When Iman Vellani sees himself as the title character in ‘Ms. Marvel,” she can’t help but feel a sense of disbelief. Before this Disney+ series came her way, she was in high school with a seemingly impossible dream of starring in a Marvel project – now she plays one of the powerful costumed champions, just like some of the actors she’s played her entire life. glorified life.
At times, Vellani said it was hard to connect her current 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 twenty years.”
Just to be clear, Vellani had turned 18 when she called “Ms. Marvel”, and she is now 19.
Despite all the experience Vellani has had with the series (which debuts Wednesday), she knows she will still be underestimated for her age and status as a newcomer whose main concerns, not so long ago, were writing theses and applying for jobs. at colleges.
But that hasn’t stopped Marvel from putting her at the center of its latest superhero adventure.
Based on the comic book series, “Mrs. Marvel” tells the story of Kamala Khan, a Jersey City high school student who admires Marvel’s superheroes from afar – until she mysteriously gains powers that allow her to fight alongside them.
When the character got her own comic book series in 2014, Khan was a pivotal part of Marvel’s efforts to diversify the publishing series – she was a rare protagonist who was Muslim and Pakistani-American. Now “Mrs. Marvel” offers similar potential for wider representation in the ever-expanding behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As if that weren’t enough, Vellani makes her on-screen acting debut in ‘Ms. Marvel,” and doesn’t have the celebrity years or lengthy resumes her new colleagues already had when recruited into the Marvel pantheon.
But what she does have is a fan’s unabashed love for the franchise she joined.
“My whole world, all I talked about was Marvel,” said Vellani. “And now people really have to listen when I talk about it.”
In mid-May, Vellani spoke in a video interview from Los Angeles as part of her first-ever round of media promotion. Just two years earlier, 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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Although she was only 5 when the first MCU movie “Iron Man” was released, Vellani has become the type of avid Marvel enthusiast who gleefully confesses that Robert Downey Jr., Billy Joel, are her three favorite people in the world. , and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
When she auditioned for her high school’s drama department at age 13, Vellani said her dream role would be everything in the MCU. A few years later, she came to school for Halloween, dressed in a Ms. Marvel costume she made with her grandmother.
“Nobody knew who I was,” said Vellani. “Everyone thought I was the Flash. So I had to buy a comic book and keep it with me.”
At one point in her studies, the precocious teen struggled to become a professional actor. “If you’re in a room with 15-year-old kids who all think they’re Daniel Day-Lewis, that’s the worst place to be,” she said. “You immediately hate drama.”
But her curiosity was rekindled when she heard of a chance to try out for “Ms. Wonder.” “My aunt opened a group chat that she never opens and someone forwarded this casting call via WhatsApp which she sent to me,” explains Vellani. “It was the brownest way this could have happened.”
Compared to long-standing Marvel heroes like Captain America (which predates the United States’ entry into World War II) or Spider-Man (introduced in 1962), Kamala Khan is a younger one.
She was created less than a decade ago by a team that included Sana Amanat, who was a Marvel publishing house before becoming a production and development manager at the studio and an executive producer of “Ms. Wonder.”
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 a Muslim and a child of Pakistani immigrants. Amanat said she wanted her stories to reflect “some of the tribulations of being an awkward tan teenager — going to the prom alone, fasting and playing basketball or lacrosse, wearing tights under my shorts in 90-degree weather. “
In her earliest comics, written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by artists such as Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie, Khan deliberately tried to model herself after Carol Danvers’ superhero alter ego, Captain Marvel.
That narrative choice, Amanat said, was meant to illustrate a real-life dynamic she’d experienced in her childhood.
‘As someone of color,’ she said, ‘you look outside and who are the people you adore and want to be? They look nothing like you. Captain Marvel is truly emblematic of that: she’s blonde, has blue eyes, and is tall. And so the story began from that point on.”
Bisha K. Ali, the lead writer and 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 have. and to help viewers bond with her for when she makes further MCU appearances — which she’s already slated to do in “The Marvels,” a new movie slated for a 2023 release.
“The challenge was actually, what do we choose?” said Ali, who was also a writer on Marvel’s “Loki” TV series. “What do we choose that will get this person to be in the MCU – be part of this massive, global media phenomenon, but also feel intimate and personal and vital?”
Ali said she was “Mrs. Marvel” as the story of a person discovering who she is: “All superheroes have powers,” she said. “But when someone knows themselves in their heart, there’s so much empowerment in that, especially for someone from a historically marginalized group.”
As Vellani went through the various stages of her casting process in early 2020 – with a headshot; submitting a self-recorded audition; traveling to Marvel’s Los Angeles offices for an on-camera test – her future colleagues were charmed by her enthusiasm and her innocence. (“Iman is not only an incredible new talent,” her hero Feige wrote in an email, “but she is also a huge fan of the MCU who knows and loves this character as much as everyone at Marvel Studios.” )
Amanat recalled a video call with Vellani, saying, “When she showed me her room, she had this Iron Man scent. She says, ‘I don’t know, my dad has this for me — it doesn’t smell that bad.’ (In the “Ms. Marvel” series, Khan will also have Iron Man scent in her bedroom.)
When she and Vellani were introduced in Los Angeles, Ali said: “She sees me and she says, ‘Are you Bisha? I’m Imaan. You have to tell me all about the TV and film industry.’ She just embodied Kamala-ness, she’s so curious and so active.”
Vellani said she became increasingly concerned about her prospects, especially after her visit to Marvel. “I felt like I was inside, man,” she said. “I got a taste of what life could be like. I was like, I can’t possibly go to college after this. I can’t think of anything else I would want to do.”
Later that spring, after already being accepted into her first-choice college, Vellani was driving through Markham with friends when she received a fateful phone call from Feige asking to get out of the car.
When she heard she’d been given the part, Vellani said, “I tried not to respond because my friends were watching. I got back in the car and my friends said, ‘Did you win the lottery?’ I was like, ‘in principle.’ And then we got festive burritos.”
Now, Vellani must consider not only the pros of playing a Marvel superhero, but the cons as well — not least a section of the public who sees any attempt to portray diversity as a breach of corporate traditions. past and register their outrage on social media.
When asked if she had encountered this kind of criticism in her time at Marvel, Amanat gave a meaningful laugh. “Oh boy,” she said. “Don’t look for my name on YouTube – that’s not a good idea.”
Such a response “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 doing our own thing here. It makes me a little sad and a little frustrated.”
Still, Amanat said projects like “Ms. Marvel” were important to audiences unaccustomed to seeing themselves in entertainment franchises.
“I think of my nieces and my goddaughters and my friends’ children,” she said. “I think about growing up and having Iman Vellani, in the world, in a superhero outfit, and it’s really great for me. They’ve never had this.”
Vellani was more cautious in the way she spoke about this criticism of Ms. Marvel’s character.
“I’m not on social media, so I didn’t come across anything right away,” she said. “You can’t make everyone happy, and that’s not our goal anyway. That’s just getting yourself ready to fail.”
She added: “If I go to work every day and think, ‘I’m the first Muslim superhero,’ I never get anything done.”
The prime issues that Vellani prefers to deal 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.
As she made her way to a recent performance of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which was arranged for Marvel staff, Vellani said she enjoyed it, such as meeting Xochitl Gomez, who plays young hero America Chavez. .
But there were also downsides to watching with an avid Marvel team.
“I realized that I like these movies a lot more to watch with a normal group of nerds,” said Vellani. “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 clap for their crew,” she added. “But I still have to concentrate when I watch.”