There are rare moments in geek culture that create the lightning bolt moment. Ironically, this one wears one on her torso. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest series lands on Disney+ today, and for the second straight series, we’ve been introduced to a brand new character. While Ms. Marvel bears the namesake of Captain Marvel, Kamala Khan and actress Iman Vellani instantly create the most exciting MCU show to date. Showrunner and series creator Bisha K. Ali introduces a new audience to our latest teen hero, albeit from Jersey City. Despite the Marvel DNA coursing through its veins, Ms. Marvel excels as a visual, emotional, and heart-filled story of discovery.
For Kamala Khan (Vellani), life as a geeky Muslim teenage girl would always be difficult. However, after Captain Marvel soars in from the sky to fight Thanos, she finds a role model unlike anyone else. With the first Avengers Con around the corner, Kamala wants to showcase her fandom through immersive cosplay, despite pressures from home to stay grounded. After trying to plus up her costume with a piece of her culture, she gains control of otherworldly powers. Can Kamala balance her new powerset, her immigrant family, and hold her friends in the process? Or will her dreams of stardom and taking the sky cause her to lose everything?
From the first episodes, Ali and her staff have constructed fantastical visuals to get us inside the mind of their creative protagonists. Combining animation, stop-motion, and the energy of New York has rarely looked so cool. Yet Ali’s team has found a way to make Kamala and her ordinary life seem grandiose. The writing staff and director’s room (which includes Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Meera Menon, and director team Adil & Bilall) maximize their world at every turn. The daydream aesthetics create optimism and excitement, helping endear us to Kamala within seconds of meeting her.
Yet that work would be pointless if the team missed on Kamala. Instead, Vellani inhabits the role with the naturalism and verve unlike any we have seen in the MCU. The instant connection between the role and performer makes Ms. Marvel a uniquely fun ride. Over the two episodes made available, Vellani showcases her range as a subtle and brash performer. The MCU is better for Vellani’s casting, and she can become one of the most emotionally resonate stars of her generation.
Ali fills out her cast with mostly unknown figures in America, yet they build as cohesive of a cast as we’ve seen in the MCU. Matt Lintz nails the teen boy in love with his best friend. Despite his trope-filled setup, Lintz gets material to explore the grey areas of this kind of character. Yasmeen Fletcher channels the Muslim-American experience in her storyline, and the series sets her on one of the most exciting story arcs of the season. Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur bring genuine affection into the series. When Kamala lashes out at her parents, you feel their pain. Yet they are quick to forgive, providing us a picture of unconditional love despite their daughter’s changes.
Ali populates the world around Kamala with varied and nuanced portraits of the Muslim and Jersey City communities. There’s an authenticity to the world that’s been missing from the MCU since Spider-Man: Homecoming. The high school setting helps bring these shades of diversity to the forefront, but even within a mosque or street fair, there are flourishes that bring the scene to life. The production design and costuming teams deserve their roses for creating a lived-in world that trounces those of other MCU properties.
As the series progresses, the use of Kamala’s powerset and skills develop slowly. This will frustrate some viewers, partly because it bears a resemblance to DC’s Shazaam and partly because of its slight changes to her powerset/origin story. However, these montages create authentic character moments of note. As we watch Kamala struggle and lose focus, we can see the toll of her actions. As someone who played high school sports and competed in speech, the hustle to better your skills through repetition felt honest. We were introduced to the MCU’s Peter Parker as someone who already had his suit in tow. This opens the door for Kamala to be our high school hero that we can grow with over the next decade of the MCU.
Overall, Ms. Marvel opens the door for some unique storytelling in the MCU. While many of the films and television series have gone to world-saving stakes too quickly, we have a chance to see Kamala Khan slowly grow into that role. While a teenage girl might be new to the MCU, Vellani provides so much enthusiasm for the moment that it is impossible to not cheer for her. With early returns showcasing a complex story ahead, Ms. Marvel stands a chance to be the best among the MCU series on Disney+. The world is better for it.
Alan’s Grade: 9/10