In ‘Ms. Marvel,’ Kamala Khan breathes new life into the MCU

Kamala Khan is unlike any other hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She is a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager. She’s an Avengers fangirl. The uncoordinated New Jersey native can barely sneak out of her bedroom window without falling. The protagonist of Disney+’s Ms. Marvel is different in every way, and that’s why it’s such a joy to watch and the series.

While the majority of the streamer’s franchise TV series have struggled to turn Marvel’s mythology and convoluted narratives into compelling stories that actually make sense, “Ms. Marvel” does not experience this issue in the two episodes submitted for review. Kamala’s fandom adds just enough context to tie it to the Avenger timeline, even as the series marches to the beat of its own tabla.

The six-episode series, from head writer Bisha K. Ali, is a second-generation immigrant comedy for young adults, a la Netflix’s Never Have I Ever. and a superhero drama where growing up means stumbling into your powers, à la Miles Morales from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s full of American pop culture and Bollywood references and witty comments about the connections and chasms between East and West. Kamala (played with panache by newcomer Iman Vellani) moves effortlessly between cosplay conventions and the mosque. From its charming lead to its playful execution, “Ms. Marvel” flips superhero formulas on their head while honoring the MCU pantheon.

When we meet Kamala, her only mission is to win the costume contest at New Jersey’s first-ever AvengerCon. She and her best friend, Bruno (Matt Lintz), meticulously plan the big day, putting together hilarious amateur outfits that would have been bombastic on stage were it not for the surprising power of a bracelet that once belonged to their estranged grandmother. When she slips it over her arm, her body emits purple cosmic energy that solidifies into any number of life-saving objects: a shield, a stair, a weapon (of course). It also appears that she can stretch her frame, although it remains to be seen if she will embrace the ability to transform like the comic book character that serves as the basis for the series. And of course no one but Bruno knows that Kamala is behind the self-made mask.

Two teenagers sit on a rooftop with a neon sign behind them.

Iman Vellani as Kamala and Matt Lintz as her boyfriend Bruno in Ms. Wonder.”

(Daniel McFadden/Marvel Studios)

Later, the two meet on a rooftop. Her greatest wish is about to come true it seems, but she’s still unconvinced about what just happened. “It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who are saving the world,” says Kamala. And so begins their unlikely journey.

The show makes a point of weaving Kamala’s ethnicity and beliefs into her character’s origin story. She has a close bond with her protective parents (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur) who made her proud of her heritage. Her power stems from her grandmother, who no one in the family will talk about, and is somehow rooted in her family’s trauma during the partition of India in 1947.

Kamala is also part of the region’s Muslim South Asian community, where she knows the halal food vendors and attends Friday prayers at the neighborhood mosque. In a rare TV moment, viewers experience Friday prayers from a woman’s perspective. She and her friend Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) perform lightning-fast wudu (washing hands, face, arms, and feet) to get to prayer on time. The sink is crumbling. They then try to listen to the Sheikh’s lecture, but the speakers in their partitioned back area are broken, so they complain to each other about the pristine condition of the men’s section compared to theirs, where “there is mold under the carpets and the walls are literally crumbling.” You will be politely asked by the sheik not to speak during class.

“I’m sorry, Sheikh Abdullah. It’s just really hard to focus when we can barely see you,” Kamala replies. Their small act of defiance is one of many moments here where the characters and the series question gender norms within the community — and the misinformed notions of who they are on the outside. In world history class, for example, Nakia drops this anti-colonial nugget: “We spent six weeks on ancient Rome and ancient Greece, but six minutes on ancient Persia and Byzantium. History written by the oppressors. That’s all I’m going to say,” she snorts.

A family at the kitchen table eating

Clockwise from left: Mohan Kapur as Yusuf, Iman Vellani as Kamala, Saagar Shaikh as Aamir, and Nimra Bucha as Najma in “Ms. Wonder.”

(Daniel McFadden/Marvel Studios)

The series could alienate fans of the MCU, who are used to battling skinny Avengers battling evil in billion-dollar productions. A fast-paced adaptation of the comic book character, “MS. Marvel” is packed with creative flourishes that are far from sophisticated. Kamala’s silly doodles come to life around her and the other characters. Her texts and emojis end up on billboards around them, while walking around town, and her crush on hot new kid at school, Kamran (Rish Shah), turns into a wonderfully cheesy dream sequence in which she dances to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

“MS. Marvel’s soundtrack has a power of its own. It’s a blend that reflects its heroine’s background as an East Coast kid with Pakistani roots: Mase, Krewella and Raja Kumari, MIA, Riz Ahmed’s Swet Shop Boys and a special shout out to Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan.

Marvel TV’s first South Asian Muslim superhero expands his universe in this bold yet light-hearted series. Now if only she could pass her driving test.

‘MS. Wonder’

Where: Disney+

When: Anytime, starting Wednesday, March 8th

Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14 years old) In ‘Ms. Marvel,’ Kamala Khan breathes new life into the MCU

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