The best and worst thing I can say about Ms. Marvel is that there are long stretches where it’s easy to forget it’s a Marvel show.
You may have noticed that there have been a lot of movies and TV shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last few years. Like, an amount equivalent to how big Ant-Man got during the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War. Most of these have been good. Some have been substantially better than that. And a few, like the sitcom/tragedy mash-up of WandaVision or the squishy horror-movie stylings of Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, have even managed to feel tonally different from the rest of the MCU, at least part of the time. But between the uniformity of the MCU style elsewhere, the sheer number of MCU projects, and the increased interconnectivity of them all(*), even a lifelong Marvel zombie like me can feel at times like we’ve gotten too much of a good thing, if not like a never-ending homework assignment.
(*) Besides the multiple performances by Oscar Isaac, the best thing to be said for the meandering Moon Knight is that, for the moment anyway, it exists as a self-contained unit that does not seem necessary to understanding future projects. Standalone stories are still OK, even if that wasn’t an especially good one.
Ms. Marvel does not exactly hide its links to the MCU. Its main character, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a Pakistani-American teenager living in Jersey City with her parents Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and Yusuf (Mohan Kapur) and brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh), is an unabashed Avengers fangirl. At the beginning of the first episode, the familiar Marvel Studios logo transforms into animated superhero scrapbook figures drawn by Kamala as she talks about her love of Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel. The main conflict of the series premiere is whether her parents will allow Kamala to go with her best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz) to attend the first-ever AvengerCon at Camp Lehigh, the military base where Steve Rogers trained as a soldier back in the first Captain America film.
And yet the show’s first two installments do such a strong job of establishing Kamala, her family, her friends (also including Yasmeen Fletcher as Kamala’s other best friend, Nakia), and the local Muslim community, that the MCU tie-ins can feel almost beside the point. Bisha K. Ali and the other writers have crafted a compelling, smart, funny, and poignant coming-of-age story, and found a terrific young star to embody it in Iman Vellani.
It is a classic case of how storytellers aim to make the specific universal and the universal specific. In some ways, Kamala’s desire for independence and to pursue different dreams from the ones her parents have for her is familiar from so many similar adolescent tales. And the writing, directing (the premiere is helmed by the Belgian duo known as Adil & Bilall), and performances add shading that in the series’ best moments evoke classics of the genre, like My So-Called Life.
At the same time, every one of those conflicts is in some way so informed by Kamala’s heritage and her faith that Ms. Marvel feels distinct from almost everything else on television. In the second episode, the family is joined for dinner by Aamir’s fiancée Tyesha (Travina Springer), a Black Muslim still learning about her future in-laws’ family tree. Kamala, coincidentally, has developed a renewed interest in the lives of her grandmother and great-grandmother after discovering she may have gained superpowers from a family heirloom. (We’ll get back to that.) The conversation turns to the Partition, the moment in 1947 when India and Pakistan were cleaved into separate nations, kicking off a period of intense violence, strife, and families abruptly divided by this new border. The scene offers only a cursory explanation of the Partition, because everyone in the room (Tyesha included) already knows what it was, yet the subject adds enormous heft to what would otherwise be a routine bit of exposition in Kamala’s superhero journey, and in a way that does not feel cheap.
Even Kamala’s love of the Avengers cosplay on its own works well as her version of youthful rebellion. The series’ visual style lives up to its title character’s imagination. Not only does she draw and vlog about the Avengers, but her text exchanges with Bruno and Nakia are presented as part of her everyday world — messages painted on the street as she walks to school, or spelled out with the many twinkly lights of her bedroom — and graffiti and street signs come to animated life as Kamala passes them by. It is not hard to imagine a version of the series that takes place in the MCU but looks at it from a purely civilian point of view. But as has been the case in Marvel Comics for nearly a decade, Kamala is destined for bigger things — literally at times, due to the nature of her powers (more on that in a bit, too) — and so Ms. Marvel the TV show has to weave the teen angst and cultural details around establishing her as a heroine who might one day get to hang out with the real Carol Danvers, rather than just wearing a facsimile of her costume to AvengerCon.
Overall, that dynamic makes the early chapters of this live-action version feel like an embodiment of the distracted boyfriend meme: You thought you were happy with a superhero origin story until this teen drama wandered past.
In the comics, Kamala discovers that she is distantly related to the Inhumans — you may remember them as the subjects of the worst of all of Marvel’s pre-Kevin Feige TV shows — and develops the ability to grow and shrink either her whole body or parts of it, which she uses most frequently by stretching out her limbs and/or enlarging her fists to hit bad guys really hard. The Inhumans are on the MCU backburner again, even with one of them getting a semi-redemptive cameo in Multiverse of Madness, so Ali and company have instead tied Kamala’s superhuman origins back to her familial ones. They’ve also adjusted her power set a bit, so that she’s less Mr. Fantastic or Plastic Man and more Green Lantern. It can look like she’s stretching or making a huge fist, but only because she’s shooting energy beams out of her hands that take on various solid shapes. (She can also walk through the air on little purple discs she creates.)
In the comics, the morphing powers serve as a metaphor for Kamala trying to expand what she can be beyond familial and societal expectations. These energy powers, in addition to probably being easier to create for multiple episodes on a non-movie budget, also serve as another extension of Kamala’s artistic leanings. But they definitely feel more generic than even the stretchy powers, especially in these early episodes when Kamala is still running around in her Captain Marvel cosplay.
But, then, a lot of the super material feels less inspired than the more personal material. There’s the inevitable montage of STEAM prodigy Bruno helping Kamala understand and refine her new abilities; a few early sequences of her creating as many problems as she solves due to her inexperience; and, eventually, the arrival of some other minor MCU figures — primarily Arian Moayed reprising his role as the manipulative Agent Cleary from Spider-Man: No Way Home — who are interested in this new figure on the hero scene. Even with the energy and appeal of Vellani, these scenes are rarely more than functional. No matter how many purple sparks fly from Kamala’s hands, the superhero material ironically lacks energy compared to her arguments with her parents, her and Nakia protesting the condition of the gender-segregated parts of the mosque, or her and handsome new transfer student Kamran (Rish Shah) flirting while discussing their favorite Bollywood films.
With these shows, it’s impossible to make major judgments after only two episodes, especially when the two provided don’t even suggest who the villain is or what the arc of the season may be. And Kamala has been a genuinely great addition to the Marvel superhero ranks in print. So maybe Ms. Marvel will get that part right by the end of the season.
That the series can be so good at the coming-of-age part — and do so while feeling so distinct from the rest of the MCU — is absolutely to its credit. But eventually, every Marvel project (WandaVision included) has to become like all the others. If the superhero parts don’t get substantially more interesting before that point, the creative team may have done their jobs too well on the aspects that set their heroine apart from her costumed peers, creating a narrative imbalance that may be too big to fix.
The first episode of Ms. Marvel begins streaming June 8 on Disney+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first two.