Marvel Studios is making up for lost time with its Phase 4 movie and TV show line-up. After years of solely creating projects centered around white, cisgender male superheroes, the Disney subsidiary's shift towards greater inclusivity – in all aspects of production – has been a belated but welcome change.
The latest venture in Marvel's diversification push is Ms Marvel, a Disney Plus series that finally introduces fan favorite superhero Kamala Khan to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Ms Marvel's overdue arrival has been a long time coming, but her eventual introduction has ironically been a blessing in disguise.
How so? Well, Ms Marvel is more than just a by-the-books high school drama with a smattering of superhero content littered throughout. It's a fun, colorful, fantastical, and optimistic series that the MCU needs after the weightier feel of other recent productions. There are elements of Marvel's latest Disney Plus show that are somewhat predictable and labored; incidences that'll likely prevent it being as revered as Loki, Moon Knight, or WandaVision. Even so, Ms Marvel is a largely entertaining series that does more right than wrong.
Ms Marvel tells the tale of Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a Pakistani-American teenager and Avengers super fan who gets more enjoyment out of daydreaming and making Captain Marvel YouTube videos than she does attending school or stringently following her Muslim family's traditions and customs.
So when Khan comes into possession of a strange bracelet – which also seemingly has ties to her ancestors – that grants her superpowers, it appears that her perennial wish to become a superhero has come true. As Khan finds out, though, juggling your responsibilities only becomes harder once you become a superhero. And, when two mysterious organizations start hunting Khan for wildly differing reasons, she'll need to learn that being a superpowered individual isn't all it's cracked up to be.
With many of Marvel's Phase 4 projects dispensing with traditional origin stories – Shang-Chi was arguably the last one to adhere to this strategy – it's quite satisfying to see Ms Marvel to follow this narrative structure.
Sure, Moon Knight proved that Marvel doesn't need to introduce new superheroes to the MCU in a linear storytelling fashion. In doing so, however, Moon Knight also showed that Marvel has the flexibility to choose which approach suits each project best. And, for Ms Marvel, the traditional origin story format just happens to be the optimum fit.
Khan may be a beloved character among Marvel comic book fans, but many MCU followers (who may not be as comic series savvy) won't know who she is. Equally, with a relative newcomer in Iman Vellani portraying her, Ms Marvel doesn't have a bonafide movie star in its lead role – Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight – that'll capture audiences' attention right off the bat. Nor does it have an established MCU character, such as Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff or Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who audiences are already familiar with leading one of Marvel's many TV productions.
Introducing viewers to Khan, the show's supporting cast, and revealing how she acquires her powers in the conventional sense, then, is the right move to make. It provides ample opportunities to learn about their personalities, see how they interact with one another, find out about their insecurities, and what impact Khan's new powers have on her and those around her. It's not an overly novel way of introducing a show's sizeable cast, but one that's necessary to present each character to viewers and show how the balance of power shifts between them once Khan acquires her abilities.
As for Khan's superpowers, they look and feel like a natural revision to how she obtains them in the comics. Marvel's decision to alter Ms Marvel's abilities in her TV show is controversial, particularly in light of how they've divided Ms Marvel's fanbase following the release of the series' official trailer.
Given the tweaks to her origin story in the show, however, Khan's abilities are in keeping with the MCU's more cosmic and magic-flavored powers. Some fans are sure to gripe about her abilities resembling a DC hero in Green Lantern rather than her Marvel comic counterpart, but many of her classic 'embiggen' abilities have been retained, and they work similarly to the powers Khan possesses in the comics. In a series with more pressing issues (more on these soon), fans concerned about Marvel's decision to stray from Ms Marvel's traditional abilities shouldn't worry too much.
Teen dreams and deep themes
By sporadically sprinkling its superhero-based moments in its opening two episodes, Ms Marvel follows Marvel Studios' formula of devoting plenty of time – in its early episodes, at least – to character development, thematic exploration, and MCU and comic book references.
Understandably, given she's the star of the show, much of the above trio revolves around Khan herself. Early reactions to Vellani's portrayal of Khan described her as being perfect for the role – and it's easy to see why. Vellani brings genuine awkwardness, corniness, humor, heart, and Avengers fanaticism to Khan's live-action iteration; revelling in a role that seems tailor made for her.
But it's not just the Iman Vellani show. Her co-stars Matt Lintz, Yasmeen Fletcher, and Laurel Marsden – who play Bruno Carrelli, Nakia, and Zoe Zimmer respectively – also authentically capture what it means to be teens navigating the highs and lows of adolescence, particularly in a Gen Z world. The show certainly has the tonality of a John Hughes film – like the MCU's Spider-Man movies did – or, more recently, Ladybird and Booksmart, which grounds it amid the otherworldly goings-on that transpire during the series' opening act.
Where Ms Marvel differentiates itself from those films and previous MCU offerings is its effective use of comic book imagery and stylization. As a daydreamer and Avengers fan fiction writer, Khan is a uniquely positioned Marvel character whose pre-superhero fantasies incorporate the doodles and stories she creates in her spare time.
What better nod to her comic origins, then, than to use such imagery in the character's TV show? Whether it's using comic book panels to show two or more perspectives of the same scene that's playing out, Khan's fan art juxtaposing the real world, or bringing New Jersey-based graffiti to life to depict Khan's escapist sensibility, Ms Marvel is imbued with a panache in keeping with the character's comic creation.
The show's inventive use of camera work and other imagery, such as presenting a emoji-laden text conversation between Khan and Bruno through shops' neon lights and crosswalks, is comparably creative. Such sequences, plus those built around quippy or humor-based moments, bring a lightness and bright aesthetic to the MCU that's been fairly absent of late, especially in horror-infused projects like Doctor Strange 2.
That said, Ms Marvel doesn't shy away from examining tough subject matter. The Partition of India – the break-up of British India into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh following the UK's centuries-long colonization of the Indian subcontinent – is one of numerous topics explored in the show. The reckoning of Britain's imperial past, coupled with other difficult topics including racial identity and the old world (traditional Muslim family and religious values) versus the new (culture clashes), make for reflective viewing.
The show's exploration of mother-daughter dynamics, particularly through the eyes of Khan and her mom Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), is somewhat revolutionary for the MCU, too, given that this type of relationship has rarely been scrutinized. In fact, Ms Marvel's wider inspection and celebration of Muslim families and communities is gratifying, training a well-deserved lens on the heritage, culture, and lifestyle of Islamic society.
If you're a sucker for MCU Easter eggs, Ms Marvel is absolutely packed with them, too. From immeasurable call backs to previous Marvel movies and TV shows – see how many you can find when Khan attends the inaugural AvengerCon – to teases about upcoming projects, MCU fans are sure to have a field day. Sure, other films and TV series have referenced what's come before, but Ms Marvel takes things to another, pleasure inducing level.
Taking a tumble
Just as its titular hero wrestles to gain control of her new abilities, Ms Marvel struggles to overcome a few key issues concerning predictable story beats and production problems.
For one, the romance that develops between Khan and Kamran (Rish Shah) feels forced; its addition a mere plot device to drive the story forward into more foreboding territory post-episode 2. Its inclusion is understandable, but it feels formulaic for a superhero show that's generally positioned as a high school/teen drama, especially when it hints at the prospect of a love triangle.
That's not the only narrative aspect that's par for the course. Khan's first major rescue mission feels contrived in the scheme of things, even if it's used a plot lever to show she's nowhere near mastering her powers. There are bound to occasions where Khan exhibits her inexperience throughout the show, so shoehorning in a scene of this nature feels superfluous.
As for the sound design/editing, there are a few occasions where it's hard to decipher the dialogue. Thankfully, such issues were largely reserved for scenes where vital information wasn't forthcoming. However, should the problem persist in latter episodes when important plot points are revealed, viewers may not take too kindly to having to rewind two or three times to work out what's being said.
Ms Marvel's Disney Plus series is a worthy live-action introduction for the fan favorite Marvel character. Its charming, bright, and positive demeanor sets it apart from its MCU TV show brethren, while it does a suitably good job of adapting Khan's origins story – a highly relatable teen-based one, at that – from page to screen.
There are hiccups along the way, mind. It's not as thrilling as previous Marvel TV series just yet, plus some fans may bristle at the changes made to the character's superpowers and humble beginnings. Some narrative and sound design choices also leave a lot to be desired, though there's still time for Marvel Studios to rectify these errors in its subsequent episodes.
On the whole, then, Ms Marvel is sure to be the latest in a long line of pleasing Marvel Studios projects. it finds a sturdy balance between its multiple moving parts and the overarching mystery about Kamala Khan's family tree is sure to enthral and captivate audiences throughout its six episode run. In Iman Vellani, too, the MCU has a fantastic Khan/Ms Marvel, who's sure to steal the show when she makes her Marvel movie debut in The Marvels in summer 2023.
"Good is not a thing you are; it's a thing you do", according to Khan's comic book counterpart. In the case of her TV series, Ms Marvel is certainly both.
Ms Marvel launches exclusively on Disney Plus on Wednesday, June 8.