The new Disney+ show, 'Ms. Marvel,' introduces young people to a hero who struggles with many of the same things that they do, including matters of faith.
Growing up has never been easy. In some ways, it is harder today than it has ever been. The pressures that modern teenagers face are large and daunting, from the shifting ground of morality to the endless scrutiny created by social media. As Ms. Marvel finally makes her way from the pages of Marvel Comics to television and movie screens, young people will finally see a hero who struggles with many of the same things that they do, including to matters of faith.
In some ways that may seem like an exaggeration. After all, aren’t all comic book heroes meant to be iconic to young people? Moreover, isn’t Spider-Man already giving us a take on the modern teen hero? Well, sure, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has definitely brought that sensibility to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the character of Kamala Khan, played by the immensely talented and instantly likable Iman Vellani, we see important things we haven’t seen before.
For one thing, the experience of teen girls is very different from that of teen boys, especially when it comes to body image, navigating relationships, and even meeting academic expectations. Ms. Marvel tackles all of that from the inside. Likewise, we see in Kamala what it is like to grow up as a person of color from an immigrant family in a society that does not always value those experiences. “It’s not really brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” Kamala says to her friend Bruno in the first episode of the new Disney+ show. But Bruno knows her. “You’re Kamala Khan,” he says, “You want to save the world, then you’re going to save the world.” And if the series is anything like the book from which it sprang, Kamala will learn to find in herself what Bruno already sees there: strength and compassion that go far beyond superpowers.
Ms. Marvel’s faith
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ms. Marvel as a character is her faith. Aside from the overly brooding Catholicism of Daredevil, religion is not something we have seen much of in the MCU, despite the presence of literal Norse and Egyptian gods. Kamala Khan is a Muslim, and it is a significant part of her identity. While Islam and Catholicism are not the same thing, it is nonetheless heartening to see a character with superpowers for whom faith is real, even if a struggle. In the comics, Kamala often wrestles with what she believes. Even in the first two episodes of the series, there are already indications that this aspect of the character will remain consistent.
As a priest who serves in full time ministry as a high school chaplain, I spend a lot of time walking alongside teenagers as they try to figure out what they believe and why. The stereotype is that young people today have rejected religion entirely. And certainly many of them have–the overriding pressure to accept a completely secularized account of the world is hard to escape for anyone today, but especially for those who are still just trying to figure out where they fit in the world. But often, in their attempts to make sense of their faith, teenagers are not trying to reject religion, let alone the deep ties of culture and family that come with it, but to understand how it can make sense in the world they actually live in. They are growing up, and they want to know if their religion can grow with them.
As a big fan of the Ms. Marvel comic, my one disappointment so far in the new series has been the change in Kamala’s powers. In the comics, her major power is the ability to stretch and alter her shape and size, which she playfully refers to as “embiggening.” It is an apt metaphor for the teenage experience. As she learns to control her powers, she faces down a lot of awkwardness and many failed attempts to get things right. She has to learn to stretch in a way that empowers her rather than just wearing her out. In the MCU, however, she does not have stretching and shapeshifting powers, but rather has been granted through a mysterious bracelet the power to manipulate energy. The creators say the change is necessary in order to connect Ms. Marvel with other important upcoming stories in the MCU–and I hope they are right–but I fear that something precious may be lost. The brilliance of the character of Kamala Khan is that she learns how to bend without breaking, to be constant inside of herself no matter what is coming at her from the outside. Nowhere is this metaphor more in evidence than when it comes to religion.
As young people search for ways of stretching their faith to accommodate their own experiences, devout adults often fear that they are trying to water the faith down. It is an understandable fear. Throughout history, religions that align themselves too deeply with a passing cultural moment tend eventually to disappear. Just ask those Norse and Egyptian gods that the MCU loves so much. As a Catholic, I believe in a faith that is universal and timeless, and that often means that it goes against the grain not just of my own culture but of every culture. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever as Hebrews 13:8 says. The world needs to be stretched to find itself in the Nicene Creed, not the other way around.
Grounded in truth
Still, the words of Pope St. John XXIII, the patron saint of the school where I minister, ring true. As he opened the Second Vatican Council, he said, “The Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers, but at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world.”
The point being that a faith that is grounded in universal truth and love need not ever be in fear of facing the particular challenges of any given moment in time. Young people who want to figure out if they can make the faith given to them by their parents their own, who struggle to fit it with a modern world that often looks and feels at odds with how they were raised, need the freedom to be able to test the truth so as to see it in all it splendor.
Whether Kamala Khan’s relationship with God stretches to fill every corner of her world or gets overshadowed by other concerns will remain to be seen over time. What is certain is that God loves all young people even in the midst of their doubts and growing pains. And depicting even a small portion of that love on the screen cannot help but give those watching some hope that their own struggles are not in vain.