tired of it,” she says. “I get it; this show is so monumental, but the people who ask only representation questions over the superhero questions, I’m just like: “God, yes. I know I’m brown.”
Vellani’s hero is Tony Stark, a white billionaire playboy; Khan’s was Danvers, a white woman who flew in the US army. Perhaps we need more minorities on screen, not so minorities can see themselves, but so the majority can see minorities as more than a single narrative. Ultimately, shouldn’t the goal be that we all have heroes that look different to ourselves, but whom we connect with for their actions, values and personality?
I am curious about the fury the television adaptation has provoked from some comic-book purists. The issue? Khan’s powers. In the comics, she can stretch and grow parts of her body, but in the series trailer her powers look more like strength received from a bracelet. Feige has explained it is to give Khan continuity in the wider universe.
“Certain things do have to be a little reimagined to conform with the direction that the MCU is heading,” Vellani says. “And I do think that the most important thing is staying true to the character, because – I’ll put this in MCU terms …” Then she quotes Tony Stark. “It’s never about the costumes or about the powers; we’re invested in these characters because of their motivation,” she continues.
And what about her own hero status, as the girl who made it? “People back home have put me on this pedestal of the home town hero. Going into my local comic-book store is super strange now.”
Is that why she has left social media? “The amount of attention that’s going to come towards me in the next couple months is going to be just a juggernaut. And this is my way of easing into the process.
“Though I don’t know how I can. Or how my parents can. My parents are so distant to the film industry and I didn’t bring them on to set. So this week, when everything is coming out and they’re going to the premiere, it is going to be so insanely huge for them, it’s going to hit them like a truck. My mum’s going to be crying the whole time.”
I tell Vellani they must be over the moon and joke that soon they will be doing the proud south Asian parent thing of giving your phone number out to people – just to show off that they can. “Oh, my parents are happily giving my number out right now,” she says. “I’ve just changed my number, too.”
We have a few minutes left and I ask her about the Google suggestions that come up when I type in her name. “Iman Vellani, Letterboxd.” What is that about?
“I cut off all my social media, but one thing I forgot about was my Letterboxd, which is the app where you rate and review movies,” she replies. “I had some opinions. And they were not Disney appropriate. From time to time, people find my Letterboxd and they make their own opinions about my opinions.”
The next one is personal. “Iman Vellani, religion.” If I asked you how religious you are, I say, would you answer?
“Nope,” she says, with her smile wide again.
I have one more as the clock counts down. “Iman Vellani, height,” I offer.
“Online, it says I’m five six,” she says. “But I’m actually a shy five three.”
As we say goodbye, my mind wanders back to representation. There is a phrase about the importance of minority and marginalised people stepping into the spotlight, that they should “take up space”. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if Ms Marvel can make her body huge. Whatever happens, the tiny yet mighty Iman Vellani is taking up space.
Ms Marvel airs on Disney+ on 8 June