Long Reads

Why we all need to see Ms Marvel on screen

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi

As news of a potential Ms Marvel film gains traction, Sarah Shaffi explains why now really is the time for an adaptation of the hit comic book series.

There’s a moment in the first issue of Ms Marvel, by G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, when central character Kamala Khan, in a sulk, asks herself why she always has to be the one to take pakoras to school, and why her holidays are weird. It was at this moment that I knew this was the comic book for me: a comic book that spoke to my experiences as a Westerner of Pakistani heritage, a comic book that spoke to me as a Muslim woman.

So the news that Marvel is going to possibly, maybe, at some point in the future develop Kamala Khan’s Ms Marvel for screen has made me ecstatic. As a fan of Marvel’s films, I want to see a collection of superheroes that reflects the world I live in. There is a dearth of characters of Pakistani background on British and American film and TV shows, and we desperately need representation of some that are just normal people (bar, you know, the whole saving the world bit).

I gave up on watching soap operas years ago, because every woman who was of Pakistani heritage and Muslim seemed to also be oppressed, or made to hide her true self, or in a forced marriage. Often, these women were just plain miserable. Recently, Archie Panjabi played a British-Pakistani GP in ITV’s Next of Kin, but the show was focused largely on terrorism; it would be truly revolutionary to see a show with Muslim characters of Pakistani backgrounds that didn’t involve this as a topic.

Archie Panjabi played a British-Pakistani GP in ITV’s Next of Kin

The best British-Pakistani character I can think of on screen at the moment is Tahani Al-Jamil, from The Good Place, played by the wonderful Jameela Jamil. Tahani has ended up in The Good Place, a version of the afterlife, seemingly as a reward for her philanthropic work on earth (she raised billions of dollars for charity) despite having feelings of jealousy toward her younger, artistic sister Kamilah. Tahani is hilarious and has really grown on me over the show’s two seasons, but she’s rarely relatable: she’s from an extremely wealthy, upper-class family and were she still alive (and also a real person), she’d have been living it up at Harry and Meghan’s wedding at the weekend.

By contrast, Marvel’s Kamala Khan is a regular teenage girl most of the time. She’s anxious about wearing the right clothes. She loves her parents but sometimes feels they are smothering her. And she occasionally has the desire to be someone completely different. When she first gets her powers, Kamala turns herself into a white girl with blonde hair, because that’s what she thinks a superhero needs to look like. Happily, she soon realises she’s fine just as she is. It’s such an important message for all of us women who don’t fit into Western beauty ideals.

Ms Marvel herself is an American-Pakistani Muslim, and it’s vital this is represented in the creative team behind any possible screen adaptation. Women of an American-Pakistan background must take the lead, both in front of the camera and behind it, in order to make sure that what is seen on screen is as authentic as possible, rather than being a series of tired stereotypes. The American part is as crucial as the Pakistani part – the intersection of these identities make Kamala Khan who she is.

Following the news that Ms Marvel could be adapted into a film, Riz Ahmed excitedly tweeted Mindy Kaling and Kumail Nunjiani about writing the screenplay. But while numerous celebrities and I are thrilled by the prospect of the film, it seems the thought of a brown, Muslim superhero is a little too much for some people. 

The day after tweeting my excitement about the adaptation, I woke up to a flood of racist messages that had been fired off in response. These tweets covered everything from saying Ms Marvel would support female genital mutilation and stand for the oppression of women, to implying she was a suicide bomber, and more. A number of the same insults were repeatedly tweeted by different trolls, proving that not only are they ignorant, but they’re unoriginal, too.

Every single one of those vile tweets came from people who have nothing better to do with their time than seek out topics to make stupid comments on, and to spread their incorrect, ill-informed views. It was an unpleasant start to my day, but I knew I didn’t want to engage with them. Instead, I liberally employed the block button, after reporting the tweets to Twitter. I am still awaiting a response to most of my complaints (the tweet about FGM was found not to have broken Twitter’s rules) and it’s essential that Twitter start taking a stronger stand against racist abuse on its platform. It’s all very well providing block buttons, but it puts the onus back on the victims to take action, adding to the emotional burden they’re already being subjected to. Twitter needs to start being more proactive: hate speech of all kinds should be taken seriously and banned, and persistent abusers must be permanently removed from the platform.

An adaptation of Ms Marvel would hopefully show some of the people who targeted me a different view of both Muslims and people of Pakistani heritage, but to be honest, that’s not why I want Ms Marvel to get her screen adaptation. I want to see Kamala Khan brought to life because firstly, she’s an entertaining character with a dynamic story to share. Secondly, people of colour like comics too - the phenomenal success of Black Panther is a case in point, but there’s still not enough inclusivity in the world of comic book adaptations. People like me aren’t represented enough on screen, and I want us all to be able to see a version of ourselves that is relatable. An adaptation may also force ignorant people to examine their views: that’s great, but, primarily, any adaptation of Ms Marvel is not for them, it’s for us.

And while Ms Marvel is brilliant, perhaps the superhero we all really need is an American-Pakistani teenager living her life while navigating family, friends, school, frenemies and love. What we need to see is the normalisation, not the exoticisation, of people from cultures and backgrounds that aren’t dominant in the Western world. Perhaps what we really need is Kamala Khan: teenage girl.

 Images: Marvel, Maarten de Boer/ NBC / Contributor, Getty