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Photo: Marvel Studios
Apocalyptic events like Thanos’s “Blip” or multi-versal collisions are of no concern in Ms. Marvel — at least not yet. For high-school junior Kamala Khan (bubbly newcomer Iman Vellani), the struggle in the premiere is about being able to attend New Jersey’s first-ever AvengerCon with her best friend, Bruno (Matthew Lintz). This means navigating her strict parents, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and Yusuf (Mohan Kapur), and her well-meaning, religious older brother, Aamir (Saagar Shaikh), but what initially seems like a typical South Asian American story — generational conflict born from wanting more capital-F Freedom from a conservative immigrant culture — introduces some intriguing complications, including Kamala’s superhero abilities and where they originate. The show is bold as an adaptation, cherry-picking what worked in the comics while entirely remixing the character’s lore, but where Ms. Marvel truly shines is its tone and visual fabric, taking a bouncy, delightfully imaginative aesthetic approach that draws more from coming-of-age indies than the usually drab-looking Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Despite having “Marvel” in its name and being filled to the brim with Marvel merchandise, it feels shockingly unlike its predecessors; you have to go back to the original Iron Man from 2008 to find an environment that feels this realistic, detailed, and lived-in. That’s a low bar, but for Kamala, a Pakistani Muslim born in America, it means immediately understanding her character and the worlds between which she’s torn. After a zesty, voice-over-laden, Weeknd-scored intro recapping the Avengers movies — Kamala, a fan-fiction scribe in the comics, now makes stop-motion Avengers fan films with colorful paper cutouts, mostly focused on her idol, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) — we’re soon given lively tours of her surroundings. Her bedroom is littered with fan art. The rest of her home is filled with curios and decorations; her high school is busy, but she’s an invisible nobody, lacking the confidence to even ask fellow students to step aside so she can access her locker. She runs errands with her mom in the crowded, bustling South Asian neighborhoods of Jersey City, as the aroma from food carts and fruit vendors (and the heat from lens flares and warm color grading) radiates through the screen. The upbeat melody of Ahmed Rushdi’s “Ko Ko Korina” — the first Pakistani pop song — provides some wistful nostalgia as Kamala tries on traditional clothes for her brother’s baat pakki (engagement party). But as the episode progresses, she seems less willing (and able) to avail of these cultural comforts.
Clothing is a big part of the premiere episode. With no overarching villain in sight, what Kamala wears in a given scene might be her biggest challenge (or her second biggest, behind Muneeba). Her daily outfits are baggy and protective, which might otherwise seem like a fleeting detail, were it not for the few scenes where the camera lingers on her expression as she changes uncomfortably in a locker room or stands before her full-length bedroom mirror with a twinge of disappointment. She’s proud of the Captain Marvel costume she and Bruno designed, but she doesn’t love the way her hips look in its skintight leggings, leading her to wrap a sash around her waist. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but it helps transpose a major element from the comics: Kamala’s bodily insecurity and the Western beauty standards to which she’s beholden. After all, Carol Danvers — the hero Kamala most admires, partly because of her effortless radiance — happens to be white and has a toned, military body. Kamala is also unsettled whenever her slim, white, influencer classmate Zoe (Laurel Marsden) appears, whether at school or at the convention, where she casually pulls off her own skintight take on Carol’s costume.
Then again, it’s not like Kamala can easily turn to an Eastern fashion sense instead. Her mother readily criticizes her height when she tries on an outfit for the baat pakki, and when her parents offer her an alternative to attending the convention alone — she can go, but only if accompanied by a hilariously enthusiastic Yusuf in full Hulk makeup — they present her with a green salwar kameez. “Little Hulk,” they call her, but the thought of wearing Pakistani clothing to the Con, while being chaperoned by her loud, Pakistani-accented father, sounds like her worst nightmare. She makes this known, even if it hurts their feelings. Muneeba and Yusuf may have outdated rules (and hypocritical ones, since they offer Aamir a longer leash), but in the ongoing battle between first and immigrant generations, Kamala is hardly an innocent bystander. The cultural rejection is mutual.
However, these broad narrative strokes would mean little if they weren’t packaged with such unapologetic verve. Even something as simple as Kamala screwing up her driving test is presented with the harrowing importance of the end of the world; the camera practically charges at her. When her school principal, Gabe Wilson (Jordan Firstman) — a fun homage to the comics’ co-creator, G. Willow Wilson — sits her down for a chat about her future and about how her attentions are divided, the unassuming two-shot splits in half, panning toward each character in opposite directions like something out of Godard’s Goodbye to Language. It’s a lofty comparison, and it’s likely unintentional, but there’s more thought being put into each frame and movement than your average Marvel production, without the need to shy away from the source material either. As the opposing pans move into close-ups of each character, they take the form of moving comic pages, presenting Kamala’s face split in half alongside half of Mr. Wilson’s face, recalling famous Spider-Man panels (the template for balancing superpowers with personal responsibilities).
This dynamic visual splendor can be found throughout the episode, directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. It appears both in subtle ways — a minute-long shot of Bruno, Kamala, Muneeba, and Yusuf moving about the Khan household is so intricately blocked, neatly staged, and simply fun in its presentation of relationships that you hardly notice it’s a labyrinthine, unbroken take — and in some ways so overt that their formalism feels euphoric. When Kamala imagines her perfect escape to the convention, the frame is bordered by splashes of color, as if it were one of her fan films. When she and Bruno discuss alternate ideas for her costume while cycling through Jersey City, those ideas appear on the nearby walls as animated graffiti. When she and Bruno text, their messages appear in the lights and environments around them as they move through space, like when Bruno makes his way to his shabby apartment above a cornerstone.
There’s a rhythm and musicality to these scenes. From a technical standpoint, these shots are ingeniously economical, as they allow characters’ communication and dynamics to unfold as we explore more of their environments — as if these elements are inextricable from one another — but they’re also a perfect thematic reflection of the story thus far, and the way it retools Kamala’s powers.
One of Muneeba’s criticisms of Kamala is that she’s a “fantasizing, unrealistic daydreamer” like several women in their family — for example, Kamala’s grandmother, who sends the Khans the mysterious bangle that ends up unlocking her powers — and this daydreaming, imaginative quality manifests in the world around her. For instance, when she cooks up her scheme to sneak out, it’s harkened both by a hand-drawn “idea” lightbulb appearing cartoonishly above her head and by a real hallway light turning on behind her, foreshadowing her new light-centric origin. In the comics, Kamala’s abilities were owed to her being an “Inhuman,” an X-Men-esque group born from genetic experiments several millennia ago, allowing her to contort and expand her body (or “embiggen” it, as she says), like blowing up her fist to the size of a wrecking ball. The show takes a different approach, and while it sacrifices certain themes in the process, it paves the path for a meaningful, multifaceted story that enhances the source material’s generational disconnect.
Having her powers be unlocked by a family heirloom — one she adopts as a personal flourish for her costume, but one Muneeba is reluctant to discuss — makes the setup for Kamala’s tale of duality all the more potent. Not only is she likely to have Spider-Man-like dilemmas involving balancing heroics with home life, but in order to better understand her powers (and in the process, herself), she will likely have to uncover and get in touch with the very familial and cultural notions she seems to reject.
Just as vitally, her “embiggening” powers are constructs made of light rather than her own physical mass — they’re less Marvel’s stretchy genius Reed Richards and more DC’s Green Lantern, whose thoughts take physical form. When Kamala inadvertently endangers Zoe at AvengerCon, she reaches out and focuses on catching her falling classmate, resulting in an enormous, glowing, kaleidoscopic hand emanating from her body and hardening into tangible material. In essence, imagination is at the root of her abilities.
Whatever secrets Muneeba holds close to her chest, whether about the bangle or about family members losing themselves in fantasies, they seem ripe for Kamala to discover. Despite the hidden risks and her mother’s objections, imagination is Kamala’s shot at finally being someone, and in high school, few things are more important.
• The wider Marvel universe hasn’t invaded Ms. Marvel yet, but if the mid-credits scene is any indication, Agent Cleary (Arian Moayed) from Spider-Man: No Way Home may have something to say about it.
• It’s cute that Kamala’s version of being crowned prom queen is winning a cosplay contest, but it’s hard not to wonder how old man Captain America feels about his military camp being turned into a convention center.
• Bruno is a sweetheart. His crush on Kamala is apparent in several scenes, but he’s a respectful BFF first and foremost. Also, the Khans feed him and call him beta (“son”), and he seems to have picked up some Urdu along the way.
• Speaking of which, the fact that the show’s scattered Urdu isn’t subtitled — beta, baat pakki, or even the many times Muneeba says chalo (“let’s go”) — makes it feel normal and unremarkable.
• #ReleaseTheScottLangCut of Ant-Man’s podcast interview, Big Me, Little Me.
• Hard to pick a favorite Muneeba line. Her disappointment as she whispers, “Do you want to be good like we raised you to be?” perfectly portends the comics’ central wisdom (“Good is not a thing you are; it’s a thing you do”), but her dry delivery of “Is Bruno recording this for internet?” is just so sidesplitting as a realistic South Asian mom quote.
• In true South Asian fashion, Vellani learned of the Ms. Marvel audition from a family WhatsApp group.