I try to guard myself against the “it’s newest so it’s the best EVER” reaction that often permeates fandoms. We can tend to live and breathe a movie or a show as soon as it premieres, reworking our rank lists to show how this is the best ever…until the next new movie or show in that universe comes out. I get the excitement. I often share it myself! But I’m always cautious about saying “best” when reflecting on a new movie or show. Yet it’s impossible to deny the sheer beauty and joy of Disney+’s Ms. Marvel show. Each episode fills my heart in a way nothing else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has. As far as I’m concerned, it is easily the most joyful entry in the MCU. I think it’s far and away the most important show Disney+ has done so far, too. And it may well be the best. We’ll see ;D. So I want to explore these emotions through the lens of how Kamala’s powers changed for the Disney+ show…in a way that’s far closer to her comic roots than I first realized.
It was not surprising Ms. Marvel fans (myself included) were a little…anxious when the first images of Kamala using her powers on Ms. Marvel popped up online. Instead of her bendy body and embiggened fists we were used to, we saw Kamala wielding shiny, seemingly energy-based powers. Her iconic big fist was there…but it seemed to be an energy construct as opposed to her growing and stretching her own body.
In the comics, Kamala Khan is an Inhuman (a race created when Kree scientists experimented on Homo sapiens during Earth’s Stone Age in the early days of the intergalactic Kree-Skrull War, an experiment they abandoned but not before this new race began evolving alongside Homo sapiens). Her latent powers were activated when Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans, detonated a Terrigen Bomb to stop a Thanos invasion. As the Terrigen Cloud expanded, anyone with latent Inhuman genes – like Kamala! – underwent Terrigenesis and their powers activated. Kamala became a polymorph, with the ability to grow, shrink, or stretch her body just about any way she can imagine. She, however, did not gain energy powers and this led to some concern about how the comic was being adapted.
The anxiety makes sense. Kamala Khan is a character who has come to mean a great many things to a great many people, as all classic characters do. Sana Amanat, who edited the series for five years and helped create the character of Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel alongside writer G. Willow Wilson and artists Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie, addressed this connection in her goodbye letter in Ms. Marvel #38’s “Holla @ Kamala” letters page. She wrote, in part:
As you fans of Ms. Marvel know, this book is different. It was truly a labor or love, not just for Willow and me, but for everyone who has come across this comic in some capacity. Whether you were a creator behind the pages, or a fan in front of it, Kamala has found a way into all of our hearts….Over the last five years, there have been many think pieces on who Ms. Marvel is and what she means. Is she a political statement? Is she destroying the comic industry? Is she fighting Islamophobia? It is incredible to me that a super hero has cultivated this much dialogue and even contention. She is in academic syllabi, documentaries, and fan films. Everyone has an opinion on who Kamala is to him or her. And that’s amazing. That is what we want. We want you to feel something about her. We want you to get to know her. Even if you don’t necessarily like her. Because at least you now know there can be heroes like this. Not just in the funny books, but also out there in the world.
As I’ve written before, Kamala Khan holds a very special place in my heart. To me, she is the character whose debut in Ms. Marvel (alongside Jane Foster becoming Thor in Thor) led me back to reading comics after seventeen years away. With Kamala as Ms. Marvel and Jane as Thor, comic books felt new and exciting in a way they hadn’t in nearly two decades. This was something I couldn’t miss. I feel grateful to Kamala Khan for being the character who opened this door to comic reading for me again. I feel so much love for her – for her character, her supporting cast, her heart, and the energy and messages her stories convey. I feel appreciation for her, too, as I’ve taught Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal in classes for years and watched students who have never read a comic before (or students who’ve admitted to rarely reading any assignment for school before) fall in love with her and ask where they can find the next part of her story. Kamala Khan is something special indeed.
So many people fell in love with Kamala for so many reasons and when characters matter to us, we get protective, hence the natural anxiety around the power change.
Now, tweaking or overtly changing a character’s power or origin isn’t unusual in comic adaptations. I still remember my shock in learning Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker would have organic web spinnerets in his body as opposed to designing his own web-shooters in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker didn’t even have a spider-sense until Spider-Man: Far From Home. Tony Stark created Ultron (instead of Hank Pym) in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Clint Barton/Hawkeye was a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who became an Avenger instead of a carny-turned-supervillain who joined looking for redemption. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff got their powers from Infinity Stones instead of their mutant genes. Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel got her powers from an Infinity Stone, too, instead of a Psyche-Magnitron explosion activating her half-Kree DNA. The Wasp is Hank Pym’s daughter Hope, a scientist like himself, instead of Janet Van Dyne and/or Nadia Van Dyne, a graduate of the same Red Room which created the Black Widow. Peter Quill/Star-Lord is a goofy slacker with a heart of gold as opposed to a more traditional-yet-admittedly-flawed hero/leader in the vein of Captain America. And Wolverine’s claws extend from between his fingers (GAH!) instead of the back of his hands where they should always come from.
So changes are nothing new and each of those changes have resulted in varying degrees of frustration among fans. (Well, I say “each” but admittedly I’ve never seen anyone lament Hawkeye being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent instead of a carny who turns supervillain to try and impress Black Widow who he had a crush on and was also a supervillain at the time…but the internet is vast and fans can be ornery so I bet it’s out there somewhere.) But Kamala is special and the relationship she has with each of her fans is unique in so many ways – not the least of which being the vital issue of representation – so the adaptation anxiety was naturally higher around her.
My parts holding anxiety over the change were soothed by knowing G. Willow Wilson had given the show her seal of approval as well as knowing Sana Amanat was an executive producer on the show. Bisha K. Ali, Ms. Marvel’s showrunner and executive producer, is herself a Pakistani British Muslim woman. The people creating this show know the character. They know her world. And they love her. So, while her sparkly powers had me leery, I went in with an open mind and an open heart (which, as I’ve said, the show fills full-to-overflowing with each episode :D).
The rest of the piece will have spoilers regarding Kamala’s powers and how they operate in the show.
In the show, Kamala (the magnificent Iman Vellani) puts on a bangle sent to her by her grandmother which unlocks her powers. She is able to create all manner of shapes with her “hard light” abilities, from extending her fist to manifesting platforms to climb or float on and globs of light to hold doors closed or push back an enemy. In the second episode her best friend, Bruno Carrelli (Matt Lintz), helps Kamala test her powers. Scanning her while she uses her abilities he learns the bangle isn’t generating the power. Rather the power is coming from within her.
At the start of episode three, Kamala is rescued from Department of Damage Control agents trying to arrest her for unregistered superheroing by her crush, Kamran (Rish Shah), and his mother, Najma (Nimra Bucha). The shock of that surprise is soon supplanted by learning they, like her great-grandmother Aisha, are from another dimension.
Kamala – “And also, what are you? Like, what should I call you? Like, what are we?”
Najma – “In our home dimension, the Noor dimension, we’re known as the Clandestines. As to what we are, we’ve been called Ajnabi, Majnoon, Unseen…the list goes on. But what we’re most commonly known as is Djinn.”
Kamala – “I’m sorry, did you say djinn?”
(Sidenote: the name “Clandestine” comes from a twelve issue series, ClanDestine, Marvel published in ’94-’95. Created by writer/artist Alan Davis, it follows the Destine family (the title’s a pun), a group of superpowered individuals with no heroic or villainous drives who mainly sought to use their powers to make their lives better.)
In Ms. Marvel’s fourth episode, Kamala and her mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) travel to Karachi, Pakistan at the insistence of Kamala’s grandmother, Sana (Samina Ahmad). Kamala is eager to learn more about her mysterious heritage and powers and, while exploring the train station in Karachi, she meets the Red Dagger (we got Red Dagger in Season One!!! ahh!!!). Kamala learns Kareem/the Red Dagger (Aramis Knight) is part of centuries-long tradition of people who’ve taken up the mantle of the Red Dagger to protect Pakistan.
Waleed (Farhan Akhtar), Kareem’s mentor, explains the history of the Red Daggers to Kamala and offers more information about her powers, the Noor, and the Clandestine.
Waleed – “Our function is simple, to protect our people from the threats of the unseen.”
Kamala – “Like djinn?”
Waleed – “The Clandestine are not like the djinn you heard about in stories or religious texts. If Thor landed in the Himalayan Mountains, he too would’ve been called a djinn.”
Kamala – “Soooo…what are they? And what am I?”
Waleed – “I’ll show you. Come. [displaying a map of the world with another map overlaid on top of it] The Clandestine and Aisha are from another realm. This map shows you how our two worlds coexist. There are many dimensions around us that we cannot see. This is just one of them.”
Kamala – “What is this?”
Waleed – “Aisha’s home. It’s connected to our world, but hidden, behind the veil of Noor that separates our world from theirs.”
Kareem – “Noor is the energy source of that realm. The veil, the Clandestines, even your powers are made of it.”
Waleed – “If the Clandestines use the bangle to tear down the veil, they’ll unleash their world onto ours, until there is nothing left of it. That is why it is important to keep that bangle safe.”
So Kamala’s power (now anchored in her family heritage, culture, and the experience of the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947 instead of ancient Kree experiments) draws energy from the Noor Dimension and she uses that energy to embiggen her fist, create armored shields around herself, manifest the platforms she moves/climbs/catches herself on, push away opponents, and generate barriers to hold doors closed. It is quite different from a Terrigenesis transformation granting her polymorph powers…but, as my hunch-led rereading of Ms. Marvel #32-38 (and Saladin Ahmed’s The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1-18 and Samira Ahmed’s Ms. Marvel Beyond the Limit #1-5 because I can be too thorough XD) after watching Ms. Marvel E4 would confirm, not as different as I first thought.
G. Willow Wilson’s final arc of Ms. Marvel included four issues where Kamala battled the Shocker as Bruno tried to analyze her powers (#32-35) and then three issues of one-off stories bringing her time writing all these beautiful characters she helped create to a close with her finale in issue #38. In this final arc, Wilson develops Kamala’s powers in such a way that the origin of her MCU powers isn’t too far off.
In issue #32, freshly back from Wakanda, Bruno tells Kamala, “When I was in Wakanda and had access to all this amazing technology, I started thinking… Do we really know how your powers work? I mean, we know how they work, but do we know why? Like, you shouldn’t be able to borrow mass out of nowhere, or give it away, either, but you do… I was thinking maybe we could take a shot at finding out.” He goes on to observe, “Something I’ve always thought was odd about your powers…you can take stuff you’re wearing with you when you grow and shrink. I mean…the Hulk doesn’t do that. That guy must go through a fortune in pants.”
Issue #34 opens with Bruno running tests in his lab while Kamala battles the Shocker. As he experiments with a polymorph material he injected with some of her DNA, he sees a kaleidoscope of futures: Kamala as a dystopian freedom fighter, as President of the United States, swinging through Karachi with the Red Dagger, and marrying Bruno. He realizes, “In other words…we’re not looking at the future. We’re looking at all possible futures.” As he wrestles with the implications of it all he says, “At least I can give her this. Something she can use. Because now we know where she borrows mass from. Time. She borrows it from time.” He later expounds, “Okay. Okay. So she conserves mass by borrowing it from her past and future self. She may exist in the present, but on a molecular level, she’s time-travelling.”
So, in the comics, Kamala is pulling or shifting her mass from/to her past or future selves (presumably, when she grows she takes it from a time she shrinks and when she shrinks she takes it from a time when she grows but science is not my forte so I may be wrong…). And since she isn’t taking it from the future but all possible futures that implies the multiverse, at the very least she’s sliding along quantum mechanics’ probability wave where each choice locates us at a particular place on the wave and forms the root of the Quantum Multiverse theory (if you’d like to read more about this via Doctor Who then you can click here or to see an analysis of Dan Slott’s “Spider-Verse” epic discussing how all nine multiversal theories fit within it you can click here).
This means, in the comics, Kamala has polymorph abilities because she draws mass from other dimensions just as she can create her energy constructs in the MCU because she draws energy from another dimension.
And I think that’s kinda neat :).
I grant there still are problems around the change. I’ve read several very personal, well articulated pieces (both articles and in Twitter threads) discussing the importance of seeing a young Pakistani American girl come to accept her body and identity as she is while living surrounded by predominately white culture (in the comics, Kamala could originally shape-shift and her first transformation was into Carol Danvers, an ability which fades as she accepts who she is and becomes her own hero). So this change carries more weight than Peter Parker having organic spinnerets in his wrists as opposed to building web-shooters. I’ve also read well argued pieces which wonder if the real reason Kamala isn’t a polymorph is because the Fantastic Four are coming to the MCU and the executive powers-that-be want Mr. Fantastic to be unique with his bendy and stretchy powers which, as these pieces argue, would be ridiculous given how many MCU heroes have similar strength and/or energy blast powers. Lastly, there’s the issue of change since Inhumans “don’t fit” within the MCU. This is true now but there seemed to be a big push in early 2010’s comics to make Inhumans “the new X-Men” as Fox wouldn’t sell the film rights back to Disney. Kamala was one of the new Inhuman characters (though she, her world, and popularity quickly outgrew the Inhumans). Then the MCU made an Inhumans show (which didn’t do well) and Disney bought Fox Entertainment to get the X-Men and Fantastic Four back so the MCU moved away from the Inhumans. Such synergistic narrative yo-yoing is more annoying than problematic though.
All that being said, I think Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan feels just like Kamala in the comics (so much so I already hear her voice in my head when I’m reading Ms. Marvel :D). The characters, their world, their relationships, the love the comics carry all come to life on Disney+’s Ms. Marvel. It’s all I could want of an adaptation of the character who brought me back to reading comics after seventeen years away. And I really appreciate, even though Kamala’s powers are different, they made a point of synching their dimensional-transfer nature with one of the last additions Wilson made while writing the character she helped create.
Perhaps though it is Ms. Marvel #36 which shows the most direct through line between who Kamala Khan is, powers and all, in the comics and in the MCU. After all the chaos of testing her powers and fighting the Shocker, Kamala and Bruno sit on the roof and talk about her life and her powers as they stare at the night sky. Much of their conversation is in narration blocks accompanying scenes of Kamala’s ancestors (who she imagines to wear the faces of her and her friends). The narration over the panels where Kamala’s Inhuman ancestor first meets her human ancestor has Kamala ask Bruno, “Know what I like to think?” Bruno says, “What?” Kamala says, “I don’t think it was some galactic war or science experiment that made me who I am. I think, a long time ago, two people fell in love. I think they changed history. But they changed it by accident. And together, they created something much bigger than either of them could create alone.”
In her own words, her own frame, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel became who she is because of love.
This works within the narrative, of course, but I see a meta-side to the dialogue, too. G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie also changed history in creating Kamala Khan and they, too, did it by accident. Wilson and Amanat have often said in interviews their goal for the series was ten issues. Yet here we are, eighty issues of a solo title, sixty-six issues across three team books (All New, All Different Avengers; Champions; Secret Warriors; and Marvel Rising), numerous appearances in other comic/event titles, video games, a Marvel Rising animated show, and countless t-shirts and toys later and we’re seeing Kamala Khan and her family and friends come to life on Disney+ each week.
It was a labor of love that brought Kamala Khan and her world to life in the pages of Ms. Marvel in 2014. It is love, in all its messy beauty and profound complications, which has always grounded Kamala’s character and actions in those stories. It is love which bound so many fans to her character after meeting her. This love – both in Kamala’s character and the relationships around her as well as in the labor of this show’s producers, writers, directors, cast, and crew – fills each episode of Ms. Marvel. You can feel it when you watch it. Each episode radiates love and joy. This love fills my heart each time I watch Ms. Marvel, too. So while Kamala’s powers may come from the Noor Dimension instead of Terrigenesis, the love which was always the source of all Kamala is, powers included, remains at the heart of her story in the MCU just as it’s always been on every page of her comics.
4 thoughts on ““Embiggen!”: Connecting Kamala’s Powers in Disney+’s Ms. Marvel to Her Comic Origin”
I was iffy on the power change but I’m actually enjoying the connection to her family and her heritage. I understand and agree with people feeling like her powers were connected to her body and acceptance but I think they may be trying for something just as deep here. Hopefully it lands!
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I hope so, too! I really think you’re right; they have the potential to develop something just as meaningful in its own way with this. And it becomes a story that isn’t tied to the Inhumans, whether or not they are in favor at any given moment. It can be just HERS and I love that. I am both so excited for the last two episodes as well as sad it’ll be over. I wish S1 could be, ummmm, like 22 episodes ;D.
I finally watched the series and finally read this post!
I completely agree. I thought the series was really fun and, as you say, joyful in a way that I don’t look anything else in the MCU is. I can’t believe people have been saying Ms. Marvel isn’t good or they don’t like it. I would love to see season 2 and also more series that have a similar tone. I also loved Kamala’s family (especially her mother!) and loved that they eventually became involved with her being a superhero, since stories about teens always seem to involved the teens hiding everything.
I haven’t read the comics, so I also appreciate all the background you give here, so I can actually see how the comics and the show intersect!
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Ah! I remember out Twitter conversation about this post! I love when moments like that come full circle. More than that, I’m happy you loved the show, too! I don’t understand the people who don’t like it, either. I mean, I get all art is subjective but I’m not sure what you’re looking for in a superhero story if you don’t fall in love with some part of this.
I’m glad you appreciated my comic connections :). I was SO EXCITED when they used the, “I think, a long time ago, two people fell in love. I think they changed history. But they changed it by accident. And together, they created something much bigger than either of them could create alone” line in the final episode! My heart! I definitely cried watching that scene.
I can’t wait for the next season, too. I am very excited to see her on the big screen, obviously. But we got to see so much of her family, her friends, her city, and her world like that and I am here for all of it. I think introducing her with a Disney+ show was the way to go. Everyone around Kamala is so important to her and her journey as Ms. Marvel and they all got room to breathe and develop this way.