‘Ms. Marvel’: Creating Kamala Khan’s Teenage Insecurities
“We really wanted to showcase the insecurity of being 16 and just how self-conscious you can be because you're constantly like living in a world of social media and comparing yourself to every single other person around you."
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going through its awkward high school phase. With the release of Marvel Studios’ Ms. Marvel, the MCU is going back to school with Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American teenager who is just trying to handle her day to day teenage woes, which are made even harder by the fact that suddenly she’s now shooting hard light out of her hand. No one said that high school would be easy, and certainly, no one said that becoming a Super Hero would be even easier…
If the show makes you think back to your own high school years (and angst) that’s the point. The writer’s room, led by Bisha K. Ali fostered a safe environment where “people felt like they could share themselves and share those stories — the amount of embarrassing teenage cringe that was going on in that room. It was a lot.”
Ali also made sure to staff the writer’s room with “younger voices,” since her own “teenage experience wasn’t dominated by social media.” How do regular teenagers nowadays talk, think, and express themselves to the world?
“Having writers who could speak to a modern and contemporary teenage experience was really important,” she continues. “At the same time, the issues that felt universal were born from all of our experiences, and like— I mean, we say ‘teenager,’ but I'm still out here looking at myself in the mirror going, ‘I don't know. I don't know if this is working for me today.’” She adds with a laugh.
Speaking of mirrors, one of the most poignant moments in Episode 1 is when Kamala is standing in her bedroom, looking at herself in her homemade Captain Marvel costume. It’s a silent scene, and a heartbreaking one, as star Iman Vellani is able to convey all sorts of emotions via a few quick seconds of reflection. More than likely that struck a chord with you, since it’s a highly relatable moment that most viewers have experienced at some point in time. Who hasn’t once stood in front of a mirror as an absence of confidence washed over them?
“We really wanted to showcase the insecurity of being 16 and just how self-conscious you can be because you're constantly like living in a world of social media and comparing yourself to every single other person around you,” Vellani explains. “It can be really tough, especially when you want to showcase your passion. But now you're self-conscious and going through body image problems. I think I totally relate to Kamala in that sense. Every time I have to wear a super suit, I'm judging myself even though I know no one else is. It's kind of a constant struggle and growing pain that you have to overcome when you know you're in high school, especially because everything's so heightened when you're 16.”
The creative team honed in on these insecurities, creating a complex problem for Kamala to deal with, both inwards and outwards. “It is about what happens when her body effectively transforms and gets these powers, and she has to figure out what to do with it,” Executive Producer Sana Amanat says. “It's not even just the young woman's experience, but being a young woman of color, you feel invisible in the world, and you feel like you don't know what your place is, but how to show your voice, and allow it to shine. Your voice and your body together, it can be an uncomfortable thing for a woman. That really was what [that mirror] moment was. When Kamala gets powers and she's even more amplified, what kind of image does she want to project to the world? What kind of image does she want to project when she gets everything that she ever wanted?”
The directors of Episode 1, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, wanted to take these ideas and run with it — and that they did. Kamala’s feelings and insecurities become our feelings and insecurities, also giving us a peek into the inner workings of a teenage girl with her daydreams and doodles.
“When we saw [the Ms. Marvel comics], we were so drawn to the vibrancy, the colors, and obviously just the comic book aesthetic of it all that we wanted to find a way to translate her mind, to translate her fantasy, the dream sequences that she had,” Arbi explains.
“We were not sure that Kevin Feige would allow us to do that because it's different from the other MCU shows,” El Arbi continues. “We had a whole presentation with examples and just a dossier trying to convince him and Marvel why it needed to be that, why it needed to be because it's part of her personality. And surprisingly, he said, yeah, go for it. That was really great fun to be allowed to do that.”
So, while the creative team was working behind the scenes to bring Kamala’s journey to the screen, what about the young actors? The directors looked to them to add more to their roles, with El Arbi adding, “They were so talented and so smart that we just told them, make it in your own words. This is the meaning, this is, plot-wise, what we need to understand, but give it your own personality. They made it very authentic and put a lot of their originality into these characters.”
Ali also received help from the young stars, joking that they greatly influenced not only the way they speak but also interact with one another so the writers weren't “forcing grandma vibes” on the teenagers.
“There's an element of adapting [their] voice. But the jokes are all still Bisha vibes, to be honest, but it was adapted to what felt natural, and the way that the younger cast interacts with each other, capturing that in an authentic way. That was the adaptation that happened after Iman and the rest of the cast came on board. It was really about, how do young people hang now?”
So, whether you’re actually 16 now, or just 16 at heart, or still trying to forget what life was like at 16, there’s something relatable about Ms. Marvel for just about everyone.
“The coming-of-age story was so interesting and so universal that everybody can connect to it,” Fallah adds. “That made it so special for us as seeing this origin story about this teenage girl that we all can follow and see where her destiny is.”
Ms. Marvel is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.
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