Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is a fan of superheroes well before she discovers her own abilities in the meta 'Ms. Marvel.'
Disney+'s Ms. Marvel is unlike anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has done so far, but Kamala Khan will no doubt fit right in.
Iman Vellani plays Kamala, a Pakistani Muslim 16-year-old superhero fangirl who writes fan fiction, runs a fan Youtube channel, and has spent months perfecting her Captain Marvel costume for the first ever AvengerCon when the showbegins. Her loving but strict parents are desperate to keep her focused on school and her future, while she's dreaming of life as a superhero, knowing all she can really do is put on a costume and pretend — until she gets superpowers of her own. It's the ultimate dream for any major superhero fan, including Vellani herself, who loved Kamala Khan from well before she got the role.
"[Ms. Marvel] has been part of my life since before I even got cast," Vellani explained during a press conference for the new series. "So, I'm just excited that people can finally see what I saw when I picked up those comics for the first time and fell in love with Kamala and her world. It's so colorful. ... [The show is] truly a love letter to all the MCU fans, so I'm excited for the reaction."
Khan's casting began with a WhatsApp forward from her aunt — and some disbelief that it was a real casting call. She sent in a "very academic" résumé and the one photo she had of herself, and she was sent scenes to use for a self tape.
"I knew exactly which comic books they pulled them from," she remembered. "I was making excuses for myself out of fear of failure, and [at] 3 a.m. the night it was due, I sent in my self tape. I was like, 'My 10-year-old self is gonna hate me if I don't even try.'"
Two days later, Vellani said, she got a call asking her to fly to Los Angeles. "I was like, 'I have a math test, but OK,' and the next week, I'm in L.A. with my dad, and it was the greatest trip of my life."
That was right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so after some additional screen tests on Zoom, Vellani got the official news of her new gig on her last day of high school.
Kamala Khan first arrived in Marvel comics in 2013, and her own series began in 2014, created by Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson. Amanat is also an executive producer on the TV series, and she recalled that when she and Wilson were writing the comic eight years ago, they never imagined getting past issue No. 9.
"No one's gonna care," she remembered thinking. "And lo and behold, Kevin Feige cared, which is amazing. And of course, the rest of the world. The comic did really well…and I think what I loved about it the most was that it had people from different backgrounds, people who had never really read comics before, showing up in comic shops for the first time because of what this meant and what it stood for."
Marvel boss Feige explained that "it does seem like every decade or so there's a new character that comes around that catches the audience's imagination, and this character clearly did that."
"Almost from the first few issues," he remembered, "people started asking, 'When is Kamala Khan coming? When is Ms. Marvel coming?' So, it always seemed inevitable, in a great way, that we would be able to do it. When Disney+ came around, it really gave us the opportunity to do what we really wanted to do, which is tell her full story in six episodes and then have her transition into a feature."
That feature, which is coming in 2023, is The Marvels, which sounds like a team-up like no other. It will feature Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Vellani as Ms. Marvel, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. But for now, Kamala has the chance to blossom all on her own, alongside her loving and ambitious South Asian family, played by Zenobia Shroff as her mother Muneeba, Mohan Kapur as her father Yusuf, and Saagar Shaikh as her brother Aamir.
For Vellani, who was born in Pakistan just like Kamala, that similarity was a bonus, and she says they wanted it to come across that way: It's not all Kamala is about.
"Culture and religion were never the main thing of her personality. It was just some part of her life, like how it was for me. It's like, 'This is the time I wake up, this is the time I go to school, this is the time I pray, this is the time I eat,'" Vellani said. "It's just a normal thing, and we didn't want to make the show about a Pakistani Muslim. It's about an Avengers-loving, fanfic-writing dork who just so happens to be a Pakistani Muslim."
The writing team, led by head writer Bisha K. Ali, wanted to stay as true as possible to the character from the comics, while also adding some "vitality" and a "contemporary edge" to the character in 2022, she said.
While Tom Holland's Peter Parker was the first high school student to join the Avengers, Kamala brings a different element to this world.
"I think Ms. Marvel always understood fan culture on such a cellular level," Ali said. "It just really elevated the storytelling in a really unique way. She's a 16-year-old with superpowers, fine, we've seen that before. But she's also a fan of every other hero within the MCU canon, and has that fascination and excitement associated with real life fans, and that's why we relate to her. She reacts like we would when she gets powers, and I just love that part of her, and that's why I fell in love with her."
Ms. Marvel premieres June 8