The bar has been set high for Ms. Marvel. Not only does the new Disney Plus series have to deliver a satisfying live-action interpretation of one of the most popular new characters to come out of Marvel Comics in recent years, it also has to follow Oscar Isaac’s immensely successful Moon Knight on the streaming platform. Fortunately, even without Ms. Marvel’s original “embiggening” powers, the series has no problem filling such big shoes.
Ms. Marvel introduces Iman Vellani as the MCU’s Kamala Khan, a 16 year-old Muslim Pakistani-American girl living in Jersey City. Kamala is an avid fan of Carol Danvers, A.K.A. Captain Marvel. She spends most of her time fantasizing about Danvers’ adventures, much to the chagrin of her parents and school teachers, who wish she would keep her head out of the clouds. However, Kamala appears to have more in common with her hero than anyone realizes, as she soon discovers when a bangle from her grandmother unlocks her own superpowers.
With a young and inexperienced hero as its lead, it’s no surprise to discover Ms. Marvel is a far cry from the heavier tones of series such as Moon Knight and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. In many ways, Ms. Marvel treads similar turf to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both offer a break from the lofty affairs of Avengers and lethal protectors in order to explore the MCU through the eyes of a regular teenager. However, although Tom Holland’s Peter Parker clearly admired Tony Stark and the Avengers, Iman Vellani’s Kamala is a fangirl in a much more real and recognizable sense and Vellani brings her to life with the most intoxicatingly joyful energy. If you didn’t already know Vellani is a huge MCU fan in real life, it will come as no surprise after you see Episode 1.
The series’ opening episode sees Kamala working on her Captain Marvel cosplay in a story that revolves around her attempts to get to “AvengerCon” in defiance of her parents’ wishes. The AvengerCon plot is full of charm. There are no shady supervillains looming in the background, no threats to the safety of the world, no Avengers leaping into battle. Instead, the episode invests wholeheartedly in a story of a teenager clashing with her overprotective parents as she tries to go to a convention. The relatability of Kamala’s relationship with her family, along with her bright-eyed adventures into the MCU’s in-universe Avengers fandom, which mirrors real-life Marvel fan culture, all helps ground Kamala as a recognizable teenager in a world where superheroes just so happen to exist. Immediately, it is clear to the audience that Kamala is one of us – a fan who dreams of being an Avenger. The audience cannot help but be endeared to her.
It is also immediately apparent that rather than trying to fit an epic of good vs. evil into a space where such a story simply does not fit, Ms. Marvel is commited to telling the story of a girl navigating her difficult teenage years against the backdrop of the MCU. It is more human, more character-driven, than some Marvel series and this is to its credit. The greater stakes normally seen in Marvel stories can wait for Kamala’s upcoming appearance in The Marvels, alongside her hero Carol Danvers and Monica Rambeau. By investing in a character study now, a story that is about Kamala Khan’s life more than it is about Ms. Marvel’s heroic struggles, Marvel can deliver a Kamala who is more fully rounded by the time she joins forces with Captain Marvel on the big screen.
As an origin story, Ms. Marvel again takes advantage of Kamala’s love of the Avengers to deliver something different. While most origin stories focus on characters discovering what it means to be a hero, Ms. Marvel introduces Kamala as a character who is already living with a certain preconception surrounding superheroes and their place in the world. When she gains her powers, there is a feeling not that she is discovering the responsibilities that come with them for the first time, but that she is trying to live up to the example already set by the likes of Captain Marvel.
Further to this, Kamala’s powers are presented almost in response to the pleas from her parents and teachers for her to focus on her future. She gains her powers at a time when she is feeling lost and without direction in life and her new abilities appear to light a way forward. That is not to say her powers come without bringing their own set of struggles and new mysteries, but for Kamala, becoming a superhero is just one more component in her coming-of-age story, sitting right alongside her struggles with school, family and young love. Like all these things, her powers are greeted with a mix of teenage glee and exasperation.
Kamala’s youthful energy bleeds into the visual storytelling of Ms. Marvel as well, which is some of the most stylistically distinct in all of the MCU to date. We are pulled into Kamala’s fantasies, filled with the garish and dazzling visuals in a which a teenage girl might adorn such daydreams. Kamala’s doodles leap to life around her, her text exchanges become part of the world that surrounds her and her friends, and her Captain Marvel cosplay becomes a perfect replica of the hero’s costume in a manic montage of her imagined AvengerCon adventure. Viewers who grew up watching Disney Channel movies may feel a pang of nostalgia during some sequences in Ms. Marvel, so utterly does it embrace the energy and fun of its teen coming-of-age story.
With this unabashed embrace of this teenage story, Ms. Marvel does at times fall into predictability, or seem to lose its voice to cliché. Kamala’s obligatory bully, Zoe Zimmer, is introduced, though with very little done to justify the animosity Kamala feels towards her. Zoe’s appearance at AvengerCon also feels out of place and may even upset a few of the cosplayers Marvel is trying to homage in the series’ opening episode – Zoe turns up in a more revealing Captain Marvel outfit, despite not actually liking Captain Marvel, according to Kamala. This might be taken by some to imply that cosplayers in skimpier outfits are not “true” fans, an assertion many cosplayers would – and often do – refute. Additionally, an emerging love triangle in the series feels a little forced and somewhat less than convincing. These are, however, minor details that do little to detract from the joyous energy of this series.
More than any other MCU series so far then, Ms. Marvel feels like a story about a real person who happens to have superpowers, rather than a story about a superhero. The heart of the series is in Kamala’s strained relationships with her family, her heritage, her culture, her schoolwork and her love life. It is a human story, about a young Muslim girl in modern America, where superpowers are just one more complication in an already hectic existence. It’s a refreshing change of pace after shows that have dived into worlds of mercenaries, organized crime and military secrets. There are a few heavy topics to deal with, but they occur and are addressed naturally, explored in the way they would be experienced through the eyes of a young girl. Ultimately, anyone who remembers what it is like to be a teenager will connect with Kamala Khan.
Overall thoughts: Ms. Marvel is full of heart, hope and fun. It’s a bright and sincere story, delivered with dazzling glee that is prepared to both fill and break your heart. It is no high-stakes epic, but it is joyful and personal and more down-to-earth than any other MCU series so far.
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