Origin stories are more ordinary than we think. Everybody has one. It’s the only thing that Kamala Khan, Scott Pilgrim, Santa Claus and Johnny Utah have in common. I have one, and you have one too. All of them involve a degree of uncertainty. I didn’t know if I really wanted to be a journalist, or a writer, or a musician. Kamala didn’t think she wanted to follow the path her family had set up for her and what to do once she gained her superpowers. Scott Pilgrim didn’t know how to reconcile his interest in Ramona Flowers with doing the right thing with Knives, and I hate to spoil Point Break for you, but Johnny Utah lets Bodhi ride one last wave.
At some point, there’s a crossroad that we all must face, and superheroes are no exception. The weight of Kamala’s family heritage feels too heavy for her. She wants to be free from it, but at the same time, she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents. That’s another all too common trope, but there’s a reason for that. For a lot of families, a career in a creative field seems like a delusion, a phase. Musicians, writers, and journalists are a disappointment for many parents that expected doctors, lawyers and engineers instead. As a teenager, I was convinced I was going to study economics. Not so much because my family pressured me to go for it, which they didn’t, but because I thought that’s what I wanted. My father is an economist. We enjoy, to this day, discussing world economics and world politics. He owns a consulting firm. It made sense. But a spider bit Peter Parker, and I started a fanzine in my high school with some classmates. He started climbing up walls and my columns became popular in my school. Before I knew it, I was writing for five hundred people who cared about what I had to say.
Duty can be a tricky thing. We might feel like we owe something to the people around us. To our families, friends, and strangers too. “Do the right thing” is always a good rule of thumb, but it’s hard when you don’t know what “the right thing” is. That can be a cumbersome load on our backs.
But there’s another responsibility, the one that’s only with ourselves, and it can be the hardest one to accept. When you know what you are good at, when you are in control of your superpowers, you owe it to yourself to see where that will take you. Talent is a terrible thing to waste, and that can be a burden too.
There’s an interesting confrontation between duties for superheroes and regular Joes like you and me. There’s a sense of responsibility towards your family and the people who supported you. They want you to succeed and sometimes is hard to avoid feeling in debt to them. As I contemplated the possibility to venture outside my comfort zone as a writer, I felt that in some way I was letting them down. Independence can be a lonely place.
At the same time, you have a responsibility to use your abilities. It can feel a responsibility to yourself, and it is, but it’s also a responsibility to the people around you. Kamala feels like she must do right by her family, but she also has a duty to use her new powers to help those in need.
As Ms. Marvel, Kamala finds the strength she needed in the lessons she learned from her father. That “eureka” moment that all superheroes have, I had it too. I knew I could write in my first language. I’ve been doing it for a living for years. But it all clicked when I realized I had to challenge myself. I had to go and start over in a different country, in a foreign language, and really prove myself.
After I turned the last page of Ms. Marvel, I realized that there’s a reason why Kamala seems so vulnerable. It’s hard to develop empathy towards a character you can’t relate to. When you see a superhero struggle with the same daily issues that you do, it’s easier to feel complicit. If you have no stake in the story, it’s harder feel invested in what happens. The same way Kamala was dealing with her family expectations, I had to deal with mine. Even though they were always very supportive, I knew they wanted me to choose a path where they could have helped me succeed.
Once a superhero such as ourselves is past all these external sources of pressure, they must deal with their own insecurities. Not many harbor the certainty of being good at what we do. Some of us aren’t at first. Some of us are good from the beginning but refuse to believe it. Some of us may never be good but refuse to quit. Uncertainty and doubt are always around most (the best) superheroes because with great power, comes great responsibility.