I have long been sick and tired of those people on social media (you know the ones) who seem to have nothing better to do in their lives than trash adaptations they feel are “bad” or “unfaithful” (usually for racist reasons), only to immediately turn around and idolize Marvel Studios for always “respecting the fans” and “honoring the source material”, but today I want to talk about them. Because now Marvel has released the first trailer for Ms. Marvel, an original series coming to Disney+ this June, and those people…those people are real quiet all of a sudden.
And I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that a lot of them were never gonna watch Ms. Marvel in the first place, because the concept of a brown Pakistani-American Muslim girl saving the world is just a little bit too much for them to handle, but we all know in the end most of them will cave and watch – and don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’ll complain about the show bitterly, but I’ll be very surprised if any of them call it out for being a “bad” adaptation even though, in this case, I think there’s a very convincing argument to be made for why this is, if not an bad adaptation (that word is strong, too strong for me to use in good faith before the show has aired a single episode), then at least a problematic one.
And it’s not like this is the first time Marvel has done this, either, but there’s always an excuse for why it’s okay in their case. To cite just one example out of many, Wanda Maximoff’s Romani and Jewish heritage, which is pretty integral to her character, was erased when she and her twin brother Pietro were introduced to the MCU in Age Of Ultron. The excuse at the time was that Marvel needed to give them both completely new backstories to avoid getting into trouble with 20th Century Fox, but Disney now owns Fox and has yet to fix or even address this problem. For some, it’s ceased to even be a problem, and that’s kinda sad.
With Ms. Marvel, the problem isn’t the casting of Kamala Khan. Newcomer Iman Vellani is instantly charismatic, leaning heavily into the side of Kamala that is colorful, quirky, and so wildly imaginative that, in the first half of this trailer at least, she’s surrounded by animated thought-bubbles and doodles like she’s in a comic-book herself. Obviously, that’s not the only side of Kamala’s character that this series ought to be exploring, but it’s the only one that this trailer really hones in on – and Vellani seems particularly well-cast as Kamala the fangirl, fan-artist, and fanfic-writer who desperately wants to be a superhero but is still shocked and slightly terrified when her wish comes true.
But here’s the problem. In the comics, it’s important – I’d argue crucial – to Kamala’s character arc that her superpowers, when they manifest, are neither pretty nor cool at first glance. She can’t fly, or glow, or shoot laser-beams from her eyes. Instead, by what seems like a cruel twist of fate, she discovers that she’s a polymorph with the ability to rearrange the molecules in her body, allowing her to stretch, shrink, grow, flatten, expand, and contort into various shapes. This is a big deal because when she realizes that she can use this power to look like different people, she initially chooses to take the form of her favorite superhero – Captain Marvel.
Kamala in the comics is deeply scared that unless she looks like the conventionally attractive white superheroes she’s grown up idolizing, people not only won’t see her as a superhero, but won’t even trust her to save them in a life-or-death situation. It’s really important to her character arc that her powers are something she could either choose to embrace or to be ashamed of, and that she chooses to embrace the parts of herself that might alienate other people – knowing full well that it means giving up her one shot to be what the media says a superhero “should” look like – because the “brown girls from Jersey City” deserve a superhero who looks like them.
But no, let’s give her a cute clip-on bracelet that glows and shoots sparkles instead.
I have no trouble understanding why this choice was made, so you can all save your prepared excuses. I’m obviously aware that elasticity is a weird superpower, one that tests how far audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief even when well-executed. Pixar’s The Incredibles proves that even back in 2004 it could be done in animation, but the live-action Fantastic Four movie that came out a year later conclusively proved that special effects technology had not yet caught up to the comics in regards to elasticity. Seventeen years and two more Fantastic Four movies later, that conclusion has yet to be refuted.
(Speaking of the Fantastic Four, I do not believe there is any truth to the theory that Kamala’s powers were altered so that Mr. Fantastic will stand out more when he makes his MCU debut, as this has never been a problem before. If there’s enough room for two archers named Hawkeye and at least eleven Eternals with slight variations on the same cosmic energy-based powers, I think Ms. Marvel and Mr. Fantastic could have peacefully co-existed in the same universe without anyone getting confused).
My issue, and the issue which many fans of Kamala Khan have with this change, is not that Kamala’s powers are different, but that changing them to be pretty and cool and “cosmic”, as Kamala excitedly whispers at one point in the trailer, fundamentally alters who she is. Her new powers, instead of causing her to question why she doesn’t look or feel like a superhero (and ultimately leading her to the realization that it’s the superhero media she consumes that put those doubts in her head), have the exact opposite effect – allowing her to live her dream-life as an easily merchandisable action figure on sale now at a Disney store near you!
And I’m sure that Ms. Marvel will have a sweet message about the importance of being yourself, but you can count on Disney to take a middle-of-the-road stance on pretty much everything, no matter how inoffensive it may seem. Be yourself…to a point. Don’t ever be so accepting of your differences that you accidentally step outside one of the studio’s target demographics – that would be radical.
Eh, maybe the cynic in me is just wary of all of Disney and Marvel’s attempts at representation following recent events. Trust me, I really want Ms. Marvel to surprise me, and I’d like nothing more than for there to be a twist near the end of the series where the magic bracelet is broken or lost or stolen by an antagonist, but it turns out that Kamala has actually had her comic-accurate polymorphic abilities the whole time and chooses to use those instead of the cool sparkly powers that her bracelet gave her. But at the end of the day, it’s easier to sell clip-on bracelets than Terrigen crystals that unlock latent Inhuman powers in humans, so I doubt any of that will pan out.
Unfortunately, the situation with Kamala’s powers isn’t the only controversy overshadowing the new series, though it might well be the most easily remediable in the long run. Amongst the supporting cast encircling Iman Vellani in Ms. Marvel we have Yasmeen Fletcher, a Christian actress significantly lighter-skinned than her character, Nakia Bahadir, who has been portrayed in the comics as a fairly unambiguously brown hijabi Muslim girl, and Zenobia Shroff, a non-Muslim Indian actress playing Kamala’s Pakistani Muslim mother. Several other casting announcements have additionally been criticized for perpetuating the trend of colorism in Hollywood.
I won’t lie, seeing the Ms. Marvel (2014) #5 comic-book cover recreated so faithfully on the first poster for this series and then again in the trailer itself was exciting, but the similarities can’t end there. I mean, they can – Marvel can technically just give us a completely different version of this beloved character and expect us to be okay with that, but it’s disappointing that they can get away with it so easily and that a lot of fans will brush aside any criticism as illegitimate or mean-spirited, even when it comes predominantly from the Muslim fans and fans of SWANA (Southwest Asian & North African) descent whom this character was originally made to represent.
Trailer Rating: 7.5/10