Ms. Marvel’s Mise-En-Scène: How the MCU uses Environmental Storytelling to Adapt the Comics

Editor’s Note: And here we have what is very likely the final guest post on The Middle Spaces. While there is still a (slim) chance for future content on this site (see next week’s Year-End Post), there are no scheduled plans to continue The Middle Spaces beyond 2022. However, if there is anyone to close out the numerous brilliant guest posts we’ve had on here over the years, it is Adrienne Resha, whose work continues to explore comics where they meet other mediums and work to represent multiple identities. This is her third contribution to The Middle Spaces.


“EMBIGGEN!” Kamala Khan makes a giant fist out of a glowing purple and blue light construct. (from Ms. Marvel S1: E3, “Destined.)

In 2014, writer G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, and editor Sana Amanat introduced the new Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani and Muslim American teenage girl named Kamala Khan, to Marvel comics. In her comic book origin story, set entirely in her hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, Kamala develops the ability to shrink and stretch her body and, after five issues, becomes a superhero. Since then, Kamala’s Ms. Marvel has headlined three different Marvel titles, served as a member of the Avengers (in comics and in video games), and appeared on television (in animation and, most recently, live action). In 2022, writer Bisha K. Ali, actor Iman Vellani, and producer Sana Amanat introduced the not-so-new Ms. Marvel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In her MCU origin story, which shifts between Jersey City and Karachi, Pakistan, Kamala develops the ability to project hard-light constructs and, after five episodes, becomes a superhero. This six-episode Ms. Marvel series streaming on Disney+ is an adaptation that uses environmental storytelling to bring the character from one medium to another.

To once again quote Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation, adaptation is a product, “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works,” in this case not just Kamala Khan’s comic book origin story but also of dozens of Ms. Marvel issues published by Marvel, and in the process, “a creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging” (8). Much like a legacy superhero, Ms. Marvel (the show) takes its name, its episode names, and the names of its characters from an existing property, Ms. Marvel (the comics). Pakistani and Muslim Canadian young adult actor Iman Vellani becomes Pakistani and Muslim American teenager Kamala Khan on screen, lending the character (to the show’s benefit) an air of authenticity that has largely escaped the comics, where she has most often been written and drawn by authors and artists largely unlike herself. Episodes titled “Generation Why” and “No Normal,” which respectively open and close the season as premiere and finale, are open acknowledgments of the source material they adapt (as the titles come from Ms. Marvel comic book arcs/collections). In adapting the comic books, the show must reinterpret them because comics and television are different mediums with different affordances. This is also (at least partly) why they changed Kamala’s superpowers. Whereas comic book artists like Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Nico Leon can make Kamala Khan’s body do impossible things, Vellani’s body is limited. She cannot organically shapeshift in the ways that the comic book counterpart of her character does, and a computer cannot (yet) make her appear to do so convincingly.

Contemporary special effects are, like human bodies, limited. Special effects artists could make Ms. Marvel elastic but not believably so. Sparkly, “pretty” powers like those of her personal hero, Captain Marvel, do less to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief because, unlike the skin tone of a stretch limb, they do not need to look real to evoke verisimilitude. It is easier, however, for set designers like Julie Vash and Bria Kinter to convincingly stage Kamala’s bedroom, plastered with images of Captain Marvel (some originating in comics and some in the MCU), than it is for line artists and colorist Ian Herring to pencil, ink, and color it over and over again, with nowhere as much detail, in a 22-page issue produced on a smaller budget. In light of this, and despite significant changes to what may seem to be defining elements of the character (like her powers) and comic book series (how she gets them), the show uses environmental storytelling to adapt Ms. Marvel from comics to TV. Henry Jenkins defines environmental storytelling as that which “creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience.” He continues by explaining that this form of storytelling does so in both theme park and video game design by 1. evoking “pre-existing narrative associations,” 2. providing “a staging ground where narrative events are enacted,” 3. embedding “narrative information within their mise-en-scène,” and/or 4. providing “resources for emergent narratives.”

Kamala Khan’s fanfiction of Iron Man, Captain America, and Captain Marvel fighting a dragon illustrated by Adrian Alphona. (from Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal, Marvel, 2014, by Wilson and Alphona) [click to embiggen]

Although not interactive in the ways that video games and theme parks are, Ms. Marvel is nonetheless an immersive narrative experience that fulfills all four of Jenkins’s criteria. It evokes narrative associations to comics and film, provides staging grounds for the narrative to be enacted, which are staged in such a way as to have information embedded within them, and is rich with potential for future narratives for its protagonist, both within the canon of the MCU and outside of it. Ms. Marvel is not just an origin story for Kamala Khan but also a prequel to 2023’s scheduled cinematic release, The Marvels and whatever fan fiction it inspires. Screen- and fanfic writers alike will know who Ms. Marvel is because they will have seen Kamala Khan in different environments in New Jersey and Pakistan, including her bedroom in Jersey City, which, right from the start, contributes to the telling of her story. Former Disney Imagineer Don Carson writes, “One of the trade secrets behind the design of entertaining themed environment is that the story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through…it is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell.” In the first episode, Kamala’s bedroom tells the story by showing the audience who she starts as—how much she loves superheroes and how much she would like to become one like Captain Marvel—and by showing how she moves through both the room and her origin story.

The animated opening sequence of S1:E1 “Generation Why,” echoing but not exactly reproducing the fan fiction sequence at the beginning of Wilson and Alphona’s Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal, has paper doll Avengers move across Kamala’s desk to fight invading aliens, invisibly guided by Kamala’s hand. In less than two minutes, the episode establishes narrative association between the show and the comics from which it is loosely adapted as well as preceding entries in the MCU. Captain Marvel blasts in, first as a paper doll, then as a sequence of fan art on Kamala’s bedroom wall, then again as a paper doll, joining the battle against Thanos. Like an entrance to a ride at Disney World or a video game opening, this scene, which very literally uses its environment to tell its story, either rewards a viewer for prior knowledge or invests in them all the information they need to understand where this particular story fits within the greater, but not altogether necessary, Disney-owned MCU.

As the episode continues, the camera moves around that set, lingering on Kamala’s Captain Marvel cosplay, even more fan art, and photos of her and her friends Nakia Bahadir (Yasmeen Fletcher) and Bruno Carrelli (Matt Lintz) mixed with craft supplies. On one wall, comic book readers may recognize some official Marvel artwork: a Terry Dodson Captain Marvel hangs over the headboard of Kamala’s bed. Kamala does not just love superheroes, she is a fan, like the presumed viewer, enabling the audience to connect with the lead character and feel represented by her whether they are otherwise like her (or familiar with her comic book incarnation) or not. Kamala’s bedroom further functions as a staging ground for several significant scenes, both of Kamala by herself and of Kamala and her supporting cast. Later in that first episode, Kamala will, like any American teenager, fight with her parents in this room and, as the season progresses, she will text her new crush Kamran (Rish Shah) and hang out with Nakia in there as well. Kamala’s texts are embedded in the mise-en-scène in her bedroom and other settings as part of the scenery: represented as star-like motes cast from her nightlight against the walls and ceiling of her room, neon lights hanging in the windows of the Circle Q convenience store that she frequents and above which Bruno lives, and as paint on the streets of the city she calls home.

Kamala Khan stands in front of her bedroom mirror while dressed in Captain Marvel cosplay.

Kamala Khan stands in front of her bedroom mirror while dressed in Captain Marvel cosplay. (from Ms. Marvel S1:E1 “Generation Why.”)

Kamala and Bruno’s messages appear as all of the above when texts first appear on screen, part of the mise-en-scène, after which Kamala is shown alone in her bedroom, trying on her Captain Marvel cosplay, formerly also part of the mise-en-scène. The outfit is now on her body. But standing before a mirror, something is not quite right about the costume for her, not having been designed with a Muslim girl in mind. (Artist Jamie McKelvie, notably, designed both the comics version of that costume, on which it is based, and Kamala’s comic book burkini costume, which is informed by her religious identity.) Behind the mirror are drawings, magazine clippings, pictures of cats, and a poster of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, wearing her version of that costume while striking a confident Peter Pan pose (hands at hips, elbows out, and shoulders squared). After looking uneasily at herself in the cosplay uniform, Kamala reaches to a shelf and pulls out a blue scarf to wrap around her waist—another piece of the environment around her becoming part of her character as she interacts with it—when there is a knock at her door. She discards the scarf in favor of a pink-striped bathrobe pulled from her bed, again—a set piece (like so many other articles of clothing hung behind doors or strung over furniture) joining the actor’s costume. The robe covers the character’s entire body in advance of her mother (Ammi) and father (Abu) entering the room. With the arrival of new characters and their perspectives, the camera takes the opportunity to show even more of the room’s decor.

While Ammi, Abu, and Kamala discuss the conditions under which she may be allowed to go to the MCU’s equivalent of a comic con, the inaugural New Jersey AvengerCon, this new camera angle reveals additional narrative info embedded in the mise-en-scène. In the background there are more props, among them: a map of the state on a wall, a Funko Pop on another set of shelves, and her winged sloth plush (an easter egg who, unlike Alphona’s drawn version, wears a sweater vest). The latter will move with her through the story, a reminder that she is still a child both in this room in New Jersey and, later, in her room in Pakistan. Here in her childhood home, Kamala’s negative reaction to her parents granting her permission to attend the convention only if chaperoned by Abu while wearing matching Hulk salwar kameez is contextualized by her childhood bedroom: the place where she has grown up shows that she still has growing to do. However, like the rebellious teenager she is, she later sneaks out to go to the con unchaperoned. While there, her superpowers activate, initiating a metaphorical puberty, with biological changes precipitating the emotional and social ones that will develop over the season. The episode ends with Kamala in profile, laying on her bed, holding a hand with fingers outstretched over her face and making it glow in front of yet another poster of Captain Marvel, fist similarly alight. Her story and her transition from child to adult have both properly begun.

Kamala Khan lies on top of her bed while holding her glowing left hand over her face. (from Ms. Marvel S1:E1 “Generation Why.”)

In the subsequent episode, S1:E2 “Crushed,” named for Ms. Marvel vol. 3, Kamala returns home from a party, does a (delightful) dance sequence, and again falls onto her bed, the place where she dreams. This time, in a top-down shot, a purple quilt frames her face and the beige paisley-ish feather pattern on it turns into speech balloons as Kamran texts her, “1ST LESSON MONDAY?” Responding to his offer to teach her how to drive, Kamala texts back, “TOTALLY!” The camera moves up along Kamala’s wall, following her starry nightlight’s projections into another animated sequence in the ceiling-turned-sky, in which neon glowing cartoons of Kamala and Kamran dance together, circled by astronaut sloth cherubs. The camera leads the viewer into the dreamy sequence, as if climbing the tail of a thought bubble up into its contents, which then become a static sketch in Kamala’s journal at school. The show may not be a comic, but, at its best, it can feel like one with fluid transitions such as these. And not always the same one, as the series draws inspiration from more than just Wilson, Alphona, and Amanat’s run.

Kamala Khan and Nakia Bahadir hanging out in Kamala’s bedroom. (from Ms. Marvel vol. 3, #12 by Wilson and Bondoc)

In Ms. Marvel S1: E3, “Destined,” which takes its name from the first volume of writer Saladin Ahmed and artist Minkyu Jung’s Magnificent Ms. Marvel, Nakia opens Kamala’s bedroom door, strides in, and faceplants on Kamala’s bed. As evidenced by this and previous episodes, Kamala’s bed is both the literal center of her bedroom and the metaphorical center of her universe. Entering its immediate orbit, Nakia stands up from the bed as she and Kamala are talking and moves in front of Kamala’s mirror, her back to it. There, Nakia partially or fully obscures the Captain Marvel poster situated behind the mirror and, while between Captain Marvel and Kamala, complains about the new neighborhood hero being called Night Light, not knowing that the new hero is actually Kamala. Kamala, believing that Nakia hates all superheroes indiscriminately, is reluctant to let her friend in on the secret, and her anxiety causes her to nearly miss Nakia’s announcement that she has been elected to the board of their mosque, which Nakia repeats after moving across the room to stand against Kamala’s desk. Behind both girls, then, is a wall of sketches, collages, and cutouts which, despite whatever feelings Nakia may have about Kamala’s interests, do not impede their friendship or the hug that closes out the scene. Kamala’s reluctance to tell Nakia is not unfounded, but it is somewhat immature. Kamala is not afraid that Nakia will report her to the authorities (Nakia would never), but she is afraid that her being a superhero might jeopardize their friendship, which the show has already shown viewers is highly unlikely. In spite of her distaste for the superheroes that Kamala loves, Nakia is literally and metaphorically on her best friend’s side. So, the Disney Channel problem of whether to let the protagonist’s best friend in on the secret is only a problem because the protagonist imagines that it will be one, not because it already is. And when it does become a problem for these teenagers, it is one that could be easily rectified through the kind of grown-up communication that has been modeled for Kamala by her parents and the more mature Nakia.

Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal, Marvel, 2014. (from Ms. Marvel vol. 2: Generation Why, Marvel, 2015.)

One of the most important conversations that Kamala has in Ms. Marvel takes place not in her room but just outside of it in the finale, S1: E6 “No Normal.” After two episodes in Pakistan, Kamala returns home, more mature than when she left but not yet an adult or a superhero. Sitting on the roof of her house, Kamala and her father talk about why he and Ammi gave her the Arabic name Kamala. While not an exact reproduction of the conversation that takes place in the comics, it is true to it. In both the comic and the show, they named her Kamala because “kamal” means perfect. In this version, however, Kamala is wearing her costume, given to her by her mother, and her father gives her another name. In Urdu, he explains, “It’s more like… what’s the word? ‘Wonder.’ ‘Marvel.’ Kamal means marvel,” before dubbing her their own Ms. Marvel. He hands her the mask that Bruno made and watches as she stands and creates purple hard-light platforms beneath her feet, leaving the rooftop a superhero but still not yet an adult. She (temporarily) exits her childhood home with the gifts given to her by her parents, not just her names and her costume but also their genes, which give her powers, and culture, which gives her the morals that guide how she uses those powers, to be Jersey City’s hometown hero.

Whether set in New Jersey or Pakistan, and despite being neither a game nor an attraction, Marvel Studios’ Ms. Marvel on Disney+ is nonetheless an immersive narrative experience. An adaptation made for its medium, the show enables immersion not just in Kamala Khan’s world but also in her story through its environmental storytelling. The mise-en-scène of Kamala’s Jersey City bedroom, which looks every inch like one occupied by an American teenage girl, evokes narrative associations to the comics being adapted—where another version of this girl has her own origin story—and to the Marvel Cinematic Universe—where this version of this character’s story will continue. There is so much potential for emergent narratives, official or not, from the first minute of the first (and hopefully not last) season of this television series to its last minute, post-credits prelude to The Marvels. And there is so much for other adaptations to learn from this one as Marvel and other comics publishers adapt their properties to other media and continue to bring new(er) characters to the small and silver screens. It is no longer enough to simply include characters of marginalized identities. Environmental storytelling such as that used in Ms. Marvel shows viewers that the show is not simply about what Kamala Khan looks like but also what and who she loves. Identity is not solely located in a person and their body; it also comes from places—private and public, local and global—all of which environmental storytelling binds together.

Kamala Khan raises her right hand to create a light construct while a Terry Dodson illustration of Captain Marvel is visible in the background.

A Terry Dodson illustration of Captain Marvel is visible in the background of this scene in Kamala’s bedroom (from Ms. Marvel S1:E1 “Generation Why.”)


Adrienne Resha is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies program at the College of William & Mary, where she is completing a dissertation about Arab and Muslim American superheroes. Her writing has appeared online at PanelxPanel, Popverse, Shelfdust, The Middle Spaces, and the Eisner Award-winning WWAC and in print in Mixed-Race Superheroes and Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society. She can be found online at adrienneresha.com.

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