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How Ms. Marvel became Marvel’s most important superhero

Ms. Marvel’s superpower is changing the way Marvel thought about its readers.

The cover art for Ms. Marvel #2.
Jamie McKelvie/Marvel
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Iron Man. Captain America. Black Panther. Captain Marvel. Thor. The Guardians of the Galaxy. The last decade of Marvel has made a variety of superheroes into household names, cultural phenomena, and topics of mainstream conversation. Some have even changed the way we think about the world around us.

Arguably, though, the most important Marvel superhero of the last decade isn’t on that list: Kamala Khan, otherwise known as Ms. Marvel.

To be clear, there’s no such thing as Marvel Studios without Tony Stark/Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. That performance turned Marvel into a movie-making juggernaut. But although Marvel has come to define blockbuster movies, it’s a comic book publisher first and foremost.

The most emblematic example of Marvel’s rich tradition of storytelling, heart, and underdog spirit pioneered by Marvel godfathers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby isn’t Iron Man, however. The character’s time in the spotlight has effectively wrapped. Instead, it’s important to look at what the future holds for this formidable force in entertainment — and in that sense, it’s the comic book star Ms. Marvel who is the character that matters most.

Marvel’s heroes have always represented the best of humanity, but historically, they haven’t done a great job of reflecting the diversity of humanity. Although fans have often been asked to imagine themselves as the heroes they admire, the pervading idea has been that comic books featuring legacy heroes who are mostly men — and mostly white men at that — were the only ones that could be successful, since they traditionally had the biggest sales (correlation and causation be damned).

Ms. Marvel changed that narrative. Since the series launched, its protagonist Kamala Khan and its massive success have proved to Marvel that not only could its A-list heroes stand to look more like the wide array of people who read and love Marvel comics, but also that its loyal readers could relate to a hero who doesn’t look like the traditional model. The stories Marvel went on to tell after her debut — and will continue to tell on the big screen for years to come — are indebted to Ms. Marvel.

Ms. Marvel was a breakout success that changed Marvel comic books

Prior to Ms. Marvel’s introduction in 2014, Marvel’s comics division was deeply focused on its long-standing core characters, including the Avengers (thanks in large part to the movies) and the X-Men (whose film franchise was well-established and whose characters, like the iconic Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, dominated popularity in the ’90s). It was also beginning to push the race of superhumans called the Inhumans (stars of a dismal television series). That meant most of the featured heroes were generally men and mostly white; though the X-Men, for example, featured mutants of all colors, shapes, and sizes, burly Wolverine was often the featured star of the comics.

Heroes who weren’t white men, like alt-universe Spider-Man Miles Morales and Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, had loyal followings too. But none of them had the same level of recognition and success as that of Peter Parker or Tony Stark.

Enter Ms. Marvel.

Written by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by artist Adrian Alphona, and overseen by editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker, Ms. Marvel stars Kamala Khan, a Muslim and a Pakistani-American teen living in New Jersey. She leads a pretty normal life, complete with all of the usual insecurities, schoolwork, crushes, heartaches, disappointments, triumphs, parties, groundings, and melodrama — that is, until a green mist sweeps across the world (while Kamala is at a party for which she snuck out to go), activates her latent alien Inhuman genes, and unlocks her shape-shifting abilities.

Kamala faces a Peter Parker-like challenge: to continue living life as a teen, but also as the hero she always dreamed of being. Most of the time, one comes at the expense of the other, with hero-ing getting in the way of school or first kisses or with things like doting parents, overprotective siblings, and the need to maintain grades at school interrupting hero time.

Kamala’s parents find out she snuck out in Ms. Marvel #2.
Adrian Alphona/Marvel

What’s so distinctive about Kamala’s story is how contemporary and relatable it is. Considering how different she is from the popular superheroes who preceded her — her religion, the color of her skin, her being a suburban teenage girl — it’s a testament to Wilson and Alphona’s touching storytelling that Kamala’s life, its highs and lows, is so universal and yet specific to her experiences. Marvel’s comic books have always asked their readers to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes and someone else’s experiences, and Kamala turned out to be no different.

“Wilson and Alphona infuse pure joy into Kamala’s creation, instilling a kind of charm that will resonate with all of her readers. Kamala Khan is loud, she’s Inhuman, and she’s here to stay — and I couldn’t be happier for it,” Meagan Damore wrote for CBR, formerly Comic Book Resources.

“For every muscular white dude punching another muscular white [dude] that panders to the ‘core’ comics fans, there should be another issue of this or of Young Avengers or of Nova. Because just as much as those other two titles there, Kamala’s problems feel real and genuine and relatable even to a non-Muslim, and seeing her journey from that to superhero is important,” David Henderson wrote at Multiversity Comics.

In Kamala’s case, it’s not that fans couldn’t imagine themselves in her shoes — it’s that they’ve never really been asked to.

Ms. Marvel #1 was a critical and commercial hit, earning high marks from reviewers while going into seven printings; the demand for the issue was so high, it required Marvel to create more comic books seven times over to keep up. According to Comic Chron, a site that tracks and estimates comic book sales, 75,280 physical issues of Ms. Marvel #1 were sold in 2014, landing it among the top 105 issues sold that year (keep in mind that multiple issues of comics from multiple publishers are released every week).

Digitally (where sales aren’t reported by comic book companies thoroughly), we know that Ms. Marvel has traditionally been one of Marvel’s bestsellers and that over 500,000 trade paperbacks (collected, physical editions of the comic book) have been sold as of 2018. Ms. Marvel currently stars in the also-successful The Magnificent Ms. Marvel, written by Saladin Ahmed and drawn by Minkyu Jung.

Ms. Marvel’s breakaway success, in a territory crowded by recognizable legacy costumes, was undeniable proof to Marvel that racial, religious, and gender diversity were worth the investment.

The idea of readers, kids especially, seeing themselves in the superheroes they admire has fueled Marvel comics’ success. With Kamala, an entire swath of Marvel fans were able to finally see someone with their skin color, with their religious beliefs, and within their age group saving the world — that’s a nice sentiment. But Marvel is a business, and in order for it to get fully on board with representation, high profit margins are a big help. Ms. Marvel certainly brought those.

The Ms. Marvel effect will find its way onscreen in 2021

Ms. Marvel.
Adrian Alphona/Marvel

Coinciding with Ms. Marvel’s release and its success was a bigger conversation about the diversity, or lack thereof, of superheroes on the big screen.

By 2014, the year Ms. Marvel launched, Marvel had made a total of 10 movies. None were devoted to a female superhero. To be clear, characters like Gamora and Black Widow existed, but they did not command their own films; no female Marvel superhero would have her own solo film until 2019’s Captain Marvel. A year later, after the infamous Sony email leak, which included internal correspondence between studio executives from Sony and other studio heads, it was revealed that then-Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter believed that female superhero-led movies would fail.

His view strongly differed from what was happening on the comic book side, where Marvel soon began what would be a concerted push for representation and diversity in its comic books. Silk and Spider-Gwen, characters in the Spider-Man universe, were introduced and found followings the same year as Ms. Marvel. Existing characters like Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman also got their own solo titles in 2015.

That same year, Marvel began monumental changes: Steve Rogers’s compatriot Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, took the title of Captain America, Jane Foster became Thor, and Iceman, an original X-Man, came out as gay. A-Force, a comic featuring an all-female team of Avengers, also debuted in 2015.

Not all of these books were successful, and some poor titles even caused retailers to grumble about sales. Therein is probably a lesson about the pitfalls of cashing in on diversity for the sake of diversity, but there have also been many legacy heroes’ books that have flopped. But Marvel’s comic books, in the wake of Ms. Marvel’s success, were more diverse than ever. And with the surge of female and non-white superheroes on the comic book side of Marvel’s business, it made Marvel Studios’s lack thereof even more glaring.

It turns out that Ms. Marvel is a trailblazer on the Studios’ side of things, too. Her success has set the stage for a much more diverse next phase of Marvel movies. In 2021’s Thor: Love and Thunder, directed by Taika Waititi, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) will return and, just like in the comic books, she will be deemed “worthy” to wield the mythical Mjölnir and assume the powers of the Thunder God — a story inspired by the 2015 event created during Marvel’s broader representation push.

Thor: Love and Thunder will follow Captain Marvel’s debut in 2019 and Black Widow’s long-awaited solo movie in May 2020 — the trio will be Marvel’s first three female superhero movies. Marvel Studios will also continue telling stories that feature non-white heroes. 2018’s Black Panther was a box-office smash, becoming one of the biggest movies of all time. And next up, Marvel will welcome its first Asian-American superhero in 2021’s Shang Chi. Marvel’s cinematic schedule, including a sequel to Black Panther in 2022, will be the most diverse in history.

Instead of joining these heroes on the big screen, Kamala will star elsewhere: She’ll have her own television show, which Marvel announced at this year’s D23 Expo fan event. No official release date has been set, but according to Marvel, Ms. Marvel and the rest of Marvel’s Disney+ television shows will eventually tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This could mean the eventual appearance of Kamala on the big screen, fighting alongside all of the Avengers she idolized. And if that happens, Kamala could be the beacon of hope for a new set of fans — and could give those who are already familiar with Jersey’s friendly neighborhood shapeshifter a chance to fall in love with her all over again.