The MCU change of ‘Ms. Marvel’s Superpowers Undo Powerful Race Story
When Marvel Studios entered the world of cinema with the years 2008 Iron Man, he seemed determined to stay true to the origins of Marvel characters, at least at first. After being injured by shrapnel from his own missile, Tony Stark goes to work as Iron Man to keep his weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Thor Odinson learned humility when he was stripped of his powers and exiled to Earth. Steve Rogers then came into the picture as Captain America to take out the Nazis in a similar fashion to his 1941 comic book debut.
It’s only in 2014 guardians of the galaxy that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a radical departure from the comics. Despite appearing in a few major comedic events, Guardians didn’t have a lot of mainstream cachet, making it the perfect test case for Marvel Studios (and its new owner, Disney) to gauge how how much their audience cared about sticking to the source material. Rather than a group of capable heroes banding together to proactively deal with major threats, the MCU’s Guardians are a ragtag group of outlaws, whose initial incentive to collaborate was a common genocidal enemy.
When the movie came out, my college mates – who had never heard of the team – wondered what kind of superhero would recruit a talking raccoon and a walking tree. But of course, Guardians conquered the viewers by managing to federate the team from their first release without spending three years to expand them individually. Since then, Marvel has taken more liberties with its storytelling, with varying degrees of success, like with the famous 2017 film. Thor: Ragnarok and 2021 down Eternals. Based on this more liberal approach to their adaptations, it seems Marvel has learned that people don’t really care if their content sticks with the source material, until they do.
The latest MCU entry to differ from the comics is on Disney+ Ms. Marvel, which gives its Pakistani American protagonist Kamala Khan a new set of superpowers. Instead of gaining shape-shifting abilities through exposure to a DNA-altering vapor called Terrigen Mists, MCU Kamala can manipulate light to create objects, like weapons and platforms by wearing a bracelet. which has been passed down through his family.
In the comics, Kamala has faced a host of threats with her shapeshifting abilities, ranging from killer robots in her hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, to time traveler Kang the Conqueror. And she became extremely popular with true fans by doing so: many volumes of her solo series landed on the New York Times bestseller list in their first year on the market, and Kamala quickly earned one of Marvel’s highest honors: becoming an Avenger. This level of recognition begets another important one, this time off the page and on screen. In May 2018, Disney announced that Ms. Marvel would become a Disney+ show, which finally premiered earlier this month.
With Kamala’s level of popularity and publicity, it makes sense that fans would watch closely to see how her story would translate to television. Which is why it’s no surprise that their eyebrows were raised when Kamala’s MCU entry came with a new backstory, in which her powers derive from a bracelet that’s been passed down through her family.
Fans on social media speculated about what inspired the power shift. One theory that has become particularly popular is that the MCU didn’t want the Fantastic Four’s Kamala and Reed Richards to have similar powers until the next one. The Fantastic Four film. (That idea was recently dispelled by Kamala co-creator Sana Amanat in an interview with The Direct.)
But Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige maintains that the MCU isn’t “an exact translation of the comics,” as he said in a recent interview. He also explained in the same interview that the true nature of Kamala’s powers would be further developed in 2023. Captain Marvel after, Wonders. It remains to be seen how his powers will develop until then. But whatever happens, this initial change is major: it erases a major piece of their origin story in a way that demonstrates their unwillingness to confront the real issues.
In both Ms. Marvel show and comics, Kamala is going through an identity crisis. Torn between the cultures of her traditional Pakistani family and her freer American counterparts, she takes comfort in her idolatry of superheroes to detach herself from her everyday life. Her favorite hero is Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), who once rescued Kamala from the comic version of Yon-Ragg and helped save the world by Avengers: Endgame. Kamala looks up to Carol as a role model; she is a strong and independent woman who charts her own path, just as Kamala wishes to become. But while the show portrays Kamala’s idolization of Carol as fanciful – the same way young girls might have idolized Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel after watching their respective films – the comic points out that a substantial part of Kamala’s idolatry for Carol extends to the fact that Carol is white.
In one scene from the comic, Kamala sees Carol in a vision as she transforms into her super-powered self. She takes the opportunity to talk to her favorite hero, expressing her frustration with who she is and who she wants to be. Kamala wishes she was “beautiful, funky, booted, and less complicated”, all traits she equates directly to being Carol. Kamala immediately gets her wish, emerging from her transformation into the spitting image of Carol from her own Ms. Marvel days, sporting the white-skinned, blonde-haired Warbird costume.
Yet even though she gets exactly what she asks for, Kamala still doesn’t feel as confident or beautiful as she imagined. Some of this is shown through the character of Zoe, a popular blonde and white girl who bullies Kamala in a bigoted way throughout the second issue. Her slurs are blatantly Islamophobic, ranging from implying that Kamala’s friend Nakia might have been forced to wear her hijab to running away from Kamala at a party, complaining that she smelled like curry.
It is after this party that Kamala recognizes that her idolatry of whiteness is only internalized racism. Although Kamala initially defends Zoe’s actions, in part because she also represents Carol’s carefree lifestyle, she cannot ignore how badly her bully makes her feel. Struggling to control her newfound powers as she attempts to return home afterwards, she encounters Zoe. Her powers react accordingly: as soon as she sees Zoe, Kamala takes on her Carol form, as she feels like she needs to be a different person – a cooler person – around her bully. But she eventually reverts to her true self, then shrinks back, admitting to herself that Zoe makes her “feel small”.
The scene makes it clear that the idolization of Kamala’s whiteness (and the privilege it bestows) is what initially drives her. But that longing is also what frustrates her, even as she tries to mask the true nature of her frustration by blaming it on her family’s Muslim traditions. She doesn’t really despise her culture; what she hates is that her peers are too ignorant to learn it and too callous to respect it. It’s what sets her apart from them, and it’s what drives her to want to be more like them, not less like herself.
So far, however, the show omits these crucial nuances. Zoe is still a bully but without the racism, throwing dodgeballs in Kamala’s face when she gets distracted in gym class. And while Kamala still idolizes Carol, her participation in the Captain Marvel cosplay contest at AvengerCon doesn’t compare to her taking on the form of a white woman because she can’t see herself as a superhero otherwise.
The problem isn’t that the MCU’s version of Kamala doesn’t seem to face racism or
Islamophobia in the same explicit way it does in the comics. For example, his family talks about their experience of living under partition – when the British Empire divided India into two different nations – and how colonialism profoundly affected the Khans for generations. But the trauma of Partition is the most stark example the series gives of how white supremacy affects them and, in turn, Kamala. The family doesn’t talk about, say, 9/11 and the increase in Islamophobia it spawned, which continues to exist in the country. Kamala does not have many modern touchpoints to refer to in terms of the actual material impact of white majority oppression. It’s something that affected his parents when they were his age; it is in the past, and his present is concerned with other issues.
By downplaying the modern reverberations of this backstory in Kamala’s life, the series becomes just the latest MCU entry to avoid the social issues that otherwise affect it. Like Tom Holland’s Peter Parker before her — the one lifted out of his canonical poverty thanks to Tony Stark — the MCU’s Kamala has other enemies to contend with.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the decision not to bring these parts of Kamala’s story to the screen. Given that Ms. Marvel is the only Marvel TV show to feature a female lead of color so far (and the only one to be criticized after its release), this creative decision makes it seem like Disney avoided portraying this conflict on the show, so as not to make white audiences uncomfortable.
Maybe Ms. MarvelViewers of – and its creators – would benefit from watching Amanat recount her experiences growing up in New Jersey as a Pakistani-American. They would easily see how the comic book version of Kamala’s struggles draws directly from her own: from the temptations of the BLTs to the ostracism she faced after 9/11, Kamala is her reflection. Not only did Kamala of the comics aim to provide readers with a hero who shared their struggles to find themselves, but she also had to do so with a sense of pride in her heritage. If Kamala’s origin offers readers a lesson, it’s that sometimes you have to face your problems head-on to change for the better. The MCU ultimately facilitates the existence of white supremacy and the other social issues it refuses to address by claiming they are no longer as relevant to the character as they were in the comics.