2021 was a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which tallied 10 new releases in 12 months and back-to-back-to-back hits on both big screen and small. But that success came from playing it safe, especially on Disney+, where every series either starred or heavily featured already well-known characters from hit films. Though the output on streaming has (thankfully) slowed down this year, the releases are riskier, beginning with the little-known “Moon Knight” in March, and now “Ms. Marvel,” the MCU’s first teen-focused series. A brightly colored, brilliantly meta story about a Marvel stan who discovers her own superpowers are wrapped up in her heritage, this new entry into the MCU canon is an utter delight.
The original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers as a scantily clad counterpart to the (male) Captain Marvel of the 1970s, was promoted to take over the “captain” moniker only in 2012.
Like “Captain Marvel” before it, the version of “Ms. Marvel” used in the series is a relatively new addition to the long-running Marvel comics. The original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers as a scantily clad counterpart to the (male) Captain Marvel of the 1970s, was promoted to take over the “captain” moniker only in 2012, with Marvel desperately seeking its Wonder Woman counterpart. This led comics team Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona to create Kamala Khan, a Pakistani teen from New Jersey and Marvel’s first Muslim character as the new Ms. Marvel, who was introduced in the “Captain Marvel” comics and then given her own spinoff adventures. Though the character doesn’t have a decadeslong history, the first collected volume was an award-winning hit, especially among women.
Turning “Ms. Marvel” into the Disney+ counterpart of the “Captain Marvel” big screen adventures was an obvious choice, much like “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was for the “Captain America” brand, despite the character’s not being well known to moviegoers. But while all of the Disney+ shows have attempted to bring their own flavor to the standard Marvel storytelling experience, each has eventually succumbed to a familiar formula. Even the more off-the-wall series like “Loki” or an obvious pastiche like “WandaVision” have eventually devolved into actors on wires surrounded by CGI. Even “Moon Knight,” which made the wise choice to avoid cameo appearances by big screen characters, still devolved by the final episode.
But “Ms. Marvel” neatly avoids feeling like something you’ve seen before. The vibrant visuals alone are a treat, and they feel far more comic-booky than your standard Marvel story. Animated fantasy sequences featuring teen-drawn characters look like they flew off the pages of a standard composition book. When characters text each other, their messages and emojis appear on street signs or float by in bubbles. And a distinctly pop music-focused soundtrack uses extremely current songs in a way that few shows outside Netflix’s big budget dare to do.
But it’s also the lack of a “found family” story that sets this show apart. Just about every superhero tale in the MCU (and in the DC Films universe) focuses on loners whose powers help them find their community. Kamala (Iman Vellani) is introduced as an ordinary Muslim teenager, living at home with overprotective parents and an older brother who clearly love her to death. Even her teen problems aren’t your stereotypical hardships. There are no mean or racist teachers, just a young millennial guidance counselor who clearly respects Kamala’s nerd game. Her relationship with BFF Bruno (Matt Lintz) has hints of romance, but there’s no huge unrequited crush story. The girl who bullies her at school isn’t the head of some “Mean Girls” clique, just another more successful internet influencer with 80,000 followers.
Iman Vellani was basically an unknown when Marvel cast her as the lead in the series, and she’s a find.
As an Avengers superfan, Kamala is striving to hit the viral lottery as a YouTuber (her “new episodes every Wednesday” cadence is a nice nod to the Disney+ weekly release schedule). But, like Cinderella and the ball, all Kamala really wants is to go to AvengersCon, a delightfully hilarious meta-commentary on convention culture, and compete in the Captain Marvel cosplay contest. To do this, though, she needs that “special something” to set her apart. And that “something special” winds up being one of her grandmother’s heirloom pieces of jewelry found in the attic, which grants Kamala her superpowers.
Iman Vellani was basically an unknown when Marvel cast her as the lead in the series, and she’s a find. Part of what makes the series work is that there’s an authenticity to Kamala’s fandom and how it sits at odds with her struggle to please her parents — and stay true to herself. Vellani’s performance captures that blend of certainty and confusion when you’re a teenager, of believing you know everything, even as you dimly recognize that the adults around you might have a point — at least, sometimes. Also, both Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur deserve a special mention as Kamala’s slightly befuddled but extraordinary well-meaning parents, who are desperate to be supportive while also genuinely worried about their teen daughter’s fearlessly running around Jersey City.
That Kamala’s powers stem from a piece of her heritage is a clear-cut sign of where the series is heading, but that’s not such a bad thing. Not every Marvel series needs to be some sort of fan theory-driven puzzlebox mystery. But while it may feel facile to point out the conspicuously cultural moments, like Kamala’s shopping trip with her mother through Pakistani clothing boutiques, these scenes of grounding the Khan family in their lifestyle are important. The series doesn’t shy away from reminding viewers how much the superhero genre is a reflection of white Western European culture, as Kamala’s mother insists her daughter will not wear slinky sexualized costumes because “that’s not who you are.”
But those moments are part of what makes this series sing. It’s also necessary after decades of centering white men to champion characters like Kamala Khan. (Marvel has already confirmed Vellani’s character will next make the jump to the big screen.) And it’s clearly hit a nerve with those who would gatekeep the real-life Kamalas out of superhero culture. The series was “review bombed” on IMDb, a favored trick of internet trolls who believe they can fool people into not watching something by yelling their opinions super loudly. Notably, Rotten Tomatoes, which put preventive measures in place after the same thing was done to “Captain Marvel,” has a much more accurate reading of how the show is being received.
No matter what these internet bullies would like, Kamala Khan doesn’t need to be anyone but herself, and the show doesn’t need her to be more than that, either. “Ms. Marvel” is proof superhero culture belongs to everyone and even a simple tale of a girl from Jersey City who wants to save the world can enchant us with its big dreams.