Editor’s note: The below article contains spoilers for Episode 1 of Ms. Marvel.Second-generation immigrants love superheroes. We really do. Have you ever noticed that? Have you ever asked why? In a lot of ways, the classic idea of a superhero is relatable to us. A character who leads two lives, who has a secret. Many of us grow up caught between the culture of our parent’s home countries and that of the world around us. There exist two versions of us, neither one more ‘truthful’ than the other, but both different and necessary. Peter Parker and Spider-Man need each other, he’s incomplete without both of his halves – yet at the same time, the two halves are constantly warring, fighting for control over his life.
This past week I had the pleasure of watching the first episode of Ms. Marvel with my family. I’m talking parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, aunties – the whole shebang. A family of Muslim Pakistanis in America watching a tv show, the first tv show, about a Muslim Pakistani superhero in America. I cannot express in words the way the room lit up. Parents and aunties who usually have no interest in superheroes were enthralled that ‘one of us’ got to be on the screen. For me though, it was almost bittersweet.
In a lot of ways, I grew up similarly to Kamala (Iman Vellani). In a Muslim Pakistani family in North America. I always felt like there was some sort of exceptionalism for my older brother as if he could get away with anything, but I was not allowed to participate with my peers in a ‘normal’ way. I was a massive fan of superhero comics; I even cosplayed a couple of times to go to a comic con – and I was not the only one. Immigrants love superhero stories, but so often we’re gate-kept out of them. Characters like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark represent someone people like me could never hope to be. These handsome, rich, white, playboys. This is an ideal type of person for some people – not for people like me, it’s too far away from reality for us. As Kamala says, “It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.”
Throughout the episode, there’s a constant return to a central theme: “Who is Kamala Khan?” There are a couple of ways it’s framed on the surface, all of which are dichotomies, two opposite directions she’s being pulled in. Superheroes vs normalcy, fantasy vs reality, social vs school life. But all these dichotomies are ultimately stand-ins for what’s really happening – she’s caught between worlds. Conventions, superhero fandoms, and her social life all represent the world she’s grown up in – America. Normalcy, school, and reality all represent where she comes from – Pakistan. There’s a sense in which she wants to be part of the larger culture around her so bad, but she is trapped by her skin and home. She wants to be special, a hero, but she is trapped by what it means to be an immigrant.
If you’re ever curious about what it feels like to be an immigrant – that’s it right there. It feels like you’re trapped between two places, unable to enter either. You’re held back by where you come from, a place you do not even truly feel you belong or identify with. And you’re constantly grasping to be part of where you are, but you’re simply not allowed to be. Of course, the kicker is that it’s a false dichotomy – feeling like you have to belong in one place or the other. Both of those places, the world you come from and the world you are in, are important experiences in shaping who you are. They’re valuable, and they both matter, and you need to be able to unite them if you want to move forward.
Some people have complained that the show changed how Ms. Marvel gets her powers and that it’s a problem – I disagree completely. See, Kamala spends all episode caught between worlds, feeling like being a ‘brown girl from Jersey City’ is holding her back – but it’s only when she puts her Nani’s (maternal grandmother’s) bracelet on her Captain Marvel costume at the end of the episode. , when she unites the world she’s in with the world she comes from, that she gets her powers. Becoming a superhero in Ms. Marvel is not about ignoring where you come from because ‘America is a melting pot anyway’, nor is it about embracing your skin color and rejecting America as a place that never wanted you – it’s about finding out that you’re not caught between two. places, you’re in a special place of your own.
This is why the show was so bittersweet for me to watch. When I was younger, I was Kamala. I was angry at where I came from. I was upset that it held me back from being who I wanted to be – “Why don’t any of my idols, my heroes, look like me? It must be because I can not be them… right?” I would’ve killed in those days for a show like Ms. Marvel, for a show that let me see myself as the person I wanted to be, but it came just a little too late for me. I had to learn that those ideas were wrong in a much harder way, in a much more mentally destructive way.
When I first watched the episode I watched it alone – it was bitter. “I wish this came out when I needed it,” I thought. When I watched it a second time, it was with my family. My cousin is a number of years younger than me and a lot like I was; she’s also a lot like Kamala. It was sweet. I saw her eyes light up more than anyone else’s in that room as she got to see that there is power in the conflict of where you come from and where you are.
Ms. Marvel is not just a show about an immigrant. Nor is it a show simply for immigrants. It’s not just a weak attempt at representation – it’s truly a testament to the immigrant story. No, not all our parents were like Kamala’s – not all our problems were the same, not all of us are from Jersey City. That’s not the point. It’s not about the specifics of the individual moments or characters – it’s about the larger internal conflict. It’s about finding power in uniting the warring parts of ourselves, in learning that being neither American nor Pakistani does not mean you are nothing. You are not caught between places – you’re just in a place of your own, and that’s where your power lies.
Read more about Ms. Marvel:
‘Ms. Marvel ‘Captures the Melancholy and Wonder of Growing Up
‘Ms. Marvel ‘Episode 1 Welcomes Kamala Khan, Teenage Fangirl and Superhero-To-Be | Review
‘Ms. Marvel ‘: Kamala Khan’s Powers in the Series, Explained