By Prabhavathy K
A friend of mine recently remarked, “I never thought I’d be seeing Fawad Khan and Farhan Akhtar in a Marvel series.” Her feelings have been shared by many who watched the franchise’s newest mini-series Ms Marvel that follows Pakistani-American teenager and Captain Marvel superfan, Kamala Khan, go on her own superhero journey. It is surprising that though South Asians are one of the biggest consumers of Marvel’s content we cannot have ever imagined ourselves as being part of it. However, this should not have been a surprise considering that this is an impression that has been actively constructed in the mind of viewers over the course of 30+ movies and TV series simultaneously alongside the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) by gatekeeping superhero stories to the West.
The MCU has a dedicated international fanbase intensely tuned in and invested in its complex and expansive storyline based on the original comics by Stan Lee. For all its creative reimagining of the superhero adventure formula, sometimes with multiple film series of the same character (Spiderman), it has never veered off completely from some basic assumptions. In fact, in its quest for grandeur, adventure and larger-than-life superheroes, the MCU has time and time again depended on the principles of universalism. Universalism works on the simple assumption that what is true for one is true for all and it is this underlying idea that allows a very myopic representation of the world to be accepted as ‘realistic’ by diverse audiences from around the world. It is how a franchise can focus almost exclusively on white American cis-hetereosexual male superheroes for over two dozen movies and be perceived as a “genre-bending cinematic universe.”
Universalism very quickly becomes Eurocentrism in the MCU. The Battle of Earth takes place in, well… New York. Let’s write that off as an innocent coincidence. But even Cap’s famous and awe-inspiring battle cry ‘Avengers, Assemble!’ falls a little flat when you do a little fact check. Leaving out the gods and aliens in that scene, the main superhero population comprises of 12 Americans (Doctor Strange, Star-Lord, Iron Man, Captain America, Falcon, Ant-man, Spider-man, Wasp, Pepper Pots, Hawkeye, Winter Soldier, and Hulk), a lone Sokovian (Scarlet Witch) and 4 Wakandans (Okoye, Blank Panther, Shuri and M’Baku). The only Asian character is Wong who originates from Nepal, but he too lives and operates out of New York. So, not to rain on the cinematic hype of that scene, but it is a bit underwhelming when you realise that ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ are really 66.6% Americans. (In no situation is that a good statistic by the way!)
This further highlights that Marvel is not really a ‘universe’ but a very localised project, shaped by the practices and attitudes of the larger American film industry. This is typical of Hollywood that markets itself as a producer of global culture but is filled with odd loopholes of narrow vision that is encapsulated perfectly by the eternal question a moviegoer faces: “Why do aliens attack only the US?” The MCU, in fact, mimics these dynamics leading to gaping holes in their acclaimed and complexly woven storyline that spans generations, dimensions and timelines (but apparently not Global South). Notice how even in the case of monumental global events within the MCU like the Thanos Blip and the Battle of Earth, we have only seen them from the regional context of America which leaves us wondering about diverse experiences and contributions from other parts of this ‘universe’. Are viewers expected to believe that the Global South has just been weirdly insulated from all these ‘cosmic’ happenings on the other side of the world? What in Groot’s name has been happening there during the war? Did no one here find any superhero stuff to do all these years?
Also, very real concerns that superhero fantasies might be innocuous versions of neo-imperialist fantasies have been popping up in the superhero/adventure genre for ages with new shows like Amazon Prime’s The Boys showcasing a world run over with narcissistic and megalomaniac superheroes for whom the common public is mere collateral damage. So, it’s surprising that the MCU, which has always jumped at the chance to reinvent and expand itself (hence its ability to seamlessly incorporate a multiverse of spidermen and Taika Waititi’s comedic spin on the sombre hero Thor), has never felt the need to address this from the point of view of those most affected by this, the Global South. Personally, I wonder if people from such countries would even be necessarily loyal to the Avengers (whose frontrunners include an eccentric millionaire, a former Russian spy and a chemically-enhanced superhuman created by the US military) or see them as much of a threat as Thanos? These questions deconstruct the MCU by throwing shadows of doubt and contradiction into their smooth plots.
Yet it was only while watching Iman Vellani’s Ms Marvel that I was made starkly aware of all these discrepancies. I wonder now how I had placidly accepted that the world the MCU had presented earlier made sense and even seemed brilliant, mind-blowing, and airtight. But of course, that has always been the reader-writer relationship – we see only what they want us to see. The illusion of reality is the artifice of a powerful narrative, something the MCU has wielded evocatively in its creation of a reality-defying universe. If I was suddenly made aware of its structurally flawed underbelly, it is because the show Ms Marvel actively seeks to digress, disrupt, and diversify the universe that the MCU has created so far.
Digress: The directive freedom assigned to the new voices behind the series is one of the main reasons why the show is able to create an identity for itself that is not inhibited by the MCU’s baggage. Among these stands out two-time Oscar winning Partition documentarian Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who directs episodes 4 and 5 of the mini-series. The intelligence, depth, and nuance that they bring makes it clear from the beginning that this is not some half-cooked attempt at representation politics but an important story with huge stakes in transforming the MCU. By diving bravely into unexplored waters, the show opens up new narratives that hints that there might be scores of stories that the MCU might not have been showing.
For starters, the show digresses physically from the urban cityscapes of America. More than a third of the series takes place in Pakistan with strong ties with a pre-Partition Indian past and moves the plot out of the typical American context. We are instead introduced to a rich superhero culture that is interwoven into Indo-Pak culture and society. Mythology and modern day sci-fi material come together when Nani casually admits she’s a djinn, a being from another dimension stranded on earth. Djinn-fighting secret covens live underneath restaurants with slow fans and Disco Deewane music. And our teen protagonists find moments to be just teens while eating biryani from plastic bags at a bonfire. In fact, one of the show’s primary concerns is visualizing what life would look like for a desi teenage superhero. Muneeba’s immediate reaction to Kamala’s superhero fantasies are anxiety about her daughter being exposed to boys and tight clothes while Kamala herself is as conflicted about being a djinn superhero as about being an ‘ABCD’ or ‘Abroad Born Confused Desi.’ Overall there is a strong sense of place, history and community supporting the traditional superhero material we are used to.
Disrupt: What does it take to disrupt a universe? Every artistic creation spins on an ideology, a vision of the world. And Ms Marvel gets right to the point in calling out the MCU’s problematic vision of the world. “Do all masked Amrikans have superpowers?” asks Kareem with a strong Pakistani accent, showing a rare moment of self-awareness in the MCU about their skewed universe.
The show illustrates this further in the subtle change in attitudes towards superheroes in America vs India. The show begins with Kamala in Jersey City, where there is an atmosphere of superhero culture complete with street art, murals, conventions, daily conversations, and entire government departments dedicated to the plethora of superheroes that are part of their world. However, once Kamala comes to Pakistan, this buzz dies down and we almost forget Kamala’s Captain Marvel and Avengers obsession. In contrast, the ‘superhero’ culture in India and Pakistan is polarly different, subdued, and seems to have been closely interwoven with its socio-political history. It is sombre and weighed with political consciousness and familial responsibility. Aisha, Kamala’s great-grandmother, first wields the power of the Noor to protect her daughter during 1947 Partition violence. Kamala herself has to confront the intergenerational trauma of the Partition that fractures the life of generations of women who came before her (Sana, Muneeba, and Aisha) in order to fulfil her destiny. The world of the Avengers is irrelevant to such a superhero story which is perhaps why Nani knowingly invites Kamala to Pakistan since it is only here that she can fully understand her powers.
There is an aesthetic dimension to the show’s rebellious disruptions as well. In fact, its immense focus on detailing is what I love the most about this show. Marvel films are known for their easter eggs that signal larger plot developments. For example, the mural Kamala gazes at in the Karachi train station is said to be an Ant-Man reference. But Ms Marvel also uses easter eggs to disrupt the MCU’s status quo. Pakistan has only been used as a bad guy hideout in earlier movies with Wolverine and Deadpool both discovering Hydra facilities there. This series however takes the MCU out of the studios and into the streets of Karachi with sweeping shots of attractions like Clifton Bridge and Amreli Steels Circle. Though many other scenes were actually shot in locations in Thailand, the show is able to recreate visually striking geographic spaces and communities common to South Asia that refuse to be made invisible or assimilated.
There are some excellently composed shots that highlight seemingly innocuous little details. Nani’s art room scene is a personal favourite. On the walls of the room are newspaper cuttings of important events in Pakistan’s past. Amongst them is a map of India and Pakistan’s Partition. Maps are physical manifestations of man-made ideas such as nationalism and boundaries. Consequently, cartography is anything but an innocent reproduction of the world. Often a map is an insufficient and dysfunctional thing whose simplified lines erase people’s lived experiences and baggage of the past. This is especially true in the case of the heavily contested India-Pakistan Partition border which was drawn haphazardly by colonialists like Cyril Radcliffe who had very little knowledge of the topography and communities it would irrevocably divide. However, the map in Nani’s room is a very interesting detail since it isn’t a normal kind of map. It is in fact a work of art – a woodcut by Indian-American artist Zarina Hashmi who lived through the Partition and recently passed away in 2020.
This piece is part of a collection of six works titled ‘Atlas Of My World’ comprising 6 ‘maps’ that goes beyond the practical notion of cartography as a visual representation of the world we live in. Instead, Hashmi’s maps hold emotional truths and personal histories that hang over the constructed nature of political boundaries. It was the perfect detail to add to Nani’s room and it anticipates her views on Partition later in the episode. Nani emphasises that a person’s identity cannot be determined “based on an idea some old Englishmen had when they were fleeing the country.” “Even at my age, I’m still trying to figure out who I am. My passport is Pakistani, my roots are in India. And in between is a border, built with blood and pain…How is one to deal with that?” she says.
The show has many such interesting details apart from the main superhero plot and often goes off on tangents to tell counterstories to the ones that have dominated the silver screens so far. It is this uncompromising and vivid assertion of their existence that opens up new possibilities and challenges the stability of MCU’s passively accepted world order.
Diversify: The MCU also takes a step back from universalism. Just take a look at the different mediums of artistic creation involved in this show. The soundtrack forms an interesting playlist spanning diverse periods and artists from the Indian Peninsula with numbers from legends such as Tamil Nadu’s SP Balasubramanian, Oscar winner AR Rahman, Pakistan’s Nightingale Nahid Akhtar, and semi-classical/rock singer Sajjad Ali. The show offers us a lot of interesting material visually too. The title ‘Ms Marvel’, for example, flashes in multiple languages including Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, and Bengali in episode 5, stressing the plurality of South Asian experiences. Also, the show’s use of stop motion animation is very apt since it borrows the spirit of collage and graphic-art to give us a multi-dimensional view of Kamala’s life. Just like her room walls, covered with different posters, artwork and trinklets, speak of an interesting and layered individual, the creative animation styles in this show bring Kamala’s imaginative mental processes to life. For example, when Kamala and Bruno text or discuss ideas for the cosplay, their ideas are projected as drawings onto walls or things around them.
Talking about diversity, it’s impossible to miss out on the fresh cast that comprises a medley of popular Indian actors and upcoming global stars making the show a crossover of Bollywood and Hollywood. This has helped the series tell new stories of transnational, multicultural South Asians confronting the burdens of modernity and an estranged past. Its complex and emotional handling of Partition crosses genres of sci-fi and historical fiction and is a promising example of modern-day responses to the past’s inheritances. In the show, Nani’s recollections of how she was saved by a trail of stars are brushed off as imaginations of an old woman. Yet we learn that it was Kamala who had saved her grandmother when she was a baby using the bangle’s powers of time travel. It shares a powerful message: the past is present and the present is past. Time travel becomes yet another tool to explore the faultlines between history, present and ideas of personhood.
Finally, Kamala’s story also complicates popular narratives when it comes to justice and power, two of the themes at the heart of every superhero story. Kamala’s Muslim identity is perceived as a threat by the Department of Damage Control who raids her community’s Masjid under the allegation that they are providing protection to Kamala and Kamran. And, in reality, they indeed are. But the point here is that Kamala’s self-preservation is easily understood as an extremist’s unstable action. Thus, Kamala Khan doesn’t get the white superhero’s privilege of running around and doling out justice; she is policed and hunted down at every turn. This changes the very way that Ms Marvel functions as a hero in society. She often feels conflicted about her powers and wonders if it is a blessing or a curse. How people might interpret her actions weighs down on her until Imam Sheikh Abdullah offers her words of wisdom: “Good is not a thing you are. It is a thing you do.” The show also has a side storyline of Nakia (Kamala’s best friend), a hijab-wearing Muslim girl’s campaign for becoming a board member at the Masjid. This leads to hilarious campaign strategies and puns (Change is HERe!) that include emotionally coercing middle-aged men and gossiping aunties. This also brings faith and religion into the MCU and complicates its notions of justice.
To conclude, Ms Marvel is a paradigm shifting addition to the MCU that breaks it as much as it remakes it. Also, and this lies outside the scope of this essay, the show anticipates the inclusion of the X-men into the MCU! Personally, I continue to be awed at the MCU’s ability to keep expanding and reinventing itself. But there’s a new rebelliousness in me, some tears in the MCU’s seams, and a teeny tiny urge to unravel it all.
Prabhavathy K is a twenty-something year old who believes that it is art that keeps the world going. She is especially interested in genres of popular culture such as fantasy and science fiction. She is currently pursuing an MA in English Literature at Ashoka University. Email Id: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Exploring Motherly Instincts: Representation of Mothers in Indian Cinema”, edited by Srija Sanyal, Ronin Institute, USA.