I’m Afraid They’ll Treat Ms. Marvel as They Did Spider-Man as She Moves to the Greater MCU
While their stories venture in different directions in the comics, both Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) have very similar appeal. Not only are they young heroes roughly the same age balancing superherodom and high school in the northeast, but they both grew up in working-class families. However, the most recent depictions of Peter Parker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe lost that last part. His introduction to the MCU jumped right to enlistment in the Avengers as an “ask no questions” child soldier for an international conflict (in Captain America: Civil War) by an ex-weapons maker-turned-private military leader. And I’m afraid Kamala will head in the same direction.
Your friendly (rarely in the) neighborhood Spider-Cop
Yes, I’m talking about the influence of Tony Stark/Iron Man, and let’s get this out of the way right up front: This isn’t another “Iron Man Jr.” rant about the MCU’s Spider-Man. This is about the real-world issues at play in this version of Spider-Man’s story, regardless of how anyone feels about the Tony/Peter dynamic for their characters otherwise. After supposedly turning over a new leaf during Iron Man, he continued the “I’m an ethical billionaire that can fix anything” schtick and started to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s important to note that while S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate in the comics since the ’90s, it changed to Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, specifically in 2008 in Iron Man. A few years before, in 2002, the U.S. created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS, which housed the newly created Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE) We will come back to this.
As the military does, Tony picks up a kid without a lot of money (though still seemingly better off than the Andrew Garfield and Tobey McGuire versions) and opens his world. Tony gives Peter access to incredible opportunities, hardware, and much-needed cover when he needs to go do superhero stuff. This wouldn’t come without consequences, though. As this Spider-Man got his own films, he was relegated to fighting villains who were only villains because of Tony’s militaristic messes.
While definitely villains, Vulture and Mysterio have more in common with Peter than Tony. However, they are destroying property and not on the payroll for a private military or the U.S. government, so they’re bad. Story-wise, it’s cool to have these villains connect to Peter’s collab movie adventures, but until his third solo movie, he’s really in service of protecting capital and not people. No, really. It’s not until Tony is out of the picture in the final film that Peter at least attempts restorative justice.
Why bring this up regarding the future of Kamala? I’m afraid Kamala is going down the same path ahead of The Marvels, and it’s going to be much harder to suspend disbelief.
Misfortune ahead for Ms. Marvel and The Marvels
The Marvels features two cops and Kamala. I don’t think being a superhero alone makes you a cop, but Monica is heavily associated with S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department) and Danvers with S.H.I.E.L.D. Both are fascinating characters and I’m very excited to see more of them, but they are agents, in some capacity, for a federal organization that loves to play world cop for imperialistic and capitalistic endeavors. Like Peter, Kamala is understandably naive to these goings-on (she admits as much in her solo show), but unlike Peter, the stakes are very different for her as a Pakistani Muslim (especially) in a post-9/11 world. This puts Kamala in a weird place.
Major spoilers for Ms. Marvel.
While she seems less politically aware as compared to her comics counterpart, the Disney+ Ms. Marvel series made it clear they weren’t going to wash away as much as they could have. The show contained commentary about the unwarranted surveillance of Muslims and mosques, but instead of taking aim directly at real-life DHS (you know Disney isn’t ready to sever all ties), that criticism was pointed at Marvel’s U.S. Department of Damage Control (DDC)—an org co-created with Stark Industries and, like the real DHS, created after a big attack in New York. They’ve been in the MCU since 2012 but didn’t get much attention until the last Spider-Man movie.
Much of the pushback and comments about DDC come from adults in Kamala’s mosque and one of her best friends, Nakia. However, in the comics, Kamala is outright defiant of federal forces, too. On a macro and micro level, she defies ICE and C.R.A.D.L.E. (Child-Hero Reconnaissance And Disruption Law Enforcement). In the real world, she became a symbol of resistance, especially after former President Trump won the 2016 election.
To Kamala and her peers via their experience as working-class people and those of a marginalized community, the military is a weapon turned against us in time of social unrest, despite any good deeds or actions by individuals within the institution. For the most part, she’s loved (like Spider-Man) when she’s actually at home doing superhero stuff, rather than lending her powers to that kind of institution.
Her community, just like many SWANA and Muslims in the U.S., has faced two decades of unjust arrests, detentions, searches, and seizures in the name of national security after 9/11. In the show’s finale, federal agents (who had been tailing her throughout the show) literally follow her and her friends in a school with guns blazing. This is before getting into the drones hovering over them during Eid al-Adha.
Other clues as to how this will be handled
The show also slips into the very mainstream and incorrect assumption that when the police are found doing objectively bad things, it’s just a few bad apples. In Ms. Marvel, it’s Sadie Deever (an officer within the DDC). In WanadaVision, it was bad actors in S.H.I.E.L.D., but that still allowed for the FBI to be the good guys—and so on. Despite what I saw as hollowness and reverting back to a “bad apple” plot in Ms. Marvel, Inverse did point out that it was still a big deal that the U.S. government was seen as the antagonist at all—but the finale episode still featured the police being the “good guys.”
The finale episode was criticized for that by Arab/SWANA and Muslim reviewers, but that conversation was overshadowed by the larger conversation about the djinn plot issues, especially in the light of the final scene and familiar music in the background. With a new MCU project every month, there’s no time to really sit with this if you want to stay engaged. The next time we really get to sit with S.H.I.E.L.D. (that we know of) is the Secret Invasion miniseries that will wrap up right before The Marvels.
As a person of color, I have to compartmentalize as much as I can to enjoy most big-budget media, especially the more I learn about how the film industry struggles to not parrot harmful whitewashing of state violence. I don’t think all of this is on purpose, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. No matter how many TV procedurals attempt to show truth prevailing or how many patriotic monologues Aaron Sorkin writes, the U.S. doesn’t work for everyone. Pinning a badge on Ms. Marvel as she’s stretched away from her Jersey roots to work with the U.S. military is a disservice to her and the fans. I hope this doesn’t happen.
(featured image: Disney & Marvel Entertainment)
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