Ms Marvel: A joyful superhero debut
Nathanael Smith | On 11, Jun 2022
New episodes of Ms Marvel arrive weekly on Wednesdays. This spoiler-free review is based on Episode 1.
It is hard to remember a Marvel hero who has arrived on the screen as fully formed, as immediately winsome, as Ms Marvel. She bounds into Episode 1 of her new show in a riot of colour, smiles and teenage eye-rolls, immediately bringing youth and vitality to the bloated MCU. Many people are understandably fatigued by superheroes; Ms Marvel might just be the antidote.
The latest addition to the ever-growing stable of Marvel heroes – debuting in her own TV show before heading to the big screen in The Marvels – is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen living in Jersey City. She’s an Avengers megafan, wearing cosplay, making adorable animations for YouTube, defying her parents to attend a fan convention. In short, she’s a normal teenager… until a family heirloom bracelet gives her strange, exhilarating powers. Could she become one of the heroes that she idolises?
The success of this first episode is due, in part, to the absolute clarity of tone and purpose from the outset. This is a high-school coming-of-age story – a show for teenagers, starring teenagers. Marvel is always at its best when it aims for a tone more distinct than “superheroes fighting baddies” and Ms Marvel establishes itself immediately within its teen-movie genre. Whereas the first Tom Holland Spiderman aped the vintage comedies of John Hughes, this feels more modern, closer to something like the sharp comedy of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Directing duo Adil & Bilall (Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah) bring a vivid colour palette and bright visual ideas to depict Kamala’s inner world: graffiti comes to life as she tries to imagine costume ideas for AvengerCon; match cuts whip us through the passing of time; Endgame is recreated through hand-made animation. There is a playfulness to the style that reflects the bubbling ingenuity of its lead character. Episode 1 is joyful, energetic fun and it is irresistible.
The beating heart of the show is Iman Vellani as Kamala, unbelievably in her first acting role. Vellani was a fan of the comics and the MCU before she got cast, which is fitting as the show is about an Avengers geek. She brings that familiar nerdy energy and enthusiasm to the role – any teenage Marvel fan will see something of themselves in her – and she lights up the screen. Here’s hoping that the show allows her to stay, for now, a bright, funny teenager with a distinct personality and not just a pawn in any wider franchise world-building.
If one criticism could be levelled against this joyous first episode, it’s that the “clashing with strict parents” trope feels played out by now. It’s great to see depictions of faith in this world, and to see that it’s not monocultural, so hopefully this central relationship is given a bit more room to breathe. It’s helped by two warm performances from Kamala’s parents, and a sense of lived experience in the writing of the Pakistani-American family, so this relationship could definitely evolve into something more meaningful.
Whether Ms Marvel can sustain the energy and warmth of Episode 1 remains to be seen, but it’s an immensely promising start. We don’t know yet how her powers will be depicted here (we just know it’s different from the comics) and we have no real idea if there’ll be anything like a plot. But we do know already that we’d follow Kamala Khan into whatever adventures await her.