'Ms. Marvel' Review: Zingy Teen High Jinks Make a Fresh Origin Story
Kamala Khan is a charming new hero on Disney Plus, perfect for new viewers and anyone who hasn't seen themselves reflected on TV before.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
In 2008, the origin story for the Marvel Cinematic Universe saw Iron Man facing some stereotypical brown-skinned terrorists. We've come a long way to the latest MCU origin story, in which Muslim American superhero Ms. Marvel brings a pop of vibrant teen energy to a fresh and zippy new Disney Plus series perfect for Marvel nerds and new viewers alike.
Ms. Marvel's release date is June 8, with new episodes arriving each Wednesday. The six-episode series introduces New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan to the MCU. She isn't a billionaire like Tony Stark, a lethal assassin like Natasha Romanova or a budding genius like Peter Parker. She's just an awkward daydreaming kid who can't seem to do anything right. And she really, really loves superheroes.
So much so, in fact, that she risks the wrath of her family to enter a cosplay competition dressed as her hero Captain Marvel -- only for one mysterious element of the costume to unlock cosmic energy powers within her.
We've all seen a million superhero origin stories, but Ms. Marvel still feels fresh. Most obviously, it's an infectiously lively riot of joyful color and giddy energy. As Kamala, 19-year-old Iman Vellani is a hugely charming lead, and her story is counterpointed by her daydreams coming to life as animated cartoons leaping across the city, or text messages spelled out by street signs. The zingy teen shenanigans call to mind the effervescent coming-of-age high jinks of Booksmart crossed with the anarchic visuals of animated movie The Mitchells vs The Machines.
These stylistic flourishes keep things bouncing along, but the movie doesn't try to rush the actual origin of the hero's power. In fact, the first couple of episodes don't even offer any hint of what threat Kamala will presumably face, or if there'll even be one. Instead, the show fires off a bunch of other smaller, interweaving storylines, building a picture of a lead character juggling a million things at once. As a regular person overwhelmed by life, Kamala Khan might be one of the most relatable superheroes ever.
Subplots include family strife, teen angst, a thief in the local community and an election. After the relative seriousness of Moon Knight and the world-devastating scale of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it's refreshing to see such an intimate Marvel story. It's almost like the friendly neighborhood life of Peter Parker that we haven't seen much since the MCU Spider-Man started palling around with the Avengers.
So the fate of the entire universe isn't under threat, and at least in the first couple of episodes there isn't even a main villain. That means the show is a little unfocused, but it doesn't mean the stakes are low or unaffecting. Telling a story that's universally relatable to anyone who's ever been a teenager, Ms. Marvel is the story of a person figuring out who they want to be. And what could be more important than that?
Featuring a YouTuber and super-fan who discovers her powers while literally cosplaying at a super-convention, Kamala's story is perhaps the hardest the MCU has turned the lens onto its own fandom. Kamala is essentially a Marvel stan, but you have to wonder if the series will have anything deeper to say about fandom and obsession than the opening episode's glowing depiction of happy fans having a great time.
It's also worth noting that Ms. Marvel is a great jumping-on point for new viewers, especially younger ones or anyone who hasn't previously seen themselves in the many square-jawed heroes of the MCU so far. While it's fully immersed in the fictional Marvel world, like the most recent MCU series, Moon Knight, it isn't linked to any previous continuity so marks a handy entrance point.
The biggest and most intriguing storyline revolves around the mysterious bracelet that manifests Kamala's powers (powers that are different from the comics, but what does it matter?). Kamala is far from the first superhero who gains powers from a strange object, but crucially the bangle doesn't simply bestow great power on her just because she stumbles across it. Passed down through her family, the bracelet unlocks powers within Kamala and so is inherently linked to her family and heritage.
That's the other great strength of Ms. Marvel. Kamala is a Pakistani American, and she already has something like a secret identity even before she becomes a superhero. She and her friends are pulled in different directions as they hide their carefree Marvel-obsessed inner life behind different masks for family, school and mosque. In the hands of a writing team headed by Bisha K. Ali, as well as directors including Meera Menon, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the show's authenticity adds a groundedness to the fantasy elements.
Like Turning Red, another Disney Plus hit about a young woman discovering her inner power, Ms. Marvel is filled with cultural quirks and nuances that manage to be both fascinatingly specific and also universally, heartbreakingly, joyously relatable. This is the power of the superhero myth as a metaphor for real lives and real problems: From Kamala's whispered "bismillah" as she floors it in her driving test, to the Tarantino-esque pop culture conversations that happen to be about Bollywood films, these culturally specific details feel unapologetically authentic without being alienating, bringing a new slant to the superhero myth that's simultaneously novel and long-overdue. As CNET's Abrar Al-Heeti writes in her exploration of Ms. Marvel's inspiringly representative storytelling, the series "feels like a celebration of what's possible when you get talented Muslim writers, actors and creators to build something true, authentic and enjoyable."
If nothing else, these details might give Marvel superfans a taste of what it's like being a regular person watching a Marvel flick and wondering why half the theater just lost their minds because some guy with a silly name just showed up. If you can figure out Captain America's 1940s New York, Guardians of the Galaxy's other planets or Doctor Strange in whole-ass other universes, you can cope with a bit of Pakistani pop music.
As colorful and chaotic as a teenager's imagination, Ms. Marvel wears its heart on its sleeve. It remains to be seen if the show will find its focus amid the many subplots, and if it will deliver more widescreen superhero action to go alongside the teen angst. But as origin stories go, Ms. Marvel brings enough of a new feel to make it an enjoyable watch, both for new viewers and anyone who loves superheroes as much as Kamala Khan.
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