Ms. Marvel’s new powers diminish a crucial part of Kamala Khan’s character

The new Disney+ series makes some questionable changes to its source material.

The first-ever Muslim superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally made her debut on the silver screen in Disney+’s new series, Ms. Marvel. After years of anticipation, newcomer Iman Vellani brings Pakistani American Kamala Khan to life with an impeccable performance. We’re excited to see where she takes the iconic character next this season — and in the MCU’s future projects. But the creative choices made by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and the show’s team leave us wondering: Will this Kamala live up to her comic predecessor?

When you think about the Marvel Comics version of Kamala Khan, a couple of things come to mind: her heritage as a second-generation Pakistani American and her identity as a practicing Muslim. These factors play a significant part in who Kamala is as a person because she’s growing up like many second-generation Muslim children — surrounded by kids whose families have been here for generations and struggling to figure out which world she really belongs in.

Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) and her family in Ms. Marvel.

Marvel Studios

And then there are her powers, which play a massive role in helping Kamala find confidence as a brown girl from Jersey City who gets to save the world. In the TV series, her powers are light-based; she can shoot out light from her body and harden it to use as she sees fit. But in the comics, Kamala’s a shapeshifter. She can change into anything and anyone, as well as shrinking herself down like Ant-Man, or sizing herself up, “embiggening,” to defeat her enemies.

Without her shapeshifting powers, the MCU Kamala is forced to deal with her internal struggle of self-acceptance and identity in a different way. This surprising change to Kamala’s powers presents the show with a greater challenge, and based on the first two episodes alone, Ms. Marvel struggles to pull it off.

Ms. Marvel #1, published in 2014.

Marvel Comics

In the first issue of Ms. Marvel, published in 2014, Kamala literally turns into Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, when she gets her powers. Her shapeshifting abilities made her into who she thought she wanted to be, one of America’s favorite white superheroes. This is something that I, like many others, wholeheartedly empathized with, as someone who grew up spending the majority of their formative life wanting to be white and wanting to be seen like their white idols. But Kamala doesn’t spend much time in Captain Marvel’s skin before she realizes that her identity as a second-generation Muslim and Pakistani American girl is what makes her brilliant.

Part of the comic book's beauty is how Kamala handles her acceptance of her Pakistani heritage and deals with adversity and racism in America. Her powers give her the literal ability to be light-skinned, but she chooses to live in her own skin because the power of self-acceptance is the strongest one of all. And that’s the message she sends to readers.

Ms. Marvel #1, published in 2014.

Marvel Comics

Critics, including myself, have only screened the first two episodes of Ms. Marvel, and audiences so far can only judge the show on its first episode. But to have the series change Kamala’s instrumental powers means that Ms. Marvel has to fight that much harder to let MCU Kamala uncover those very same realizations.

In Episode 1, Kamala struggles to focus on reality. She obsesses over the Avengers and fantasizes about her crush and winning Captain Marvel cosplay contests. It’s clear her mind is elsewhere and that she finds her parents embarrassing and her culture not that interesting — both she and her mother consider a box of cultural antiques mailed from her grandma junk. So, the show is obviously gunning for some cultural epiphany similar to the comics, but in the first two episodes, Ms. Marvel is immediately missing something vital.

Many of the main characters in the Ms. Marvel comics come from marginalized communities, and those communities are no stranger to racism and microaggressions. One can argue that the way these characters handle racism and confront it is integral to the messages these comics send. Therefore, the show should be addressing those same themes as well.

With only a six-episode season, it’s a little disappointing that the first two episodes have barely touched on race, ethnicity, and embracing your true skin. Where the comic books immediately address these things within the first issue, the show only touches on Kamala’s heritage and her family, and it never brings up the subjects of racism and Islamophobia directly. In some ways, Ms. Marvel even undermines the comics’ approach to race, as exhibited by an upcoming change to a character’s ethnicity in the second episode.

Ms. Marvel #1, published in 2014.

Marvel Comics

For those of us who have been looking forward to the series for years, it’s not exactly a promising start. But that being said, it’s too soon to judge what Ms. Marvel is setting out to do as a whole. Maybe the show will give Kamala more of her shapeshifting abilities in the next four episodes. Perhaps the retconning of a particular character’s identity won’t be as much of a red flag as it seems to be.

To the show’s credit, it seems to be doing amazing things with Kamala’s heritage starting in Episode 2. Ms. Marvel is not a cash grab; it doesn’t exist for the sake of making money off of diversity and inclusion. It’s a project the creators hope Muslim and Pakistani American viewers feel proud of.

But no matter how you slice it, Marvel Studios has made Kamala Khan more palatable to a general audience so that she fits in with the rest of the superheroes that came before her onscreen. Now, let’s hope the studio can balance these changes with a story that stays true to the themes that made the Ms. Marvel comics feel so pivotal in the first place. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Ms. Marvel is now streaming on Disney+.

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