Ms. Marvel brought a few new developments to Kamala’s story in its third and fourth episodes, including her power origins when she learns that her great-grandmother is a djinn. Djinn are unseen spirits whose stories originate from pre-Islamic folklore. They are described in the Quran as beings of fire who were given free will. Djinn are capable of things humanity is not. Muslims do believe they exist, even going so far as to explain unusual situations as the activities of djinn. Many Muslims grow up with mysterious stories of djinn. For me, it was the djinn who lurked on the rooftops of old homes, or the djinn who knocked on the house’s door if it was closed too early.
Kamala Believes She’s the Stuff of Childhood Nightmares
Ms. Marvel reveals that Kamala grew up with these djinn stories, too. Aamir teases Kamala about her night light that she keeps on because she was afraid of djinn. Kamala’s father, Yusuf, also frustratingly says that Zuzu, the device that Bruno set up for him, is possessed by djinn when it does not work. In “Destined,” Kamala storms into Bruno’s room, and tells him what she is. She specifically says, “I’m like the stuff of my childhood nightmares.”
It’s a harsh statement, but as Kamala says, djinn stories are scary because they are real. We do believe they exist, and thus we believe the stories about them. That particular dialogue bothered me. Kamala is going on a journey of discovering her powers and realizing that she can be a superhero like her idol Captain Marvel. However, Kamala suddenly finds out that she is what she had nightmares about as a child.
Kamala is the first Muslim superhero to be a part of the MCU. And her powers are already different from the comics. It seems unnecessary for Kamala to go through believing that she’s a djinn in addition to her self-acceptance journey. Changing Kamala’s journey from her comic origins of discovering that her genetics are different from other humans to tying her to the very real (and scary, to her) beings from her childhood nightmares is a disservice to her story.
Kamala Khan, Identity, and Djinn Stereotypes
Kamala’s identity as a Pakistani-American and Muslim teen isn’t the only thing that defines her journey in the comics; however, it is integral to how she decides she wants to be a hero. The comics gave her room to explore who she was as an Inhuman and a superhero as she understood her powers. But Ms. Marvel tries to make Kamala go through an “othering” experience with the rather stereotypical option of connecting her to djinn. She believes that she is something to be afraid of. Episode four reveals that Kamala is not like the djinn stories from her culture or in her religion. This is a relief, but the very mention of djinn and Kamala still bothered me.
In trying to ground Kamala in her identity without going the Inhuman route, the writers decide to connect her to something more real to her and, by extension, Muslim viewers. However, the djinn storyline made quite a few fans and critics uncomfortable for good reason. The first Muslim superhero we get has an association with djinn, following an Orientalist pattern in Western media of associating Muslims with mystical beings. Kamala calling herself “the stuff of nightmares” is disheartening. This was a lazy choice considering the historical stereotypes with the depictions of djinn.
In Ms. Marvel‘s fourth episode, there’s also a dismissal of Kamala really being a djinn. Her grandmother is very casual about them being djinn. And the new character Waleed says, “I mean, if Thor landed in the Himalayan mountains, he too would have been called a djinn.” Dismissing idea of Kamala being a djinn as defined in Islam seems like it wasn’t necessary to even include it in the first place.
Ms. Marvel didn’t just go for the stereotype of djinn to explain her extraordinary abilities. It also chose to incorporate a deep cut from Marvel comics, the Clandestines, to elaborate on it. This is problematic because the original ClanDestine comics from 1994 are replete with Orientalist stereotypes. These issues include a white savior, a harem, and the same white savior calling SWANA (South West Asian and North African) people barbarians.
While it is admirable that the writers of Ms. Marvel may have tried to give the Clandestines a new (and less offensive) context, they are given little time to develop. We see this with Najma’s rather sudden heel turn into complete villainy in her introduction episode. The Clandestines and their desire to go home to their dimension could have been a metaphor for the trauma from forced displacement, just like the trauma Kamala’s grandmother went through. But we have yet to truly understand why they want to go home so badly.
What Ms. Marvel Gets Right
Ms. Marvel shines most when it focuses on Kamala’s community and how they encourage her to become a hero. This mirrors the comics in a positive way. In episode three, Kamala’s mother Muneeba tells the story of how she came to America. And, the pre-wedding moment between Aamir and Yusuf provide motivation for Kamala to choose courage, just like her brother did. Kamala also speaks to Sheikh Abdullah, saying, “[I] just thought it would be cool to have a superhero who actually fights for us.” Her family and her community are who she fights for. And the show does a wonderful job of showing us how much the people she loves mean to her. This could develop further through the likely exploration of Partition in the next episode, where it appears Kamala has time traveled to.
So many of the moments (especially the wedding!) between Kamala, her family, her community, and her friends have been so wonderful to see as a South Asian Muslim. Kamala exhibits great pride in her identity. I wish the show kept her journey as figuring out how to be someone that could protect her community and fight for it, rather than associating her with something that has been used all too stereotypically by Western media.