Kamala Khan is carrying a lot on her shoulders. For starters, she’s Marvel Comics’ first Muslim superhero to headline their own TV series, with a lot of fans waiting to pass judgement on both her and the show. Ms. Marvel is also the sixth live-action Marvel Disney+ show, which means it has to follow on from popular hits like WandaVision and Loki. On top of that, Ms. Marvel has none of the major superheroes or villains we’ve seen before in the MCU. Instead, 16-year-old fangirl Kamala (newcomer Iman Vellani) is holding the fort on her own, and she’s doing it pretty well.
Living in New Jersey, America, Kamala spends much of Ms. Marvel’s first episode at odds with her mother, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), who won’t let her go to AvengerCon – an in-universe ComicCon-like event dedicated to her fave supes. At school, her gym teacher mangles her name (“Camellia”) despite having taught her for years, her guidance counsellor Mr Wilson (a nod to G. Willow Wilson, the original writer on the Ms. Marvel comics) expects her to decide her entire future right now and she just can’t get a rapport going with cool girl Zoe. Worst of all (for this teenager, at least), is that she just can’t find the final “flourish” for her Captain Marvel cosplay.
You’d be right in thinking that there’s not much superheroing going on here. We don’t even get a glimpse of Kamala’s powers until the final minutes of episode one – and even then they’re a little messy. Ms. Marvel is less concerned with showy abilities, and more interested in family (Kamala’s powers have been changed from the comics, and it seems they’re now linked to her ancestors on her mother’s side) and having Kamala figure out the type of person she wants to be. It works well and you won’t miss the usual MCU action, partly because the casting is so spot on. Vellani is perfect in the lead role, while Shroff as Muneeba, Mohan Kapur as dad Yusuf and Saagar Shaikh as brother Aamir all have both brilliant comedy timing and the ability to carry emotional, intimate scenes. The camaraderie between the four is effortless; they feel like a real family.
Elsewhere, Matt Lintz plays Kamala’s bestie Bruno and captures sincere-teenage-boy-trying-too-hard very well, Kamala’s other bestie Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) definitely needs more screen time – we barely see her in episode one. Episode two introduces Kamala’s crush Kamran, played by Rish Shah, who is handsome and charming enough to be believable as Kamala’s crush, but not too handsome that he seems unrealistic as a teenage boy (the British accent will no doubt appeal to American audiences.)
Casting aside, what makes the show a success is how it strikes the balance between being very specifically about a Pakistani Muslim character and her family, and also being widely relatable. The show’s little touches – the framed tapestries in the Khans’ living room, Aamir’s shalwar kameez being his outfit of choice, the parathas for breakfast – create a picture of a Pakistani Muslim family that we’ve rarely seen on screen. And while Kamala saying “bismillah” before her driving test or her mother making her a shalwar kameez Hulk costume might only be relatable to certain groups of people, there are moments where everyone can think: “Oh, I get that.” These include Kamala’s deep-seated desire to be seen as cool – and dad Yusuf’s assertion that he trusts Kamala, but he doesn’t trust the teenage boys who might also be going to AvengerCon.
On the whole, Ms. Marvel offers something refreshing. Directors Adil and Bilall, who set the tone for episode one and the finale, use a bright colour palette and animated elements to create a unique visual style – and the soundtrack boasts banger after banger (from Riz Ahmed to Pakistani classics to Bollywood tunes). The show is, in all ways, a melding of Pakistani and Western cultures, just like Kamala. It gives a glimpse into her life without ever once mocking her or resorting to cheap stereotypes. Other shows could learn a lesson or two.
‘Ms. Marvel’ debuts on Disney+ June 8
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