Played by 19-year-old Iman Vellani, the titular character in Ms. Marvel is a superhero-obsessed New Jersey teenager whose life is turned upside down when she finds herself with powers of her own. She’s also the cinematic universe’s first South Asian superhero.
“It’s like when you walk into a room that you’re not supposed to be in,” Vellani told NPR, “but no one kicks you out. That’s what’s happening here.”
Vellani’s character was modeled after the blond, blue-eyed Captain Marvel. Executive producer Sana Amanat said she wanted the protagonist to be reimagined to reflect the experiences of Muslim children of Pakistani immigrants such as herself.
“For a person of color,” Amanat told the New York Times, “you look outside, and who are the people that you’re worshiping and want to be like? They look nothing like you. Captain Marvel is really emblematic of that.”
Publishing the Ms. Marvel comics was risky in light of the backlash the company received at other attempts to diversify characters, Marvel’s vice president of sales said in 2017, according to BBC.
But the comics were an instant hit, garnering a devoted fan base that included Vellani, who remembers dressing up as Ms. Marvel as a young girl. “No one knew who I was,” she said. “Everyone thought I was the Flash. So I had to buy a comic book and hold it with me.”
The show premiered Wednesday on Disney+, and was quickly met with acclaim from Malala Yousafzai, who penned a letter to Vellani thanking her for representing a marginalized group onscreen.
“It is not every day that I turn on the TV and find a character who eats the same foods, listens to the same music or uses the same Urdu phrases as me,” the feminist advocate and Nobel laureate wrote.
Vellani, an Ontario native whose family immigrated from Pakistan before her second birthday, said being a part of the show helped her reconnect with her roots and celebrate her heritage.
“Every time you picture Brown people, it’s either they’re super serious or they’re a terrorist,” she said. “So it’s really great that we can bring some humanity to this culture.”