The trope of the teenage girl chosen from among her peers to fight evil is not a new one. Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Tris (Divergent), Clary (The Mortal Instruments), and Bella Swan (the Twilight saga) have all gone before, to name but a few incarnations to have hit the big and small screen over the years. The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe stable gives us a new hero to add to our collection of chosen ones: the titular Ms Marvel, aka Kamala Khan.
Kamala, portrayed by newcomer Iman Vellani, is the same as any other American schoolgirl navigating the trials and tribulations of school and teenagerhood: attempting to fit in with her peers, wondering what life after school might look like, while at the same time working out how to sneak past her parents to attend the upcoming AvengerCon with her friend Bruno (Matt Lintz), to take part in the Captain Marvel cosplay competition.
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Kamala’s identity crisis is compounded by her dual heritage, managing the expectations of her Pakistani parents against the Western view of growing up. It’s this dual nature that makes Ms Marvel far more interesting to watch than the usual “pretty girl saves the world” tropes we are used to. As Kamala herself says to her Bruno as they plot their escape to AvengerCon, “It’s never the brown girl from Jersey who saves the world.” And yet, with the help of a mysterious bangle from her nani, now it is the brown girl who saves the world. And it is definitely worth watching.
In keeping with the recent crop of TV series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Ms Marvel is only six episodes long, a much shorter run than those of us who remember the days of only three TV channels are used to. Ms Marvel, though, builds Kamala’s world effectively, and delivers a tight, coherent narrative in the short time it has available.
Episode one is a good example of how to build a world. We are quickly introduced to Kamala and her corner of Jersey City, complete with school, siblings and gossiping family friends. We learn that Kamala is a graphic artist and is obsessed with Captain Marvel, often disappearing into flights of fancy which she records for her blog posts. Kamala’s number one aim is to attend AvengerCon to take part in, and win, the upcoming Captain Marvel cosplay competition.
We are also introduced to Kamala’s family, her brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh), and her parents Muneeba and Yusuf (Zenobia Schroff and Mohan Kapur); unusually for Disney our protagonist is neither orphaned nor adopted and has a good relationship with her family. Upon discovering her wish to attend AvengerCon, her parents concoct a plan to allow them to keep an eye on their daughter, much to her horror, presenting matching father and daughter outfits. What is lovely is the idea that her parents want to be part of her life and her hobby, even if they are unsure why it means so much to her. It makes a change to see supportive parents on TV rather than the usual dysfunctional families that are often the staple of television series, particularly in the “Chosen One” arena.
Kamala still decides to sneak out to AvengerCon with Bruno, rather than attend with her father, and takes with her a bangle she has discovered in a box of belongings owned by her great grandmother. The bangle is both a help and a hindrance, saving someone’s life while at the same time creating massive damage to the convention hall as only superheroes can do. The rest of the episodes follow the usual path of all superhero origin stories’ discovery of powers: finding out someone else wants those powers for themselves, working out how to use your powers to save others, acceptance of being a hero. These themes are no different if you are watching the early Marvel movies, the new crop of Marvel Studios TV series or the latest incarnation of Spider-Man.
What sets Ms Marvel apart from the usual superhero tropes are her supporting cast of characters, and Marvel’s exploration of what it means to be a Muslim and Pakistani in America today. Ms Marvel makes no bones about the fact that Kamala is Muslim, and her family is originally from Pakistan. The audience are even invited to attend the mosque with Kamala and her friend Nakia for services. It is a central location, acting as a focal point for interactions with the Department of Damage Control (DODC) where we see Nakia stand up to a nameless government organisation, a hero in her own right, even without superpowers.
There are also regular discussions about Partition – the separation of India into two countries, India and Pakistan by the British Empire in 1947. Ms Marvel tells us the story from the point of view of the people forced to flee their homes, as well as dealing with the repercussions still echoing through families affected at the time, even 75 years later. The episodes dealing with Partition don’t pull their punches, conveying a fraction of the panic and chaos that dividing a country into two caused for millions of people.
Family is another key theme in Ms Marvel. One striking moment in Episode 2 is when Yusuf realises Kamala has attended AvengerCon without him. The look on his face when he realises his daughter is outgrowing him and might be embarrassed by him is genuinely upsetting and for a moment it’s hard to stand with Kamala as she hurts someone who obviously loves her dearly. Mohan Kapur gives a wonderful performance as Yusuf Khan, seeming to have genuine affection for Iman Vellani’s Kamala.
The performers are well cast, bringing a joy and honesty to their roles, but Vellani deserves special mention as the eponymous Ms Marvel. She is by equal turns vulnerable and defensive, and invincible and heroic. The audience are never in any doubt that this is a young woman trying to find her place in life, with the added complications of learning how to use her superpowers, while being simultaneously hunted by other superpowered beings and government agencies
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Ms Marvel is a new generation of superhero character, in a similar vein to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, or Hulu’s The Runaways. It is as much about coming of age in a complicated world as it is about having powers outside of the ordinary experience of most of humanity.
Ms Marvel is everything audiences have come to expect from Marvel Studios: tight storytelling and amazing visuals as well as mid-credit scenes tying into the wider cinematic worlds, while at the same time maintaining a lightness of touch in keeping with its aim of introducing a new audience to the MCU.
Ms Marvel is streaming now on Disney+.