When Iman Velani watches herself as the title character in “Ms. Marvel,” she cannot help but feel a sense of disbelief. Before this Disney+ series came her way, she was a high school senior with a seemingly impossible dream to be in a Marvel project — now she’s playing one of its powerful costumed champions, just like some of the actors she has spent her life idolizing.
At times, Vellani said it was hard to connect her present-day self with the person she sees on the show. “I look so young,” she said recently. “I feel different now. I feel like I’ve matured 20 years.”
To be clear, Vellani had turned 18 when she filmed “Ms. Marvel,” and she is 19 now.
For all the experience Vellani has gained from the series (which debuts on Wednesday), she knows she will still be underestimated for her age and her status as a newcomer whose greatest concerns, not all that long ago, were writing term papers and applying to colleges.
But none of that has discouraged Marvel from placing her at the center of its latest superhero adventure.
“Ms. Marvel,” based on the comic book seriestells the story of Kamala Khana Jersey City high schooler who admires the Marvel superheroes from afar — until she is mysteriously granted powers that allow her to fight alongside them.
When the character was given her own comics series in 2014, Khan was a crucial part of Marvel’s effort to diversify its publishing lineup — she was a rare protagonist who was Muslim and Pakistani American. Now “Ms. Marvel” offers a similar potential for wider representation in the ever-expanding behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If that’s not enough of a burden, Vellani is making her screen acting debut in “Ms. Marvel,”and she does not have the years of celebrity or lengthy résumés that her newfound peers her already possessed when they were recruited into the Marvel pantheon.
But what she does have is a fan’s unapologetic love for the franchise she has joined.
“My entire world, everything I talked about was Marvel,” Velani said. “And now people actually have to listen when I talk about it.”
In mid-May, Vellani was speaking in a video interview from Los Angeles as part of her first-ever round of media promotion. Only two years prior, she was in high school in Markham, Ontario, where her family had emigrated from Karachi when she was about a year old.
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Though she was just 5 when the first MCU movie, “Iron Man,” was released, Vellani has grown up to be the type of zealous Marvel devotee who blithely confesses that her three favorite people in the world are Robert Downey Jr., Billy Joel , and the Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
When she auditioned for her high school’s drama department at age 13, Vellani said then that her dream role would be anything in the MCU. A few years later, she came to school for Halloween dressed in a Ms. Marvel costume she had made with her grandmother her.
“No one knew who I was,” Velani said. “Everyone thought I was the Flash. So I had to buy a comic book and hold it with me.”
At a certain point in her studies, the precocious teen had soured on becoming a professional actor. “When you’re in a room with 15-year-old kids who all think they’re Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s like the worst place to be in,” she said. “You immediately hate drama.”
But her curiosity was reignited when she learned of an opportunity to try out for “Ms. Marvel.” “My aunt opened a group chat that she never opens and someone had forwarded this casting call through WhatsApp that she sent to me,” Vellani explained. “It was the most brown way this could have happened.”
Compared to longstanding Marvel heroes like Captain America (who predates the United States’ entrance into World War II) or Spider-Man (introduced in 1962), Kamala Khan is a youngster.
She was created less than a decade ago by a team that included Sana Amana, who was a Marvel publishing editor before becoming a production and development executive at the studio and an executive producer on “Ms. Marvel.”
In conversations with her then-colleague Stephen Wacker, who also helped create the character, Amanat said she expressed a desire for a heroine who, like herself, was Muslim and a child of Pakistani immigrants. Amanat said she wanted her stories to reflect “some of the tribulations of being an awkward brown teenager — going to prom by myself, fasting and playing basketball or lacrosse, wearing tights underneath my shorts in 90-degree weather.”
In her earliest comics, written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by artists that included Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie, Khan deliberately sought to model herself on Captain Marvel, the superhero alter ego of Carol Danvers.
That narrative choice, Amanat said, was meant to illustrate a real-life dynamic that she had experienced in her youth.
“For a person of color,” she said, “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 — she’s blonde, blue-eyed and tall. And so the story spun from there.”
Bisha K. Ali, who is the head writer and an executive producer of the “Ms. Marvel” television series, said she faced competing goals in her adaptation of the comics: to preserve the parts of Khan’s character and her world that readers already appreciate, and to help viewers establish connections to her for when she makes further MCU appearances — which she is already slated to do in “The Marvels,” a new movie planned for 2023 release.
“The challenge was really, what do we pick?” said Ali, who was also a writer on Marvel’s “Loki” TV series. “What do we choose that will set this person up for being in the MCU — being part of this huge, global media phenomenon, but also feels intimate and personal and vital?”
Ali said she approached “Ms. Marvel” as the story of a person discovering who she is: “All superheroes have powers,” she said. “But if someone in their heart knows themselves, there’s so much empowerment in that, especially for someone from a historically marginalized group.”
As Velani cleared the various stages of her casting process in early 2020 — providing a headshot; submitting a self-taped audition; traveling to Marvel’s offices in Los Angeles for an on-camera test — her future colleagues found themselves charmed by her enthusiasm and her guilelessness. (“Not only is Iman an incredible new talent,” her hero Feige wrote in an email, “but she’s also a huge fan of the MCU who knows and loves this character as much as anyone at Marvel Studios.”)
Recalling a video conversation with Vellani, Amanat said, “When she was showing me her room, she had this Iron Man cologne. She’s like, ‘I do n’t know, my dad got this for me — it does n’t smell that bad.’”(In the “Ms. Marvel” series, Khan will also have Iron Man cologne in her bedroom her.)
When she and Vellani were introduced in Los Angeles, Ali said, “She spots me and she’s like, ‘You’re Bisha? I’m Iman. You’ve got to tell me everything about the TV and film industry.’ She just embodied Kamala-ness. She’s so curious and so active.”
Vellani said she grew increasingly anxious about her prospects, particularly after her visit to Marvel. “I felt like I was on the inside, man,” she said. “I got this little taste of what life could be like. I was like, I can’t possibly go to university after this. I can’t think of anything else I would want to do.”
Later that spring, after she’d already been accepted into her first-choice college, Vellani was driving around Markham with friends when she got a fateful call from Feige and asked to step out of the car.
After learning she’d gotten the role, Vellani said, “I was trying not to have a reaction because my friends were watching. I got back into the car and my friends were like, ‘Did you win the lottery?’ I was like, ‘Basically.’ And then we got celebratory burritos.”
Now Vellani must reckon not only with the benefits of playing a Marvel superhero but also the drawbacks — not least of which is a subset of audience members who regard any effort to depict diversity as an infringement on past tradition and register their outrage on social media.
Asked if she had encountered this strain of criticism in her time at Marvel, Amanat gave a knowing chuckle. “Oh boy,” she said. “Don’t look for my name on YouTube — it’s not a good idea.”
Such backlash “is just the nature of the business,” Amanat said. She added, “I don’t understand why the toy box is so small. We’re not taking anything away from Captain America — we’re over here doing our own thing. It makes me a little sad and a little frustrated.”
Even so, Amanat said that projects like “Ms. Marvel” were important to an audience that is not accustomed to seeing themselves in entertainment franchises.
“I think of my nieces and my goddaughters and my friends’ kids,” she said. “I think about them growing up and having Iman Vellani, out in the world, wearing a superhero outfit, and it’s really amazing to me. They’ve never had this.”
Velani was more circumspect in how she talked about this criticism of the Ms. Marvel character.
“I’m not on social media, so I haven’t encountered anything directly,” she said. “You can’t make everyone happy, and that’s not our goal, anyway. That’s just setting yourself up to fail.”
She added, “If I go to work every day thinking, ‘I’m the first Muslim superhero,’ I’m never going to get anything done.”
The high-class problems Vellani would rather contend with include deciding whether to watch new MCU movies in her hometown theater with her friends, or in exclusive screenings for the Marvel employees who worked on them.
When she “finesed” her way into a recent showing of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” that had been arranged for Marvel staff, Vellani said she enjoyed aspects of it, like meeting Xochitl Gomez, who plays the young hero America Chavez.
But there were downsides to watching with a fervent Marvel squad, too.
“I realized I like watching these movies a lot more with a normal group of nerds,” Velani said. “Because these guys clap for everything, man. People will show up, who we know are in the movie, and they’ll clap.”
“I get it — they’re clapping for their crew,” she added. “But still, I need to focus when I’m watching.”