It’s downright audacious that Marvel is now making TV shows about Avengers superfans, but despite that thoroughly meta invitation to egomania, real-life MCU diehards are in for a treat with “Ms. Marvel.”
First introduced in a 2013 comic by Sana Amanat, “Ms. Marvel” is the story of Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a nerdy New Jersey teen obsessed with Captain Marvel who ends up gaining her own superpowers and moniker. The Disney+ adaptation comes from creator and head writer Bisha K. Ali (executive story editor on “Loki“), with executive producers Adil and Bilall. Despite the young protagonist, “Ms. Marvel” is as universal as “Spider-Man” or “Hawkeye” or any Disney+ series before it.
Episode 1 introduces us to Kamala, content with her friends, family, and phantasmagoria as she daydreams through class and uploads YouTube videos about her favorite superhero, Captain Marvel. Her dearest ambition in life is to get her driver’s license so she can go to AvengerCon (that’s going to be a thing, isn’t it?) and dazzle her fellow attendees with a homemade Captain Marvel cosplay.
The first few minutes alone are filled with effervescent animation meant to convey the richness of Kamala’s imagination. It’s not a mix of live-action and animation, but dynamic illustrations that enhance what’s captured on camera. The art team and animators give “Ms. Marvel” a distinct and gorgeous visual palette entirely in line with its protagonist and ethos and unlike anything else in the MCU. Audiences will witness Kamala’s fantasies as their images dance along rooftops; when she texts her best friends, the messages show up in neon signs or the streets they’re crossing, a stylistic choice that invites viewers into Kamala’s mind. The optics are matched in quality and swagger by a soundtrack stacked with talent from the South Asian diaspora, including Riz MC, Raja Kumari, Tesher, and many more.
But Kamala is snapped out of her dream world — repeatedly — by mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), who claims “I come from a long line of fantasizing, unrealistic daydreamers,” and cautions Kamala against falling into the same patterns.
In Marvel Comics, Kamala becomes superpowered after exposure to a mutegenic mist with Kree connections, but in the series she dons an ornate arm cuff sent to the Khans by Muneeba’s mother. In the first two episodes screened for critics, this operates as a shiny, decorative MacGuffin, as evidence mounts that Kamala’s power connects directly to family secrets and generational trauma. At one point the Khans actually discuss India’s partition, a violent chapter in history that directly affects many families from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to this day. Neither Muneeba nor her mother will reveal what happened the day they fled India for Pakistan, but Kamala is certain that whatever they’re hiding will unlock the bangle’s power — and her own.
Vellani is nothing short of transcendent in the role she was born to play. Her Kamala Khan is disarmingly, consistently, potently endearing, a stand in for obsessive dreamers everywhere who long for adventure. Much of this is conveyed with secret smiles and giddy looks, or the abject sincerity of her friendships with Bruno (Matt Lintz) and Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher). It’s understandable that Kamala’s parents don’t want her to grow up when her childlike wonder is so winsome, but never diminishes the young woman she’s growing up to be. In Vellani’s hands, Kamala finds excitement everywhere; in sneaking off to AvengerCon, in testing out her new powers, in the prospect of seeing a crush — all with equal and glorious verisimilitude. The entire supporting cast bolster the best of Kamala while playing skillfully off Vellani’s energy — none more than Shroff, who brings a warm humor to Muneeba even when she’s stern and protective.
Kamala has a platonic male best friend, a deep appreciation of Captain Marvel, and by the end of Episode 1 has used her new powers to save the popular girl at school who deeply fascinates her. Despite this charged setup, Episode 2 quickly introduces a new character and falls into well-worn narrative patterns of the untenable cishet male-female friendship, unrequited love, and the lure of a bad boy with a cool car. All of this fits just fine with the show’s high school atmosphere, but the MCU’s own “Spider-Man” films already forged a hall-of-fame-worthy cishet teen It Couple. Keeping Kamala’s friendships strictly platonic doesn’t make them any less special, but with great chemistry and a fresh feel one hopes that MCU might reconsider their playbook in remaining episodes.
In her first outing as executive producer, Ali helms the series with enviable confidence and capability. “Ms. Marvel” bears the burden of representation just like any minority story, but with a surplus of authenticity and authority. Viewers with South Asian roots will find a veritable feast of representation, from the pinch-me excitement of hearing characters discuss Shah Rukh Khan and visit Desi stores and restaurants right down to Shroff and Kapur using “chalo” and “beta” organically and unapologetically, terms that don’t need to be defined because they’re couched in context. Anyone unfamiliar with these particular cultural touchstones should nonetheless feel as welcome as Kamala’s bestie Bruno (Matt Lintz) at the local Eid celebration: Invited into the rich, sturdy backdrop of “Ms. Marvel” and comforted by its sense of community.
Given her specific pocket of the multiverse, Kamala keeps admirably cool after realizing she has powers. She’s versed enough in superheroes and their origins to know that none of it matters unless she learns how to control and deploy the bangle’s magic, which shoots crystallized light out of her hands and feet which then hardens (she calls it “hard light”). It’s hard to do any of that in secret in the age of social media with the Department of Damage Control still snooping around. Kamala is set to appear on the big screen for “The Marvels” in 2023, but there’s nothing here to suggest she can’t and won’t get future seasons as her power grows.
“Ms. Marvel” is doing a lot of things simultaneously, doing them well, and making it look easy — but in reality this is the product of so many stars aligning, from Stan Lee’s comics publisher to a blockbuster studio machine and Hollywood’s priorities shifting just enough to make space for someone like Kamala. The combination of this young star, production team, and creative elements is exactly what the premiere episode declares: Cosmic.
Ms. Marvel premieres Wednesday, June 8 on Disney+, with new episodes weekly.