Ms Marvel: The best new Marvel hero since Ant-Man (spoilers)
Nathanael Smith | On 24, Jul 2022
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen the end of Ms Marvel? Read our spoiler-free review.
When the first episode of Ms Marvel dropped on Disney+, this Marvel-skeptic writer was full of praise, celebrating its colour and its character. Our initial review was full of hope that this peppy new show could live up to its potential. Now that the brief first season is over, the question is, did it?
Well, sort of.
There was loads to love about Ms Marvel, chief among them the eponymous hero. Depicted with a beaming smile by first-time actor and Marvel nerd Iman Vellani, Kamala Khan emerges victorious from the series. Her enthusiasm at the discovery of her powers, her uncertainty at using them and the fact that she keeps getting distracted by teenage boys are a reminder of the countless conversations we all had as teenagers, the daydreams of a life of excitement. We might like to think we’re Captain America, noble and stoic, when in reality we’re all Kamala, massive geeks who would freak out at the first sign of alien/mutant abilities.
Ms Marvel also succeeds where many Marvel products fail, by setting it in a version of planet Earth that actually feels real. Her close-knit family, her faith community and the history that they carry all feels rooted in real life. It makes the jokes land more effectively and the drama feel more tangible. A scene featuring two young Muslim women talking in a bathroom about navigating faith and modernity is not something you expect in a Marvel production, but I’m very glad it exists.
All of this is set against a backdrop of a family shaped by partition; the story of Pakistan becomes part of the story of this hero. It’s a bold direction for the show to take, especially as the impact of the British Empire and its border drawing still shapes the world today. This brutal era of history will still inspire strong opinions and Marvel tends to avoid controversy at the cost of real world relevance – thank goodness they didn’t do that here. Partition is political, but these bolder strokes lead to richer storytelling than the MCU normally attempts.
These factors alone make Ms Marvel of the most rewarding endeavours that the superhero studio has produced of late. And yet the hallmarks of Marvel at its worst still haunt the show and the strictures of the genre threaten to undo all this significant good work.
For instance, a superhero show seemingly has to include fight scenes, CGI and superpower showdowns. The problem here is that these elements are executed poorly, often feeling like an afterthought. The action sequences have no weight to them, thanks to murky editing and sluggish choreography. The CGI is even clumsier, lending credence to recent headlines that Marvel allegedly treat their VFX workers poorly by expecting miracles from them in crunch conditions. The season finale is, at times, almost offensively ugly, but the fault does not necessarily lie with the artists – more likely it’s the hectic release schedule imposed upon them, with smaller TV budgets provided where cinematic spectacle is expected.
Finally, the plot ends up underwhelming too. Again, genre expectations mean that we must have villains, so Ms Marvel gives us three potential baddies: immortal “Clandestines”, a similarly powered boy and a mysterious government agency. Except, with only six episodes (that also include a wedding and a mosque leadership subplot), any villainy is left feeling woefully short-changed. Whole arcs come and go with only about 20 minutes of total screen time; it becomes hard to know what’s happening, or why we should care. Imagine what the show could have been if it didn’t have any villains or a nefarious scheme leading to the end of the world. What if it were just a teen comedy about a girl discovering she’s superpowered? At the very least, if you’re going to bring in cosmic peril, make the show longer than six episodes and stick to just one villain. You can only do so much.
But Ms Marvel is, by and large, a success. Iman Vellani is a revelation, Kamala Khan is the best new hero since Ant-Man, and it feels good to have a story with more on its mind than just convoluted plot machinations. If it wasn’t constrained by the expectations of its genre and its studio, it could have been something even more special.