What does the Marvel Cinematic Universe have left to prove? Well – everything and nothing. The more these films and TV shows dominate the conversation, threatening to suck us all into a monoculture, the more we’ve begun (quite rightfully) to question what exactly they contribute to art, emotion, and empathy.
There are two ways to look at Ms Marvel, which pitches an Avengers superfan as the franchise’s latest hero-in-training: you watch it as a cynic, and see it as a kind of self-worship, or more generously as Marvel’s fight for its own life.
The first episode, released on Disney+, is bright and poppy and perfectly suited to the story of a high schooler, named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), who’s forever daydreaming about her favourite hero, Captain Marvel (played in the MCU by Brie Larson). The series opens with one of the many, many videos on her YouTube channel—a collation of bits of info scraped from Ant-Man’s podcast appearances, in order to recreate, step-by-step, the battle against Thanos out of paper cut-outs and thumbtacks. The latter are stand-ins for Hawkeye’s arrows.
Graffitied figures come to life, racing across buildings. A sequence of Kamala traipsing through her school’s hallways is tightly edited around the beats of Riz Ahmed’s “Deal With It”. Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah know how to create a sense of propulsion in their work, both here and in 2020’s Bad Boys for Life.
You can imagine that energy also booked them the job of directing DC’s Batgirl. Every Marvel project now has its own stylistic “hook”—“imagine xyz but with superheroes”—and though the John Hughes-ian teen comedy has already been covered by the recent Spider-Man trilogy, Ms Marvel captures that vibe with a little more wit and enthusiasm.
The nice thing about these TV shows, though they are relentless in their number, is the way they’ve been able to platform less-established talent, like Loki’s Kate Herron or Moon Knight’s Mohamed Diab. When the MCU already makes such a concerted effort to ensure its releases still share the same, basic visual language—and Ms Marvel, at the end of the day, still very much looks like a Marvel show—it only makes sense to use that space to hand the microphone over to newer talent instead of returning to the same familiar names over and over again.
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Because, at the end of the day, these characters will all just be thrown back into the same big pot, won’t they? That’s the real test of Ms Marvel. The way creator and head writer, British-Pakistani comedian Bisha K Ali, has grounded Kamala in the everyday experiences of a Pakistani American Muslim teenager is a wonderful thing to behold.
She whispers “Bismillah”—”in the name of Allah” in Arabic—to herself as she starts up the car during a driving test. Her mother, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), appears with lightning speed at the doorway with a packed-up dinner the second Kamala’s best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz) announces that he’s headed home. The tension between Kamala and her parents, and the sincerity with which she assures them she’s not even trying to be rebellious, even as they scold her, feels so well articulated.
But, with only one episode out, are we eventually going to reach the end of the series and find that those specificities have melted away in favour of a bunch of cameos and people doing zoomies in the air? That’s the risk of every Marvel property. And it’s a high one. An hour or so in, and Kamala’s already discovered that her grandmother’s old bangle gives her the power to shoot out energy beams.
Ms Marvel, for once, takes a moment to celebrate what these movies really mean to people, at their core. She’s not only a fan, but a cosplayer, who’s spent hours painting a leather jacket and pair of leggings to look like Captain Marvel’s suit. For her, and so many others in the real world, fandom is really a gateway to self-expression.
It’s not necessarily about who Captain Marvel is, but how Captain Marvel makes Kamala feel about herself—and it’s an ingenious idea to cast someone like Iman Vellani, who’s never acted professionally before and is apparently so versed in the MCU that she challenged studio head Kevin Feige over which version of Earth these movies take place on. She’s simply brilliant, a total natural in the role. And she helps to make this character, who was Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book, feel as important as she should.
I don’t know exactly how this series is going to shake out. But it’s people like Vellani who have ensured I’ll never really give up on the MCU.