From the outset, Ms. Marvel showcases its eccentric style by opening with playful paper animation, the latest in Kamala Khan’s fanfiction-esque superhero web series. The fun doesn’t end there, for the rest of the first two episodes of Marvel Studios’ latest streaming series are filled to the brim with colorful multi-media sequences, fully leaning into an elevated version of the Disney channel show format that many are highly familiar with. Suffice to say that Ms. Marvel finds no trouble in setting itself apart from the rest of what fans have seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Disney+.
This series is one of the first Marvel projects to really focus on regular, everyday civilian life in the MCU, something that the franchise has been in more dire need of as it’s continuously progressed. As the first-born daughter of an immigrant family, the social interactions that Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) has both at home and with her wider Muslim community are indicative of the experiences that women have growing up in expatriate households. Ms. Marvel is truly at its best when it doesn’t shy away from these complex themes that any lesser adaptation would dodge or merely skim over.
In a way, online or “stan” culture has become a right of passage for many teenagers in today’s media landscape, and this has only been amplified by the increasing presence of the internet. Although it was touched upon in Hawkeye with small examples like ‘Rogers: The Musical’ or larger ones like Kate Bishop’s affinity for crimefighting, Ms. Marvel dives deeper into the ways some civilians have become avid fans of superheroes. One could call this the first exploration of stan culture in the MCU with citizens forming their own fan communities where they make content and cosplay, much like the way people treat them in real life at conventions and such. This element of Ms. Marvel makes its high-school characters feel more in line with their ages in comparison to other similarly aged Marvel characters, capturing the awkward chaos of those teenage years.
As with all other superheroes, Kamala’s powers and how she gains them are essential components of the plot. While future episodes will most likely further elaborate on her distinct abilities, their introduction in these first two episodes sadly feels rushed. The first few times she uses her powers, the visual effects even look somewhat questionable. This is at least improved on as the show progresses. It’s a real shame that eager fans won’t get to experience Ms. Marvel’s iconic shape-shifting or “Embiggen!” powers from the comics, but the series still manages to incorporate aspects of her signature hand movements into its new visual style.
When an early sneak peek at Ms. Marvel was released last year, conversations occurred when concerned fans questioned whether there might be too many similarities to Captain Marvel’s tesseract-derived powers with Kamala’s on-screen look. Although there is some resemblance, the thought of Carol Danvers never overshadows Kamala in critical moments. The series makes a complete departure from her powers coming from Terrigen Mist exposure as they do in the comics, instead opting for a bangle that also created the fear of possible orientalist undertones. However, the jewelry Kamala inherits adds cultural depth to this new MCU origin, which seemingly unlocks the abilities handed down to her through a mysterious familial lineage.
Music is undoubtedly another essential part of Ms. Marvel. At times its pop and rap soundtrack works well, adding further aesthetics to the already rather detailed show. From featuring The Weeknd’s mega-hit ‘Blinding lights’ to mentioning iconic British-Pakistan musician turned actor Riz Ahmed’s group the Swet Shop Boys, as well as including one of M.I.A’s underrated jams ‘Come Around,’ the musical choices of Ms. Marvel are certainly filled with taste. But on the other hand, the soundtrack can be contrapuntal at times, interrupting emotional story beats for the sake of having another catchy needle drop.
Iman Vellani deserves every ounce of praise for her portrayal of Kamala Khan, radiating pure charm and charisma within the role. But what is a hero without her friends? Vellani most commonly shares the screen with Matt Lintz who plays best friend Bruno Carrelli. The pair share wholesome chemistry, though as it stands, Bruno lacks his elaborate backstory, making him less dimensional than he is in the comics. Nakia Bahadir maintains her passion for activism from the source material, yet is critically underused in these establishing episodes. Yasmeen Fletcher most definitely brings enthusiasm to Nakia, so viewers can only hope that she is utilized later on in the show in addition to more of this group as a trio, something which is surprisingly rare in these first two episodes.
The first reactions to the show’s representation of Islam and Muslim culture have been mixed. Many of the harshest critics of its representation were Muslim men. While, of course, this is a big deal for Muslims as a whole – including myself – the way women are treated in the wider community is still drastically different from the male experience. Islam is an essential part of the Khan family as well as Nakia’s in the series. For the most part, religion is simply integrated into the wider narrative, but at points it’s clear that writer Bisha K. Ali, who is a Pakistani Muslim, takes risks by making commentary on how there is still work to be done for women to be treated as equals in this community. This will surely cause waves, however, it’s a vital part of conveying the layers of this specific societal upbringing to a wider audience. That being said, it is invigorating to see elements of the culture such as the celebration of Eid Al-Adha and what appears to be Friday prayer at a mosque built into a mainstream streaming program, accompanied by some amusing Muslim humor.
Ultimately, the civilian aspect of Ms. Marvel is its strongest feature as the traditional superhero plotline takes a backseat. Some will find this refreshing and others will be frustrated by the lack of the usual Marvel selling point. This story won’t be exactly for everyone, and that’s why it works. Defying expectations, Ms. Marvel breaths life into a pivotal new character and the rich community around her. Whereas the future of the series can feel uncertain at times, these introductory episodes promise just enough entertainment for an exciting debut season.