3 out of 5 stars

Iman Vellani makes such a remarkable debut as the lead in Ms. Marvel that it’s more than enough to paper over any cracks. It’s a reminder that television shows require a deeper attachment to characters, to keep drawing you back week after week, and Marvel Studios couldn’t have chosen a better person to play Kamala Khan—both in terms of Vellani’s charming performance and as an ambassador for a brand she adores in real life. It’s a shame Ms. Marvel isn’t as good as Vellani, although it’s certainly an interesting cocktail.

Kamala Khan (Vellani) is a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl living in Jersey City with her parents, Muneeba (Zenobia Schroff) and Yusuf (Mohan Kapur). She dreams of becoming a superhero and worships Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel) in particular, so is exactly the kind of idealised teenage fan the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) itself has created over the years, prone to writing fan-fiction about her heroes and drawing The Avengers in her school textbooks.

In many ways, Kamala’s a female version of Peter Parker. The series even borrows some of the visual language of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), particularly with its use of hand-drawn animations—although Kamala’s favourite subject would be art, not science, and she’s grown up in a world where superheroes have always been part of the fabric of her life. Peter Parker may have idolised Tony Stark, but that would have been true even if he didn’t become Iron Man.

Ms. Marvel follows a somewhat perfunctory coming-of-age storyline, not too dissimilar to the wish-fulfilment angle of Shazam (2019), where Kamala comes into possession of a mystical bangle that once belonged to her grandmother and is endowed with powers that effectively allow her to create ‘hard light’ and construct objects—most commonly shields to protect herself, levitating slabs to run across, and a type of armour she can also use to increase the size of her limbs.

The show goes through what one would expect from another touched-by-god setup for a teenage girl, with Kamala primarily having to deal with ordinary problems like overprotective parents, a best friend called Bruno (Matt Lintz) whose crush on her isn’t reciprocated, and her own infatuation with local hunk Kamran (Rish Shah). But there are some unique aspects because of Kamala’s Pakistani heritage, as she’s a practising Muslim who attends a mosque with her best friend Nakia Bahadir (Yasmeen Fletcher), so the show touches on some of the tensions that arise for people whose religion is often seen as being a source of fundamentalist terrorism. And the writing ensures the Muslin characters aren’t stereotypes (although Kamala’s mother comes close), as everyone feels like modern people trying to get along in a close-knit community. Some of the best moments are just seeing Kamala playful interact with aspects of Islam it’s common to see portrayed negatively in most western dramas, and it does a great job making Pakistani and Indian culture look appealing and fun.

The series is created by Bisha K. Ali (a writer on Loki) and most of the show’s creative team are Muslim (just as Moon Knight’s were mostly Middle Eastern), so there’s a distinct flavour to the show that projects a more upbeat insight into being a modern-day Muslim in America. The show pulls from Bollywood in its aesthetics, while the sense of community is at the forefront with Kamala’s family and friends having a healthy emotional bond. The chance for Ms. Marvel to show Muslims in such a way was clearly the attraction for those involved—similar to how Black Panther (2018) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) appealed to black and Asian audiences.

The problem with Ms. Marvel is that it’s a far better family drama and coming-of-age story than it is a superhero story. The mystery of Kamala’s bangle and the historical secrets of her family are certainly interesting (if slightly Eternals-lite), but there’s otherwise not much happening to drive the story forward. And episodes 4 and 5 get particularly caught up in the origins of the Khan family and the bangle, somewhat losing the thread with the initial storyline and pushing Vellani’s performance into the background too much. Also, while there are a few antagonists to deal with, there’s really no clearly defined supervillain to defeat or set up for next time. One could argue that makes a refreshing change, of course (it depends on your tolerance for comic-book staples), but without a singularly motivating reason for Kamala to become a superhero, the show lacks impact.

Ultimately, I can imagine Muslim Marvel fans having a great time with Ms. Marvel and they’ve certainly found a readymade star in Iman Vellani who will appeal to teenagers in particular. The show is clearly aimed at a younger crowd than some of the other MCU shows on Disney+, but that’s not a bad thing, and I’m now definitely more excited to see Vellani join Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) and Teyonah Paris (WandaVision) in The Marvels movie. I just wish the show had put as much effort into the superhero stuff as it did the family drama, so it’s best to see this show as a protracted way to set the scene for a character who may come into her own on the big-screen with more exciting things to do.

USA | 2022 | 6 EPISODES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writers: Bisha K. Ali, Kate Gritmon, Freddy Syborn, A.C Bradley, Matthew Chauncey, Sabir Pirzada, Fatimah Asghar & Will Dun (based on characters created by Marvel Comics).
directors: Adil and Bilal, Meera Menon & Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
starring: Iman Vellani, Matt Lintz, Yasmeen Fletcher, Zenobia Schroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh, Laurel Marsden, Azhar Usman, Rish Shah, Arian Moayed, Alysia Reiner, Laith Nakli, Nimra Bucha, Travina Springer, Adaku Ononogbo, Samina Ahmad, Fawad Khan, Mehwish Hayat, Farhan Akhtar & Aramis Knight.