Shapeshifting; How Ms. Marvel (2014) Handles Escapism

In the 30’s and 40’s, as the world was embroiled in a devastating war, Superman provided people a ray of hope in the pages of Action Comics. He was superior to your average man in every way, and possessed an unshakable, unwavering sense of justice and morality. He provided people with the fantasy of someone they could look up to, someone who would save the day no matter what. He provided them with escapism. Superhero comics are some of the most popular forms of escapist fiction there are. People can lose themselves in a world of adventure and action. They can forget about their problems and immerse themselves in a much simpler, more just version of the world, where someone is always out there to set things right. For a little while, they can become someone else. However, as time has gone on, readers and writers have shown that becoming someone else isn’t the only or even the best form of escapism comics can provide.
In the 60’s, Marvel comics provided new heroes for the nuclear age, more human and dysfunctional than those of old. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, etc. These heroes had problems. They weren’t universally loved. They were weird. They suffered tragedy. Yet despite their problems, people found themselves even more wrapped up in the escapist fantasy of these flawed yet brave and bombastic heroes fighting against evil and saving the innocent. No hero encapsulated this dichotomy more than Spider-Man. Peter Parker’s life was embroiled in misfortune and riddled with problems – the same problems that plagued many of his readers in their own lives. However, because of these failings, and these problems, when he inevitably rose above them to do the right thing, it was all the more cathartic.
Since then, comics have provided readers with all manner of similarly flawed heroes for audiences around the world to relate to and in 2014, writer G. Willow Wilson, provided readers with yet another in the pages of Ms. Marvel. Kamala Khan, the titular Ms. Marvel is very similar to Peter Parker in many ways. A young teenager with relatable problems, who finds herself in possession of extraordinary abilities and dedicates herself to fighting crime with them. She’s different in some ways too, of course. She has both her parents. She isn’t plagued by perpetual poverty. She didn’t require intense tragedy to set her on the path of heroism. And, most importantly to this essay, Peter Parker was a white man while Kamala Khan is a Pakistani woman.
2014’s Ms. Marvel tackles race and religion in an interesting way, and in doing so provides a twist on the escapist fantasy found in many other comics. In the very first panel, on the very first page, Kamala is shown desiring something simple: a BLT. Yet, due to her faith, she’s obviously forbidden from indulging.

This moment is comedic, and played as such, yet it’s an early indicator of a theme that runs throughout the first arc of the series. Kamala Khan is never shown as hating her race or religion nor are the lives of her white counterparts presented as superior. Nevertheless, Kamala Khan still experiences angst as a result of the fact that she’s a minority that must live a similar yet different life to her white peers with different obstacles and considerations.
Du Bois called this sensation “Double Consciousness.” He spoke of the Black American experience, but I can only assume it is a similar sort of thing to all minorities, to an extent. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Indeed, one of the characters in the book, Zoe, embodies this sentiment perfectly. Outwardly nice, yet always assuming the worst about Kamala’s heritage, making rude and bigoted comments while never dropping the facade of love and concern. Kamala muses in issue 2 that  “As soon as Zoe shows up I feel…uncomfortable. Like I have to be someone else.” This impulse to be someone else lies at the heart of Kamala’s character throughout this first arc.
Much like Peter Parker, Kamala Khan acts as a mirror to the audience of the book, with an added twist. Peter’s point of relatability was the fact that he had normal problems and the fact that he was a teenager. Kamala embodies those too, but, in addition, she’s also like the audience in that she’s a fan of superheroes, often sitting in her room writing fanfiction about them, wishing to be like Captain Marvel, all the way down to “the classic, politically incorrect costume” and “the giant wedge heels.” Admiring superheroes provides her with the same sense of escapism it provides us. It provides her with an opportunity to not be herself and escape her own reality as a geeky brown girl with a weird religion. She’s given a more literal version of this opportunity at the end of her first issue when she’s granted her powers. She is given the ability to shapeshift.
The end of the first issue has her subconsciously shapeshifting into Ms. Marvel, complete with classic costume and lighter skin. Immediately, it terrifies her. She quite literally has trouble keeping herself together, with different parts of her anatomy expanding and shrinking, and her appearance changing without her input.

Throughout this arc, despite the fact that her powers involve shapeshifting, whenever Kamala attempts to be someone else it never works out well. In a later issue, she attempts to break up a robbery by adopting the guise of Captain Marvel and intervening. The encounter ends with the criminal getting away and her being shot. In an even later issue, she attempts to rescue someone, and, while trying to be like the heroes she looks up to, she botches it and is forced to retreat.
In these misadventures, the book takes on the idea of escapism in an interesting way. Kamala Khan has the power to literally escape from her identity and become someone else. But doing this isn’t effective. It also doesn’t bring her any happiness. She remarks that changing doesn’t make her feel cool. It makes her feel small. To reference Du Bois once again, he says “Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man’s turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness. And yet it is not weakness,—it is the contradiction of double aims.”
Kamala’s problem in these initial issues lies in her identity crisis; her “double aims”. Her desire to escape from being a Pakistani Muslim girl ends up being her greatest obstacle. This culminates in a scene between Kamala and her father, in issue 5. After an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her friend’s brother, Kamala sneaks back into her house only to be caught. Throughout the previous issues, there had been growing friction between Kamala and her parents, due to her increasingly suspicious and erratic behavior. In this issue she and her father finally have a real conversation about it.
While Kamala’s father is unaware of her new identity as Ms. Marvel, and thus the struggles she’s been facing, what he says addresses the root of Kamala’s issues. He tells her why he and her mother picked the name “Kamala” for her: because it means “perfection” in Arabic. He assures her that she doesn’t have to feel pressured to be somebody else, that she is perfect the way she is. She then comes to the conclusion that she shouldn’t be trying to be a watered down version of some other hero, but instead should strive to be the best version of herself.
Indeed, Kamala’s first successful act of heroism in the book comes when she embraces her own identity instead of trying to escape it. Zoe, the same casually racist classmate from before, ends up falling into some water while drunk. Kamala witnesses this and hesitates before reflecting on a quote from the Quran her father likes to say: “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he has killed all of mankind, and whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.” Encouraged by this, she leaps into action and ends up saving Zoe. She muses that being someone else is exhausting, but saving Zoe made her happy.
The climax of the arc comes during Kamala’s second attempt to rescue her friend’s brother. The first time she simply charged in, as mentioned previously. After all, she says, “Isn’t that what heroes do?” However, after narrowly escaping, and having that talk with her father, she changes her strategy. She decides to train, get assistance from her friend, and go in with a plan instead of simply rushing in. Once she uses her natural intelligence, she’s able to make short work of the kidnappers, and rescue her friend’s brother. It is that moment which is shown as her first true step on the road to becoming a hero in the same league as those she admires.

Escapist fiction is paradoxical in some ways. One indulges in it to seek respite from a sometimes unpleasant reality yet, if the continued success of Spider-Man has proven anything, it’s that characters and worlds that mirror this unpleasant reality can provide as much or more respite than those that don’t. Ms. Marvel follows in the footsteps of the heroic icons that have come before her. Like Spider-Man, she’s geeky and intelligent, prone to crack wise, and has a constantly running inner-monologue. But just as Peter provided his own flavor of escapism, so too does Kamala. She provides escapism for the young Middle Eastern girls out there that struggle to find a place in a world where their race, religion, and gender give them obstacles that they struggle with and want to run away from. She shows them that there’s strength in accepting who they are. Like Peter Parker did to teenagers in the 60’s, she provides them not with a hero that’s different than they are or better than they are, but with a hero that’s the best version of themselves.

Works Cited

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folk, A. C. McClurg, Illinois, Chicago, 1903.

Wilson, Gwendolyn Willow, writer.  Ms. Marvel. Art by Adrian Alphona. Coloring Ian Herring. Lettering by VC’s Joe Caramagna. New York: Marvel, 2014. Print.

Something a little different this month! Instead of mindlessly rambling about anime, I have somewhat mindfully rambled about comics! Finally! If you’d like to see the aforementioned anime rambling, check out my Sailor Moon articles. If you’d like to see more stuff from the blog follow us here on WordPress, as well as on Twitter, and/or check out our Discord. And if you wouldn’t like to, still do those things anyway.

2 thoughts on “Shapeshifting; How Ms. Marvel (2014) Handles Escapism”

  1. […] Sometimes I like to write well-researched, thoughtful articles about pieces of art. Sometimes. Sometimes I like to write about shit like Boondock Saints.***Boondock Saints is a 1999 movie by Troy Duffy, starring Norman Reedus, Ewan McGreggor, and Willem Dafoe. As I did with Sailor Moon, I am getting into this movie way too late for this article to possibly be relevant to more than like two people. But y’know what? I haven’t written anything for this site in a bit. It wasn’t my plan to watch this movie. I just did it on a whim. And I’m writing this article on a whim. Yeah, I’m not taking the time to research anything about this movie, or plan out this article. I just need to talk about it.I didn’t know anything about this movie before going into it, other than what I wrote above. I didn’t even know what genre it was. I thought I did. If you Google “The Boondock Saints genre” you get these results.That’s about what I expected, sans the LGBT thing. A thriller about a couple of guys with guns killing bad dudes. Nobody told me what this movie actually was. And what this movie is, is a fucking comedy. Do not TELL me that anyone who has ever watched this movie has ever shed a tear except from laughter, or felt any genuine emotion other than joy. Don’t even TRY. This is a C O M E D Y. I don’t know who’s in charge of labelling the genre of movies, but there are ten genres listed here, none of them are comedy, and that’s a disgrace. Don’t lie to the people, Google.Okay, okay, so what is Boondock Saints about? The Boondock Saints is about two brothers, Connor and Murphy, the titular saints, who, after murdering a dude with a toilet, get the idea that God has tasked them with killing criminals, Punisher style. They, and one of their friends, proceed to kill a bunch of people for the next hour and a half, while an unhinged FBI agent, Paul Smecker, tries to take them down. That’s it. There’s nothing else in this movie. No romantic subplot, no emotional throughline, no deeper meaning. Nothing. This movie is about murder and dumb cops and that’s it.Speaking of murder, be forewarned, that this movie is rated R. It is aggressively rated R. This movie is lodged firmly between Q and S. The word fuck is said 239 times. The other F-Word that I will not say is also said a few times. There’s a lot of blood. An exposed boob. Generally not a movie you want to watch with your grandma, or your grandchildren. Don’t be fooled though, even though children can’t watch this movie, this movie is made for teenagers. If you’re generally concerned with matters of artistic intent or integrity, you may, yourself, become a victim of The Boondock Saints.Again though, I didn’t know this going into it, so when Ewen McGreggor throws a toilet on a dude from the roof of a five story building, then jumps down from the roof, and breaks his fall by landing on another dude I very nearly had an out of body experience.This movie is insanity. This isn’t even the stupidest thing in the movie though. It continually one-ups itself throughout it’s runtime. That being said, the toilet scene is when you, as an audience member, have to make a choice. Can you handle this? Are you ready for The Boondock Saints?I wasn’t, but I continued on anyway. So, be honest with me. Who do you think the protagonist of the Boondock Saints is? Do you perhaps think it’s the Boondock Saints? You’re wrong. You’re fucking wrong. The protagonist of a story needs to go on a journey and realize something about themselves or the world throughout the course of said journey. This generally means they need to change. The Boondock Saints don’t change for shit. They are who they are. And who they are is the Boondock Saints. They’re more like a force of nature.To be quite honest with you, I don’t even think they’re human. Take their accents for example. Is Norman Reedus doing a really bad Irish accent, or is he actually imitating the accent of an ancient, Eldritch horror, who’s merely inhabiting the body of Daryl Dixon? This is, of course, open to interpretation, but I interpret him as being an Eldritch horror and my interpretation is correct. If you want evidence, look at the very beginning of the movie. The brothers work at a meat packing plant at the beginning of the movie. For absolutely no reason at all they begin attacking each other with raw meat. Are these the actions of human beings with human brains? I don’t think so.So who is the protagonist of this movie? It’s Paul Smecker. Paul Smecker goes on a journey in this movie. He changes. He starts the movie going after the saints and ends the movie realizing that they’re necessary. Is it a good arc? No. But it’s an arc. Helps that he’s also, by far, the most entertaining character in this movie.Okay. If you’ve never seen this movie before, I’m about to show you something, and I don’t really know how you’re gonna handle it. I want you to know that it’s just a movie (I think) and that I’ll be with you the entire time. Okay? I’m gonna walk you through it, don’t worry.Watch this scene.You done? Alright, so what you just saw was Paul Smecker at a crime scene, attempting to piece together what happened. He theorizes that The Boondock Saints were ambushed by three people with guns, causing all hell to break loose. All the while a choir is chanting in the background and he’s conducting an orchestra only he can hear. If you’re wondering why he’s doing that, I can’t tell you, I’m sorry. What actually happened was far stupider. One man, with six guns, who looks like George RR Martin, got into a shootout with them. All four people in the encounter fired at each other. Nobody died.After this scene, the Boondock Saints and their friend go back to their apartment and cauterize each other’s wounds with clothing irons. Do I even need to keep explaining this movie to you? Why are you still reading this article? By this point you’ve already decided whether you’re going to watch Boondock Saints or not. Listen. Is The Boondock Saints a good movie?Does the Pope shit in his hat?I don’t know. I don’t know the Pope personally, so I couldn’t say. I also don’t know whether The Boondock Saints is a good movie. But is it an entertaining movie? Yes. Yes it is.Alright, that’s enough of that. Please make sure to follow us on WordPress, if you enjoyed this please donate to our Ko-Fi, and hey, why not check out some of our other articles. Usually, they have a lot more work put into them. […]

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