Sandra Saad’s Ms Marvel performance is true star of ‘Avengers’

Gene Park

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sandra Saad had no idea she was auditioning to be a Marvel superhero. The casting call asked for a Muslim American, and Saad had been looking for roles that felt right to her. She rejects any script that makes non-White people seem inserted to meet some criteria for diversity or a role that veers toward tokenism.

She liked that this mystery character was a self-starter, an enthusiastic person whose familial upbringing informs her future. Saad was drawn to Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. Marvel, before even knowing who she was. And she just happened to be of a similar ethnic background.

“She’s a full character, a normal, great girl. She’s not here for a diversity checkbox,” Saad said. “Tokenism is very harmful, and that’s not what this character is. She’s just living her life as a girl who just happens to be Muslim and happens to be Pakistani.”

Saad’s performance, as well as the character of Ms Marvel, is one of the more universally acclaimed features of Marvel’s Avengers by Crystal Dynamics, released early September. Director Shaun Escayg (whose credits include The Last of Us and recent Uncharted titles) and the Crystal Dynamics team crafted a story that exceeded expectations for an Avengers video game. Review after review attribute this success to Ms Marvel.

At age 11, the would-be Avenger Kamala Khan won a fanfiction writing contest hosted by the Avengers. A tragic event at the celebration, later known as A-Day, ends in the supposed death of Captain America and thousands of innocent Bay Area residents either dead or becoming superpowered ‘Inhuman’. Khan inherits powers to morph her body into any size, and the Avengers break up from the fallout.

Sandra Saad’s portrayal of Kamala Khan, also known as Ms Marvel, is one of the more universally acclaimed features of Marvel’s Avengers. PHOTO: Square Enix

After five years of research, a 16-year-old Khan is determined to find the truth of what happened that day, and to get the Avengers back together. Through luck and ingenuity, she finally finds a lost Avenger. Unfortunately, it’s Bruce Banner, who’s lost complete control of his Hulk persona. Once Kamala calms Banner, the two slowly and awkwardly form a bond.

Unlike Mark Ruffalo’s depiction of Banner in the films, the game’s Banner (played by Troy Baker) is a tortured soul through and through. The Hulk seems less a comic relief “party trick” and more of a burden. While initially excited about her powers, Khan still suffers from the trauma of A-Day. The real fight of Marvel’s Avengers is the inter- and intrapersonal conflict within each member of the team and each of the heroes. Kamala and Bruce tackle this in their own way.

“We had all those conversations about the similarities between Bruce and Kamala, and this uncertainty of, ‘OK am I weird or not? Is this cool or is it not? Am I saving people?” Saad said. “They both struggle with this thing in them that they don’t understand that’s possibly monstrous. There’s this great feeling of guilt for A-Day, and the Avengers feel responsible for what happened to Kamala and these Inhumans.”

The game and Kamala are funny. A road trip scene between the two leads has become a fan favourite. In addition to her acting training, Saad has honed her comedic timing and chops with classes at The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade.

“Eventually after the comedy training, I thought it was time to really start auditioning and getting serious because I have all these tools in my tool box,” Saad said. “Shortly after auditioning, I got this. I’m very, very thankful for these roles opening up these days with strong Brown leads.”

She said one of the most striking things about working on the game was doing the voice work, then acting out the same scene in motion capture while retaining that same voice and tone.

“In the voice booth, all of your energy has to be focussed through this one part of your body, whereas when you go into the mock-up stage, you have to keep that voice,” she said. “And you want to make sure that you give the animators and developers exactly what they need.”

She said she learned a lot from experienced industry talent such as Baker and Laura Bailey, who plays Black Widow. Both were lead characters in the recent hit The Last of Us Part II.

“Anything can change,” Saad said. “So many scenes I had with Troy would change completely from just a glance. All that stuff isn’t in the script. It just comes from being an actor. So you can’t plan too much before you come to the stage, because that’s where the real work happens.”