When Ms. Marvel star Iman Vellani was told that Erik Voss had submitted a question for the Ms. Marvel press conference, she let out an audible gasp.
“I hear you’re a fan,” says moderator Malika Bilal, knowing very well what she was about to unleash.
Erik Voss is the lead host of NewRockstars, a YouTube channel focusing on nerdy speculation and shot-for-shot breakdowns of popular movies and television shows, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, yes, Iman Vellani is a huge fan.
“I have billboards with my face on it. But like, him saying my name correctly and breaking down our trailers was bigger than any billboard ever.”
The channel has already produced six videos on Ms. Marvel at the time of this writing, including a full breakdown of the first episode that dropped this past Wednesday on Disney+. The show centers on Kamala Khan, played by Vellani, a Pakistani teenager from Jersey City who digs out a family heirloom and inherits cosmic abilities.
In the first episode’s opening sequence, Kamala is editing a funny animated recap of Avengers: Endgame for her YouTube channel. When Voss asks if Kamala Khan is subscribed to any popular Marvel channels, giving Marvel Studios permission to make NewRockstars canon, Vellani was excited at the prospect. “I don’t know if NewRockstars is Canon in the MCU. I would love them to be. I think a version of them is. A variant, if you will.”
“Yeah. Hi Erik. I love you.”
It’s this rare, genuine moment of full-on nerdiness that separates Vellani from any Marvel star to date, maybe any star working in Hollywood today. For the first time, a hardcore Marvel fan is actually a part of the MCU. Sure, admirers of the mega-franchise have entered the ring, but never before have we seen someone this in-touch with the Marvel fandom involved in the series itself. Considering Kamala Khan is a hardcore fan herself, Marvel couldn’t have found a better casting choice. Life imitates art far more often than the other way around.
Also unlike many of Marvel icons, this is Vellani’s first ever acting role. She was forwarded a WhatsApp message from her aunt with the casting call. “I thought it was a scam,” she said. “I don’t know what casting calls look like.” But it was real. “They sent back the sides for the self-tape [and] I knew exactly which comic books they pulled them from.”
Vellani had read the original Ms. Marvel comic series back when it was first released and instantly fell in love with the character. She even dressed up as her for Halloween. So, she did what any normal teenager would do when given the opportunity to audition for their favorite film franchise ever––she panicked. “I was like, ‘I can’t do it.’ I was making excuses for myself out of fear of failure. And at, like, 3:00 a.m. the night it was due, I sent in my self-tape. I was like, ‘My 10-year-old self is gonna hate me if I don’t even try.’”
Two days after submitting her self-tape, Marvel came calling and flew her out to Los Angeles. “It was the greatest trip of my life. I was fangirling over [longtime Marvel casting director] Sarah Finn and [MCU executive producer] Louis D’Esposito. I wanted to take full advantage of being in that room, ’cause I didn’t know if it was gonna happen again.”
Eventually, she landed the role. And the best part? She’s still freaking out about it. “I don’t know, it’s just…I’m still processing. I don’t really feel anything.”
Vellani is representative of a larger shift for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the generation who grew up with it are now old enough to steer the ship. Vellani saw the first Iron Man film when she was just 6 years old; these aren’t just superhero movies, but formative stories in the journey of an aspiring filmmaker. Many don’t know that, before Ms. Marvel, Vellani was a member of the TIFF Next Wave Committee in 2019.
But Vellani isn’t the only hardcore nerd in the cast. After all, it’s an entire generation. Ms. Marvel is full of breakout performers, many of whom are also avid fans of Marvel and the MCU. Later in the press conference, executive producer Sana Amanat asked Rish Shah, another young cast member, to “tell [everyone] what you were surrounded by” when he got the call.
Shah laughs. “Oh my god, all my Funko pops that I’ve been collecting [had been] arranged in my mom’s kitchen in all the battle sequences over the years. I was worried I was gonna freak Sana out.”
Shah plays Kamran, a senior boy who’s new to town. He immediately connects with Kamala, and she falls for him.
“Obviously I was freakin’ out,” jokes Shah. “I mean the first toy I ever received from my dad was an Incredible Hulk action figure. When I was at university, I used to go to the comic shop called ‘Forbidden Planet’ in London and I’d see the comics. I was basically crying with tears when I found out.”
“It really was something all of us have grown up with.”
Yasmeen Fletcher portrays Nakia, one of Kamala’s best friends, and she’s also been there since the very beginning. “I’ve been a huge fan of the MCU for, like, the majority of my life. Going from watching these incredible characters on screen to getting the insane opportunity to play one has been literally the biggest honor of my life.”
The nerdiness even extends into the show’s creative team. One of the nerdiest moments in the first episode comes when Kamala and her other best friend, Bruno, attend “AvengerCon,” a convention for fans of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The two are mostly there for a cosplay contest, but the show floor is any MCU fan’s wet dream: custom merchandise, carnival games, even a memorial for Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff.
It also happened to be on a soundstage neighboring the set of Spider-Man: No Way Home, where they were shooting a soon-to-be iconic scene.
Amanat recalls that the first episode’s co-director, Billal Fallah, was previously asked in an interview “about what his favorite moment on the ‘Ms. Marvel’ set was, and he’s like, ‘It was when we were on the AvengerCon set and Kevin brought us in and took us through a door onto the ‘Spider-Man’ set, and we saw all of the three Spideys,’ and I was like, “That is not the answer to the question.’”
“The story was not finished,” Fallah interjects. “Tom Holland came back to come and see AvengerCon, so that was a pretty epic moment.”
Head writer Bisha K. Ali notes that “there is a draft email from every single writer in the writer’s room being like, ‘Bisha, how do we pitch Kevin Feige to make AvengerCon real?’ I still have it in my drafts. I have not sent it, but I’m here for it.”
Seeing as Kamala is a huge fan of the Marvel heroes themselves, it only makes sense that real-life Marvel nerds share her story. Vellani believes Ms. Marvel is “a love letter to all the MCU fans.”
“I think Ms. Marvel always understood fan culture on such a cellular level and it just really elevated the storytelling in a really unique way. She’s a fan of every other hero within the MCU canon and that fascination and excitement is so shared with real-life Marvel fans, so that’s why we relate to her.”
“I’m just excited that people can finally see what I saw when I picked up those comics for the first time and fell in love with Kamala and her world.”
New episodes of Ms. Marvel premiere Wednesdays on Disney+. The first episode is now available to stream.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.