Iman Vellani, the Canadian star of The Marvels, is celebrated for bringing infectious enthusiasm to her role as Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim superhero. And she falls firmly into two camps as a Marvel superfan and a lover of international cinema.
Ever since Martin Scorsese (rightfully!) protested Marvel’s dominance over studio budgets and theatre space by declaring their content is “not cinema,” the split between the comic book franchise’s stans and those who consider themselves true cinephiles has grown more contentious (at times even toxic) online.
“I watch German art house films and then I also work on Marvel movies,” Vellani, 21, tells me on a Zoom call, while wearing a Girls on Tops T-shirt with The Marvels director Nia DaCosta’s name printed on the front. “And I love both of them equally.”
Browse through Vellani’s Letterboxd account, where moviegoers compare notes, and you’ll see how expansive her taste is. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire are ranked alongside Iron Man as her faves.
“I love a good movie where I can go crazy, be superanalytical and discuss the cinematography and the score and everything,” says Vellani, who is from Markham, Ont., and also plays Kamala on the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel. “I love when my mind gets put to work. I also love entertainment. I want to escape reality and have a good time.”
Our conversation was meant to happen in the summer. “Life had other plans,” Vellani says, referring to the SAG-AFTRA strike’s disruption, which also left her out of Comic Con and the movie’s premiere.
“I did feel a little silly worrying about a movie premiere,” she says, seemingly referring not only to the strike, but also all the conflict currently unfolding around the world.
“But I think at the end of the day, that’s why this movie was so important,” says Vellani. “It’s a little cheesy, a little quirky, totally like a comic book. And I mean that as the highest praise possible. … It’s genuinely fun. I think people kind of need to escape reality a little bit for an hour and 45 minutes and have a good time. I know fun is the least telling word but there’s a really pure earnestness to this entire film.”
Vellani’s affection for the material and child-like wonder make her a refreshing presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But there’s also wisdom, a sly wit and soulfulness at work in her performances, which is easy to miss when her character (and Vellani herself) gushes as she shares the screen opposite Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel or Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
So much of what we see from Vellani, amidst all the blue-screen shenanigans, is authentic. She explains that director DaCosta would often not let her onto set until her first take just to capture her genuine responses. When, for instance, you see Kamala in a spaceship piloted by Captain Marvel in the movie’s trailer, as the stars flying by are reflected on her face, her awestruck expression is her actual reaction to the sound stage projections playing before her on set for the first time.
Vellani also describes feeling outside of herself when acting opposite someone like Jackson, who, by the way, was one of the guests who attended her birthday party on set. Jackson, along with DaCosta, Larson, Teyonah Parris and Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige were all there enjoying cake in the backyard. Not a real backyard, mind you, but the one built on the studio lot belonging to Kamala’s family. As she tells me this, I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to have Jackson wish you “happy birthday” with his trademark knack for expletives.
“He didn’t swear at me at all,” Vellani squeals, having a laugh at my disappointment. “I was so mad. He was very happy with me. I was just like, ‘God! Say something awful!’ ”
We’re speaking just as media and online voices are reacting to The Marvels’s disappointing US$47-million domestic box-office haul, which simultaneously topped the weekend and ranked as the lowest opening ever for a movie from the MCU. That dismal showing feels less indicative of the appeal of The Marvels and more like the result of the studio’s accumulating issues – as reported in Variety – around constantly shoving a new Marvel thing in front of us – whether in theatres or on the Disney+ streaming service – resulting in collapsing quality control and an audience too exhausted to keep up.
“People are discussing the inner workings of a company that makes superhero films more seriously than political issues and it’s really not that deep,” says Vellani. “If this one thing has been done the same way since 2008′s Iron Man, of course there’s going to be a plateau before progress is made to keep up with all the things. People just need to chill and give them some time, let them cook, keep the fandom positive. I feel like I’m being force fed doom postings left, right and centre.”
She’s staying cheery. I wouldn’t expect anything else, even as I wonder if it’s exhausting for such a young talent to consistently keep the tap open for other people’s joy. She’s also celebrating her debut as a comic book writer, creating a story for the character she plays, and giving audiences a more intimate way to connect with her. “The words that people are going to read are the ones that I wrote lying in my bed with a bag of chips.”
In Ms. Marvel: The New Mutant #1, Vellani, along with co-writer Sabir Pirzada, brings Kamala into the X-Men’s fold, which is perhaps an indication of where her character ends up in the movies.
Feige’s response to her literary pursuits? Says Vellani: ”He’s like, ‘What if one day we adapted your comic into a movie or something.’ I’m like, ‘That would be crazy. Also, you should totally do it.’ ”