How Iman Vellani Went From Markham Nerd to Marvel's First Muslim Superhero

·11 min read
Image via Disney
Image via Disney

The first time Iman Vellani grabbed an issue of Ms. Marvel at her local comic book shop in Markham, Ontario, she was floored. It wasn’t just that the titular superhero was a Muslim Pakistani girl, like herself. It’s that the character was a Muslim Pakistani girl she could actually relate to.

“It felt like she was written for me,” Vellani recalls to Complex Canada. “I picked it up and it was about Eid, and we celebrate Eid! And I went to my dad and I was like, ‘Look, this is a Marvel comic that’s showcasing Eid. How fricking insane is that?!’”

Years later, her early impressions of Marvel’s first Muslim superhero would prove to be shockingly prescient. The 19-year-old Pakistani-Canadian now stars as the lead heroine in the new Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, which debuts today. It’s her first acting role.

Based on the comic book series, Ms. Marvel follows Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen who lives in Jersey City and fangirls over Marvel superheroes—until an heirloom bangle blesses her with superpowers that allow her to assemble among them. As she battles evildoers she also struggles with her religious duties at home, all while trying to fit in as a teenager.

Khan first debuted in Captain Marvel No. 14 in 2013 before rolling dolo in her own comics series in 2014. The character was part of Marvel’s push in the 2010s to diversify its superhero cast (see also: the Afro-Latino Miles Morales). Now, like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings before it, Ms. Marvel, the show, has a chance to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe more inclusive to a demographic that’s been overlooked and misrepresented by pop culture.

If Vellani—a self-professed MCU nerd—is feeling any pressure, she certainly isn’t showing it. During a recent video call, she carried the same rollicking effervescence she brings to the role of Kamala. This may be her debut acting gig—which she nabbed after responding to an open casting call—but you’d be hard-pressed to tell it. Vellani is a natural. It helps that there are many parallels between Kamala’s story and her own. Like her character, Vellani grappled with her Muslim and Pakistani background for years, yearning to break free of the labels imposed on her. Ultimately, Ms. Marvel is a coming-of-age story about self-discovery and embracing every facet of one’s identity, something Vellani says she learned to do herself while filming the series.

We chatted with Vellani about starring in Ms. Marvel, how it helped her reconnect with her roots—both as a Muslim South Asian and as a Markham resident—and her hope for how it will inspire others.

Iman Vellani in Disney+ show Ms. Marvel
Image via Disney

So, you were cast as Kamala Khan back in 2020. What’s life been like for you this last couple of years?
I mean, surreal, I guess! It’s… I don’t know. I’m floating, honestly, just from getting the role. It feels like yesterday when I auditioned and now I’m here promoting it. And people are watching it and they’re liking it. And it just means so much that people are finally seeing what I saw when I picked up those comics for the first time, because this character is such a hidden gem. I’m excited for the response.

What’s been the biggest “pinch me” moment for you thus far?
Meeting Kevin Feige. That was a big one. Probably a super suit scene. Oh, no! The last scene we shot. That was a ‘pinch me’ moment. I can’t talk about it, but I need to talk about it, so I really need the show to come out. [Laughs.]

“My book is going to be called From Markham to Marvel. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it’s my home, it’s my suburbs… I grew up in Markham. And so, just to be able to be the one to make it is really cool.”

Alright, we’ll have to watch out for that! So tell me, what was your reaction when you first read the Ms. Marvel comics?
I mean, I only ever read The Invincible Iron Man and, like, the Silver Surfer comics, so I never felt any female character really resonated with me. And so, I just never picked up those comics. But Ms. Marvel, it felt like she was written for me. And I remember it was like, issue No. 19, I picked it up and it was about Eid, and we celebrate Eid! And I went to my dad and I was like, “Look, this is a Marvel comic that’s showcasing Eid. How fricking insane is that?!” You know, this is something that’s normalized [in the comics]. And bringing my culture into my element of Marvel was so cool for me. Being able to share that is going to be so exciting and so many people are going to be seen. And obviously, this is just the start, right? Because Ms. Marvel cannot represent all 2 billion Muslim and South Asian people in the world, but I do hope this inspires more people to tell their own specific stories.

Yeah, obviously this is a big deal with Kamala being first Muslim superhero in the MCU. Some of my Pakistani friends got really hype when they watched the trailer and saw the wedding scene…
Yeah!

And also the mosque scene. They felt very seen because I guess they’ve never seen this before in a superhero film. So how does it feel for you to bring this representation to the MCU and be the first?
I mean, I don’t feel much. I’m just going with it. I think the work is really going to speak for itself. And we’ve got so many incredibly talented Muslim and Pakistani creatives who’ve put their entire hearts into this and they have such a deep connection to the source material. And we really wanted to make Kamala as specific as a character as possible and just make her feel like a real person. A lot of that came from me, and a lot of that came from Sana [Amanat], our producer who co-created the comics character. And so it’s just this amalgamation of people putting their souls into Kamala and making her come to life. So, yeah, I’m excited for people to see children of immigrant parents who are proud of their culture and not neglecting it. I’m excited for people to see brown people on screen having fun. Like, every time you picture a Pakistani person, you always picture, like, the serious person. And now we’ve got scenes of them dancing and making jokes and having fun, because that’s the world I get to see. And now, finally, we’re sharing it.

“I’m excited for people to see children of immigrant parents who are proud of their culture and not neglecting it. I’m excited for people to see brown people on screen having fun.”

Well, like you said, we’ve seen Muslims and Pakistanis depicted in TV and movies, but it’s always kind of in a negative light—they’re often villainized or the women are often oppressed and not kicking ass like you are in this show. Did growing up watching those depictions have an effect on you?
Yeah! I felt like my culture was taboo, which is so wrong. And I, you know, I felt like everything that my family does was not normal, and then I had to conform to what being normal was. And then that in turn made me feel really disconnected with my culture growing up which, you know, my parents tried… I grew up with all four of my grandparents. I watched Bollywood movies growing up. I just I never saw the value in it and I never thought it was cool enough for me to appreciate that because I was obsessed with, like, modern American pop culture and Hollywood, and in that [world], Muslim and brown people were never represented accurately. So those things didn’t go hand in hand, and I picked the Hollywood side. And now here I am in Hollywood working with so many Muslim and South Asian people on and off camera. And they’re so in touch with their Muslim roots and their South Asian roots. And so that really made me go back and reconnect with my Pakistani self. So I could not be prouder.

So it kind of changed your relationship with your own heritage.
100 percent! I know that if I didn’t get this role, that I would never really connect with my ancestry, I guess.

Iman Vellani is traditional Pakistani dress in Ms. Marvel
Image via Disney

In what ways did working on the show change the way that you see your ancestry?
I think it was, you know, seeing people like Sana Amanat, who co-created the character of Ms. Marvel. She was also a producer on our show, and she was my biggest rock throughout the entire thing. And I remember when I read those comics when I was 15, I did so much research on her because I was just so fascinated by how she got this job. And I thought she had the coolest job in the world. I was listening to all her TED talks and her interviews, and she was so well-spoken and she was brown and she was, you know, everything I wanted to be. And the fact that she made space for herself in this type of industry was just so cool for me and eye-opening. And so working this closely with her and so many others like her really, really just inspired me to see what was possible. And this is me in the industry, so I can’t even imagine how people are going to react when they see Kamala on screen and seeing someone like me, you know, in Marvel.

Yeah. It’s going to be huge. I can already tell. I mean, this is also a big representation win not just for South Asians, but for Canada too and Markham in particular. Other parts of the GTA get a lot of shine, like Scarborough and Mississauga, but you don’t hear about Markham as much…
No! I’m finally starting to say I’m from Markham and not Toronto. So that’s a big step for me.

Yeah! That’s big! Well, tell me, what’s it like to be the first, you know, Marvel superhero from Markham?
I was telling everyone, my book is going to be called From Markham to Marvel. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it’s my home, it’s my suburbs. My comic book store, Heroes World, is there. My favourite bubble tea store, Chatime, is there. My favourite burrito store, barBurrito is there. I grew up in Markham. And so, just to be able to be the one to make it is really cool. And I hope this just kind of, you know, as cheesy as it sounds, inspires people to kind of put themselves out there.

Iman Vellani stars as Ms. Marvel in Disney+ show
Image via Disney

It’s not cheesy at all! You know, you have to see it to be it. Just as Sana inspired you, you’re going to impact so many people who’ll be seeing you in this show. How do you hope Ms. Marvel will inspire others, whether it’s Muslims or kids from Markham or anybody?
The themes of our show are really about identity and about subverting all the labels and expectations that are being thrown at you, because no one is one thing. No one’s just Muslim or just Pakistani or just a 16-year-old kid from Jersey City. You know, we are this collection of 100 million different things and that combined makes Kamala Kamala. And so she’s this 16-year-old kid and she doesn’t have her life figured out. And I think you should not have your life figured out at 16. Like, this happened out of nowhere for me. I could not have planned this, you know? And so I think you just need to find your passion and explore it, and look where that got Kamala and me.

That’s dope. OK, last question. What are the chances of you talking the director of The Marvels into shooting a fight scene at Pacific Mall?
[Laughs.] That’s so specific! That’s P Mall! Bro, I get my glasses made there. I don’t know. I’ll pitch it. They’ll turn me down like all my other pitches. But I’ll pitch it just for you.

Yeah, do it for Markham!
OK. [Laughs.]

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