We’re three episodes into Ms. Marvel, a show that introduced millions of people to the MCU’s first-ever Muslim superhero. And the series has already broken barriers and deconstructed hurtful stereotypes that have been rampant in the industry for decades. But Kevin Feige’s interpretation of Kamala Khan is definitely different from the hero we knew and loved from the comics.
Which we get. It’s no secret that when you adapt a comic or book into a show, there are going to be changes. They’re necessities for television, where every minute is an opportunity to either hook an audience or lose them. When we look at the changes made for Ms. Marvel’s television debut, some are pretty great, including putting more emphasis on Kamala’s heritage. Unfortunately, others leave us frustrated with how far from the comics Kamala’s MCU future is going to lead her, like the show’s latest reveal, which connects Kamala’s story with an Orientalist comic series from the ’90s.
Major changes like that are quickly turning Ms. Marvel into something we don’t necessarily recognize. The final three episodes of season one are going to have to work hard to keep comic book fans happy. Let’s take a look at the big changes are so far—and whether they’re for the better (or the worse).
MCU’s Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) has powers that are associated with interdimensional travel and light. She has the ability to see into another dimension and expel rays of light that she can harden and use against her enemies. This is an impressive set of abilities, but it’s nowhere near the power she held in the comics.
See, in the original material, Kamala is a shapeshifter with the ability to change into whatever or whoever she chooses. When Kamala got her powers in the first issue of Ms. Marvel in 2014, her first shapeshift was an involuntary one: She turned into Captain Marvel, because of her deep desire to be someone else. She didn’t spend long in Captain Marvel’s white skin and blonde hair before she realized that she was perfect as she was. Her shapeshifting abilities are what helped encourage Kamala to realize that her pigment and her culture are what makes her unique.
While the series dives deep into Kamala’s family and culture, changing her shapeshifting powers means the showrunners have to work that much harder to accomplish themes that were made abundantly clear in the very first issue. So instead of having Kamala address her confidence in her own skin, creators use a racist Department of Damage Control agent to make this story explicitly about the government’s racism and Islamophobia, themes handled much better in the comics.
The show has already made meaningful changes to Kamala’s group of pals. In the comics, her new crush Kamran (played by Rish Shah in the show) turns out to be an awful villain. But the series makes him the only one of the Clandestine who wants to help Kamala. This particular change is refreshing, because otherwise it would have continued a problematic stigma where a person of color is evil, while a white love interest isn’t.
Then there’s Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher), who finds out that Kamala has powers at the end of episode three, much sooner than she does in the comics. This is is a change we can stand by, because it took way too long for Kamala in the books to tell her friends about her identity. We have no doubt that Nakia is going to be an important support beam for Kamala as she discovers more of her abilities and finally dons the nickname Ms. Marvel in the series.
There’s also a pretty significant change to Nakia that’s taken some corners of Twitter by storm, which has become an interesting discussion point about representation. In the comics, Nakia is Turkish, but in the series she’s half-Arab and half-white, like Fletcher, with no indication so far on her specific ethnicity. Hardcore comic fans were surprised to see this change to one of the most beloved characters. But it’s clear Nakia is still the politically savvy, hard-willed woman we love, and Fletcher has brought her to life wonderfully.
Historically, onscreen opportunities for Muslim hijabi women have been underwhelming, and they’re usually saturated in hurtful stereotypes. A spot on a Marvel series as one of the hero’s best friends is an amazing opportunity for such women. As a show that aims to bring proper Muslim representation to the MCU, Ms. Marvel makes an interesting choice by casting someone who isn’t a Muslim hijabi to portray Nakia—and an even more interesting choice by changing Nakia’s ethnicity to match that casting. Fletcher has been doing a magnificent job, but this change reflects a bigger trend in the industry that limits the opportunities of Muslim, hijabi women and creates a different set of problems for the SWANASA (South West Asian, North African and South Asian) community.
In episode two, Nakia tells Kamala, “My whole life I’ve either been too white for some people or too ethnic for others, and it’s been this very uncomfortable, sucky in-between.” This was a groundbreaking conversation happening in one of the world’s largest franchises, one about the complexities of being a light-skinned person of color. It’s a topic that needs to be addressed, especially in the Arab community. The only problem is that this diverges so far from Nakia’s story in the comics, and it’s clear that fans are having trouble adjusting.
It’s an honorable thing to want to tackle issues like this in an MCU project, and the story they’ve chosen to go with is so far being handled properly and with much care from Fletcher and the creative team. But two things can exist simultaneously: This particular story change has removed an opportunity to give a Muslim hijabi actress a chance to break into an industry that has been largely off limites to them for decades, while also giving us a chance to see an entirely different struggle for half-white Arabs that we never get to see on platforms this big.
Some of the biggest themes of the Ms. Marvel comics are about family and the appreciation of culture and faith, and the show is addressing those themes well. In fact, it seems like the series is doing an even better job of portraying Kamala’s connection to her Pakistani heritage and her family, with the Partition of India playing a much bigger part of Kamala’s story than it has in the comics.
It’s not common to see a Pakistani family talk about the Partition on television, and for many viewers watching Kamala’s parents talk about it in Ms. Marvel was the first time they learned about this massive tragedy, where millions of people were displaced, killed, or went missing. To tie Kamala’s bangles to her grandmother, who went missing during that time, and to tie her powers to that bangle, is a beautiful way to incorporate more culture into an MCU that has historically been whitewashed.
As a comics fan, it has been an absolute joy to watch the series dive so deep into Kamala’s heritage, especially witnessing her brother Aamir’s (Saagar Shaikh) Muslim wedding. These cultural moments are pivotal explorations of tradition and faith that have never been explored so deeply in an MCU project, and these scenes make clear that the show’s creative team cares about the representation they’re giving us.
While the creative team must be applauded for their dedication to cultural and Islamic representation, some of their choices regarding Kamala’s origins are questionable, like connecting Kamala to Djinn and a group of superheroes called the Clandestine. This is a stark deviation from the comics that could be completely unnecessary.
In the books, Kamala has no connection to the Clandestine, which made their comics debut in 1994. A relic of its time, The Clandestine comics were known to have some pretty racist, Orientalist depictions of SWANASA characters and, honestly, they were probably better left in the past and not reimagined for Ms. Marvel. The source material finds a man named Aadam having sex with a being called a Djinn, which leads to the bloodline that created the Clandestine. The comics don’t really take much care in representing Djinn properly, which are a very real Islamic belief and cultural touchstone.
Kamala becomes connected to this problematic version of Djinn when the woman who saved her, Najma (Nirma Bucha), tells her that the reason her powers activated when she put on that bangle is because her great-grandmother was a Djinn from another dimension, like them, and the bangles awaken a certain property, called Noor, within her that allows her to connect to that dimension. She begs for Kamala’s help in reopening a portal to that dimension so they can finally go home, but she quickly turns evil when Kamala tells her that she needs more time to think on it.
Kamala calls the Djinn “the stuff of nightmares,” but in Islamic culture Djinn aren’t always tricksters or devils. To take this Islamic belief and vilify it continues a never-ending problem with American media. And to make the Djinn the villain when the source material has no connection to them is a frustrating choice. In the comics, Kamala got her powers from a Terrigen mist that activated her Inhuman abilities, and whilst the whole Djinn thing could be a red herring and Kamala’s origin really is Inhuman, we have to wonder: Why bother bringing up a problematic, Orientalist comic-book origin when you could have just left them out entirely?