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Ms. Marvel: What happens when a superhero’s greatest enemy is the fandom?

The latest Marvel series proved controversial – which only proves it’s doing something right, say its makers.

Like your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel is about a teenager who gets superpowers and wrestles with their identity – while trying to save the world. 

But Ms. Marvel swung into new territory for the all-dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Through its heroine Kamala Khan, the story is less about her spectacular abilities and more about family, heritage, immigration, belonging and how growing up in a dual culture parallels the double life of a superhero.

“I think the definition of superheroes is changing and the way we see superheroes is changing,” says six-times Emmy and double Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who helmed two episodes. “The world is more accepting because of these streaming platforms that are open to the rest of the world, reaching a very diverse audience. This is bringing people into the MCU who were not previously fans.”

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It’s the previous fans who are the problem. Ms. Marvel comes to an end this week, but critical reaction was instantaneous. The minute it dropped on Disney+, it was review-bombed: so-called fans giving the show the lowest possible scores on review sites to skew how popular it appeared.

This isn’t a new phenomenon – but when a woman who is not white appears in a high-profile project that’s seen as white man territory, an attack is inevitable. Just ask Moses Ingram, brutally targeted by trolls because she was the black female lead of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Canadian-Pakistani teen Iman Vellani, who plays Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel, deleted her social media accounts when she was cast in the role, anticipating a backlash. Unfortunately, she was right to do so.

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“I’d rather them being haters than not talking about us at all”

Aramis Knight plays Red Dagger in the series. “People are always going to have something negative to say online is what I’ve realised along the way,” he tells The Big Issue. “You’re never going to have 100 per cent positive reactions.

“I’d rather them being haters than not talking about us at all. If we’re challenging people, especially online trolls, if we’re making them uncomfortable, we’re doing something right!”

Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy with Iman Vellani on the set of Ms. Marvel. Image: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Bollywood polymath Farhan Akhtar also stars as Waleed. He disagrees that comic book stories are for white men by white men about white men. “I really don’t share that sentiment,” he says. “India has a tradition of comic books which goes back a long time. Somewhere when you’re a kid, we were just enjoying the story and the adventure, and that anything is possible, that feeling of invincibility.

“People will watch any piece of work and have an opinion. What’s heartening for all of us who worked together to make Ms. Marvel is that the general feedback is a lot more positive than negative and that’s what’s important. 

“There is such an inclusive element in the storytelling and showcasing a young Muslim girl from the Indian subcontinent as the face of this. To be a part of taking the show across the world with the character of Waleed feels like the right thing to do, and I feel very proud.”

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“In finding her own superhero inside of her, she discovers her grandmother and a city that her mother called home”

The controversy obscures the fact that Ms. Marvel is groundbreaking in a number of ways. For example, how many other TV shows address the traumatic legacy of colonialism? Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India and Pakistan, after a man sitting in a London office drew a few lines splitting nations and families. In the episodes Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy directed, Kamala travels to Karachi and then back in time to 1947.

“Partition was such an important part of my childhood in Pakistan,” Obaid-Chinoy says, “growing up listening to my grandparents’ stories of snatched conversations on train platforms, what that moment felt like when they were leaving their home. Fathers sending their sons away, friends who could not see each other again or a daughter who was worried that they wouldn’t make the train. When Kamala Khan time-jumps into Partition in the episodes I directed, set in Karachi, I wanted her to bear witness. This was all drawn from authentic oral histories. With this milestone of 75 years, it was important to introduce this to a whole new generation.”

The story of a girl between two worlds, caught between cultures, is relatable to many of us who grew up outside our parents’ homelands.

“Kamala Khan’s identity is also about a girl on a journey to discover who she really is,” Obaid-Chinoy continues. “The series opens with her idealising other MCU heroes whom she wants to be like, like Captain Marvel and Iron Man. In finding her own superhero inside of her, she discovers her grandmother and a city that her mother called home. She embraces the food and the music and the streets, which is how people in the diaspora feel when they go back ‘home’.”

Leaving aside skewed reviews, what then is the true measure of a show’s success? “I want audiences to fall in love with Kamala Khan and her family, and in doing so, I want them to embrace who we are as a people,” Obaid-Chinoy answers. “The next time they’re in a shop that sells Pakistani sweets, I want them to try them. I want them to appreciate our art, our weddings and festivals like Eid which are bright and beautiful. I want to normalise the South Asian Muslim experience on screen.”

Ms. Marvel is available to stream on Disney+ 

Ashanti Omkar is a film and TV critic and broadcaster 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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