Teen melodrama have been one of Marvel’s most dependable sub-genres for the company’s entire existence. Spider-Man, The X-Men, Nova, The New Mutants, The New Warriors, and Young Avengers all mine similar veins of hormonal romance, pathos, and humor, and have proven popular with comics’ core readership of young adults for decades. In fact, making Spider-Man a teenager in the first place at a time when the comic-book industry still considered teens useful only as sidekicks to grownup heroes was one of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s primary innovations of the early 1960s.
With the exception of the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never tapped into any of these concepts. All of the MCU’s other heroes are adults — immature adults at times, but confident, muscle-bound men and women nonetheless. That makes Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan a welcome exception. She’s decidedly a real high school student; shy, uncertain, idealistic, worried about her domineering parents, and not yet sure of her place in the world. In other words, she’s a classic Marvel teen hero. And her show nicely captures the flavor of those Marvel teen comics. It’s a welcome change of pace from the company’s other Disney+ shows, which were starting to feel very similar and very familiar.
While the show is inspired by a recent Ms. Marvel comic by writer G. Willow Wilson artist Adrian Alphona, it also closely resembles other recent shows and movies about lovable misfit teen girls stuck in generational conflicts with their parents like The Mitchells vs. Machines and Turning Red. Kamala makes YouTube videos that Katie Mitchell would loved, and she has problems with her protective mother — plus surprising supernatural powers — that are almost mirror images of the ones experienced by Meilin Lee in Pixar’s most recent animated movie.
Besides the general Marvelness of Ms. Marvel — meaning Kamala does become a superhero and seems to get mixed up in some kind of government conspiracy — the thing that sets it apart from those other very similar pieces of recent media is the charming performance of Iman Vellani in the role of Kamala Khan. It’s easy to see how this unknown actress convinced Marvel to build a television show (and soon a movie called The Marvels) around her: She’s a natural comic presence, and unlike a lot of perfectly coiffed, twentysomething television “teenagers,” she’s a really convincing kid. She makes Kamala a very easy person to root for as she dreams of becoming a hero, and butts up against her loving but strict immigrant parents (the equally wonderful Mohan Kapur and Zeonbia Shroff).
Through the first two episodes of the season, Ms. Marvel is also a lot less serialized that the previous live-action Marvel Disney+ series. Yes, Kamala Khan slowly discovers her super powers, and in doing so brings herself to the attention of some not-so-nice folks. But the series’ first third is much more about Kamala’s ordinary life; navigating high school with her best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz), trying to convince her parents to let her go to a local convention for Avengers fans, finding the best way to express her quirky creativity through her homemade Captain Marvel costume or superhero theory videos that don’t feel that far removed from the stuff on our own ScreenCrush channel. Ms. Marvel is relaxed and grounded and human in a way the busy Hawkeye and the trudging Moon Knight never could be. Those shows were non-stop adventure stories. Ms. Marvel is about a girl and her friends who just so happen to live in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Series creator Bisha K. Ali has done an impressive job adapting the core cast of Ms. Marvel comics to television, and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah use swooping camera moves, bursts of animation, quick cuts to infuse Ms. Marvel with its title character’s imaginative personality. If Kamala never got super powers, if she stayed a Jersey City girl who was in love with Captain Marvel and had to figure out how to make herself happy while also pleasing her traditional Muslim family, it would still be worth watching for the characters and the dialogue and the visual energy alone.
Marvel fans already know that Ali gave television’s Kamala a slightly different origin and power set from her comic-book counterpart. On the page, Kamala is an Inhuman who gained the ability to stretch and grow every part of her body from exposure to a magical substance. As you can see in Ms. Marvel’s trailers, TV Kamala has energy-based powers. Without spoiling how she acquires them, I will say I’m not sure it’s a change for the better — not because I necessarily care about faithfulness to the original stories, but because through two episodes Kamala’s new origin makes her a little less universal and a little more of a tiresome “chosen one”cliché who’s destined for great things. There’s still a lot left unresolved, though, so that could change before the season is over.
Overall, I’m curious and excited to see the rest of Ms. Marvel’s first season, And I genuinely hope it is the first season of many. When WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Moon Knight were over, I wasn’t necessarily dying to see the next chapter of this story. The MCU’s first teen TV show is off to a promising start. It definitely has a shot to be Marvel’s best Disney+ show so far.
Ms. Marvel premieres on June 8. Sign up for Disney+ here.
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