Created for Television by: Bisha K. Ali
Directors: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Meera Menon, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Starring: Iman Vellani, Matt Lintz, Zenobia Shroff, Yasmeen Fletcher, Mohan Kapur, Rish Shah, Saagar Shaikh, Arian Moayed, Laith Nakli, Mehwish Hayat, Fawad Khan, Aramis Knight
Runtime: 6 episodes
I became a comic reader and fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in December 2020. Oddly, these interests were unrelated. It was several months before I expanded my reading from Image and other indies to Marvel. In doing so, I looked for series that had consistent creative teams and clear visions for their characters and stories.
One series that kept popping up was Ms. Marvel by Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona. The recommendations were spot on. Kamala Khan will forever serve as my introduction to Marvel comics, and so far remains my favorite Marvel character.
That made for a unique experience when Marvel announced that Kamala would be joining the MCU with her own series. It marked the first time I’d encountered a character in the books prior to seeing their on-screen adaptation. I couldn’t help but feel nervous.
The road to the Ms. Marvel premiere had some bumps. Marvel assembled a brilliant cast, though it was hard to overlook that the titular star of the show had zero previous acting credits. Any apprehension regarding the casting of Iman Vellani was dispelled long before the first episode dropped. Her passion for the character and material is unquestionable and tangible in every scene.
Early teases indicated that not only would Kamala be getting an origins shakeup, but a new power set. The connection between Kamala’s “weird, freaky, awesome powers” (her words) and the themes of Ms. Marvel stories have been discussed at length. With the series complete, concerns regarding her powers seem overblown. Her stretching and embiggening remain intact, just covered with a bit of cosmic sheen (which I think predict will shatter at some point, but I digress), and her platforming skills have already made for a number of fun action sequences.
Showrunners Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi, who helmed the upcoming Batgirl movie, provide Jersey City a carefully crafted aesthetic. Their approach to depicting text conversations has been rightfully lauded. It’s not all visual flare, though. At its best, Ms. Marvel feels like an idiosyncratic project, a bar some of the strongest MCU projects fail to clear.
The first episode is an Easter egg hunter’s Holy Grail/living nightmare. From Scott Lang’s podcast to the glory of AvengerCon, the episode felt like a celebration not just of the in-world Avengers, but the MCU as a whole. Together, the show’s first two episodes function as an effective origin story, giving Kamala her powers and setting her on the path to becoming one of her idols. More importantly, these episodes show us Kamala’s world. Her family, her friends, her culture. It all feels so very complete, so realized.
Ah, yes, Kamala’s family. Her father Yusuf (Mohan Kapoor) is one of the most sublime additions to the MCU. A pure shot of joy in every scene. The man provides so many genuine laughs and moments of sentiment it would be a bother to list them out. There’s a touching symmetry found between Episode 1 when Kamala breaks her father’s heart by rejecting his Hulk cosplay, and Episode 6, when he sweetly –and completely unintentionally– sets Kamala on the road to becoming “Ms. Marvel.”
Kamala’s mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) plays an often thankless role in the film: a woman who cares about her child. While lesser stories leave this trope as something for our protagonist to resist, Muneeba’s concern for her children is understandable and clearly originates from a place of love. Muneeba will happily ground Kamala from her “Avengers parties” if it means sparing her the pain she’s seen people inflict on one another. Yet, she also strongly believes in and supports her daughter, recognizing what a special gift Kamala has inherited. (Foggy and Karen, please take note).
Kamala’s brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) is one of several examples of Ms. Marvel effectively integrating Muslim culture into Kamala’s world. Islam is not a monolith; Kamala seems a step or two right from non-practicing, while her brother is especially devout. However, her brother is so devout that he spends too much time praying and can’t land a job, resulting in a unique archetype of “the religiously devout slacker.” And not for nothing, the man cracks jokes. A personal favorite: “I’ve been dying to ask you, on Eid, did you drop that kid on purpose, or was that a game-time decision?”
Kamala’s support group also includes best friends Bruno (Matt Lintz) and Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher). Lintz manages to capture a fun, often superhero-driven dynamic with Vellani without letting Bruno’s obvious crush on Kamala overstep into cliche melodrama or jealousy. Nakia challenges both Kamala and Ms. Marvel, without ever abandoning either. While she doesn’t know it at the time, Nakia delivers Kamala some much-needed superhero guidance during a beautiful monologue about Nakia’s personal decision to wear a hijab. Many of Ms. Marvel’s failings are the good kind of problems. Bruno and Nakia are great, and there’s simply not enough of them!
Kamala’s friend group is indicative of a lively “exterior world” that is missing from so many Marvel projects. In Episode 2, Kamala, Bruno, Nakia, and the Khans attend a community festival. We see Kamala’s brother and his fiancee at the party, and subsequently, the two meet with their own friends. It was such a festive, lively scene, a communal atmosphere that pervades the series. It might seem like a minor detail, but you can count the number of times a character like Steve Rogers –as a random example– interacts with anyone other than a co-worker, fellow hero, or antagonist.
Unfortunately, many of the strengths of Ms. Marvel are diluted by Marvel’s commitment to what has proven to be a flawed, unsatisfying narrative structure. Until She-Hulk: Attorney at Law drops (August 17), WandaVision remains the only 9-episode Disney+ series (barring the What If? animated anthology). The rest of the shows, for better or worse, do not feel like shows, but rather movies stretched and cut into 40-minute chunks.
When you take a step back and look at the full picture, the story of Ms. Marvel makes sense. I mean, sure, I can’t defend Clandestine. As villains, they stunk. But as a whole, Ms. Marvel was never about Kamala vs. anyone. It’s a story about someone who feels small and out of place, all the time, on too many different levels to count. She’s then gifted greatness, but once more, must sift through the many layers of herself –her family, her cultures, great physical distances, even time itself– to understand who she is, both as Kamala and Ms. Marvel. Returning to Jersey City at the conclusion of her journey, Kamala is a bonafide hero, ready to help not only her city and her mosque but Kamran, an individual going through the same difficult journey she just completed.
In fact, the similarities between Kamala, Kamran, Muslims in America, families going through Partition, and mutants fit together so well and are often thoughtfully explored.
But on a week-to-week basis, the Disney+ shows seem to lurch forth or slow down without warning. Episode 3 ends with Damage Control hot on Kamala’s tail, while her family has all but disowned her, believing she intentionally ruined her brother’s wedding. Episode 4 starts with her and her mother on a plane to Pakistan.
These shows feel like a blend of movie and series, but more often take the bad from both, rather than the good. We don’t get the massive spectacles, the multi-hero casts, and huge story developments we expect from movies. But we also don’t get the small character moments and worldbuilding asides that longer TV runtimes permit.
Kamala’s father and brother are completely absent for two of the six episodes. Zoe, who plays a big role in the finale, is absent from the middle three. It’s normal for films to feature minor characters that get left behind as the story progresses, but you don’t see that as often on television. After Vigilante was introduced in Peacemaker, he didn’t randomly fall out of the story for multiple episodes at a time. He’s introduced as a part of the narrative and continues to contribute to the story, themes, and development of the central protagonist.
Fortunately, Ms. Marvel overcomes these issues more than any previous show and delivered a highly satisfying season (hopefully) finale.
This brings us to the two massive moments in Episode 6.
MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUND
The closing lines of Ms. Marvel suggest Kamala is more than a Djinn in possession of mysterious (Kree?) tech, but a mutant in possession of a gosh darn, honest-to-goodness x-gene–the very first to be confirmed as part of the main MCU. That suggestion is immediately upgraded to an “OHHHHHHH HELL YES!!” confirmation with a subtle sting from the X-Men ‘97 theme.
I could write another 2,000 words about this reveal, but in short, it’s nothing but excitement. Mutants are coming. Mutants are here. Kamala is a mutant. She was always meant to be a mutant. Is Monica a mutant? Is Carol?!
Oh yeah, Carol *freaking* Danvers, as Kamala would say, makes her second Phase 4 post-credits appearance. But this time she’s not coolly advising on mysterious tech before jetting off on another cosmic adventure. Instead, she finds herself marooned in a fangirl’s bedroom in a scene directed by Nia DaCosta, who will lead Carol, Monica, and Kamala through the story of The Marvels, due out next summer.
The only “negative” I can attribute to the closing moments of Ms. Marvel is that I can’t figure out a way we see Iman Vellani until The Marvels, barring a brief appearance in Secret Invasion. But loving characters is a good problem to have, and regardless of the show’s structural issues, Ms. Marvel had a lot of great problems.
Ms. Marvel struggles with the same issues as the other Disney+ shows, but more often than not overcomes these issues to tell a fun teenage superhero story with cultural and familial resonance.