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In Defense of ‘Ms. Marvel’

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This article contains minor spoilers for Ms. Marvel.

It’s been over three years since Avengers: Endgame, the climactic event of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ten years in the making, premiered. Since then, some fans have felt that the MCU has been… stumbling, more or less, or at least struggling to maintain the hype since Endgame’s release. One common criticism is that the current watch time for Phase Four (everything post-Endgame) totals up to nearly 50 hours, which is already nearly half the length of the entire MCU combined. And with seemingly every new film or series having to tie in to everything else, the watch time for required viewing grows and grows. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and it’s starting to feel that the superhero market is a bit, well, saturated. 

However, one of the shows that’s really shone for me is one that’s been flying under the radar for most viewers, and has even garnered some undeserved (and honestly, likely racist and misogynistic) review bombing from some. That show, of course, is the Muslim, South Asian, female-led Ms. Marvel. And for those of you who haven’t watched yet, let me tell you: it’s actually really good.

Ms. Marvel logo.

In a sea of superhero content, Ms. Marvel stands out. On the surface, it may seem like just another origin story: 16 year old Kamala Khan, played by newcomer and self-proclaimed Marvel geek Iman Vellani, one day finds herself in possession of a family heirloom that grants her incredible powers, incredible responsibility, and the need for secret identity – you know, typical hero stuff. But what makes this story not so typical is the distinct approach put forth by the incredible Muslim and South Asian cast and production team behind the series. This includes showrunner Bisha K. Ali, directing duo Adil & Bilall (who were also directing Batgirl before its unfortunate cancelation), female directors Meera Menon and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, along with many, many others. Together, it’s clear they ensured that the cultural touchstones of the South Asian American experience would not be overlooked.

Ms. Marvel poster.

From the first episode alone, we are introduced to the multi-cultured Jersey City neighborhood and the people to which Kamala confides: this includes her strict, yet loving immigrant parents, her older brother who gets away with the stuff she can’t, her local Pakistani community who can’t help but spread gossip, her halal guy who always gives her extra sauce for free, her two closest friends Bruno and Nakia who help her sneak out, and her local high school peers who can’t seem to get her name right… just to name a few. These varied groups that Kamala associates with and depend on already line us up for a delicate, yet relatable balancing act between her cultural roots and her Western upbringing.

Ms. Marvel also wastes no time introducing us to its distinct, colorful visual style that sets it apart from its predecessors. Vibrant, detailed sets make the backdrops come to life, text messages and emojis light up on neon signs instead of via boring on-screen overlays or over-the-shoulder shots, and occasional 2D animation sequences make for fun and frequent mixed-media scenes. These add more personality to an otherwise straightforward script. More specifically, this playful style perfectly personifies the perspective of our nerdy, 16 year old protagonist. Altogether, these added visual elements feel like something straight out of a comic book, with all the fast-paced page-turning drama and action that keeps the story going.

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel / Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel. Photo by Daniel McFadden.

Moving into the following episodes, we are given a greater sense of the world that Kamala is a part of and the stakes that are present, both in a grander sense of the plot as well as in a cultural sense. However, there’s an overarching theme that subtly works its way throughout the narrative, that ties these plotlines together, and that may be a familiar feeling for any kids of immigrants: the feeling of being “split,” or divided between two worlds. Sure, Kamala is already a Pakistani-American teen going through an internal culture war, but being a young adult who just got superpowers means that there are many more things she’s divided between now. She wants to be a normal teen, but she has to bear a newfound responsibility. She wants to be treated by her community like an adult, but she’s still a kid. She wants to break the rules, but also wants to do good in the eyes of her parents. She wants to be a nerd who cosplays, but she still wants to fit in at school. She wants to respect her traditional values, but she still wants to choose her own identity. 

Even later (and moderate spoilers here) when her family travels to their hometown of Karachi, she ends up split in both time and place, with dual concurrent storylines between the past and present, between Jersey City and Pakistan, and with both having an equal grasp on the direction of Kamala’s narrative. It makes for a complex story that is both sensible to the plot, but is also familiar to any young diaspora kids watching: even without superpowers, where do you go when your home is two places, and neither are fully familiar? It’s a question we’ve all thought of, and it’s a strong, yet subtle point that Ms. Marvel makes sure to drive home.

(L-R): Mohan Kapur as Yusuf, Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel / Kamala Khan, Zenobia Shroff as Muneeeba, Saagar Shaikh as Aamir in Ms. Marvel. Photo by Daniel McFadden.

Admittedly, this message isn’t put directly at the forefront of every single episode. What’s obviously more important is saving the world, learning more about superpowers, life or death consequences, and other typical hero stuff. And sure, it can be pretty trope-y, with love triangles galore and classic snarky remarks during otherwise serious scenes (what Marvel movie would be complete without them?). But with all those aside, it’s still a uniquely immigrant story; moreover, it’s a superhero immigrant story, with no other required viewing (except for literally just knowing that the character Captain Marvel exists) and no overdone cameo-of-the-week. That alone is enough to make it unique for the MCU.

Most importantly, though, the show is honestly just so unexpectedly fun. From Kamala’s monologues being accompanied by silly sketchbook scribbles, to the superpowered scenes where the power of Noor really shines, to each episode’s credits paying tribute to the original comic’s artwork, to the montages and the dance sequences… it’s all eye candy that makes for quite an enjoyable ride. The show is also well-paced enough so that nothing gets too stale, and the music choices are also top notch. Featured artists like Jai Wolf, MEMBA, and many, many more soundtrack pivotal moments of the series, and even give us a glimpse into what Kamala may have on her own personal playlist.

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel / Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

And here’s the thing: like it or not, they really made Ms. Marvel cool. Sure, she’s a “cringey” kid who makes YouTube videos and has a parasocial obsession over a celebrity (in her case, Captain Marvel), but who didn’t at that age? She’s believable, she’s relatable, she’s a fan just like us; plus, she has a pretty cool superpower and costume to boot. There’s a reason why she and Spider-Man are friends in the comics: she, too, is a nerdy, optimistic teenager who tries to make the best out of the situation, even when everything is working against you. And because she’s a kid, she has fun doing it.

So, that’s my suggestion: if you were to watch one of the many MCU shows this phase, make it this one. It may not be the most popular one, but it deserves way more than it’s been given. Altogether, it’s a fun, unique, and colorful joy ride through time, space, and cultures. More importantly, it’s the story of a superhero’s take on  Pakistani-American identity, and it’s what makes Kamala Khan into the legendary Ms. Marvel.

All episodes of Ms. Marvel are now streaming on Disney+. Photos in this article courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Links: Disney+ | Official Website

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