Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in the new Disney+ series Ms. Marvel” for a breath of fresh air
Iman Vellani is a superstar. This is the first and most immediate realization of Ms. Marvel, Disney+’s newest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also the most important. After all, we now know how this game is played: each successive Marvel offering is functionally quite similar to the last one, and most likely the next as well. Aesthetic changes give them a bit more flexibility – you can make Iron Man twice if he’s a wizard the second time – but the underlying pieces stay in place each time. What matters isn’t so much the general shape of the shows (Ms. Marvel will presumably end up with Kamala Khan fighting a big CGI mess), but their moment-to-moment texture, the small details that set them apart.
So it helps that, as we’ve established, Iman Vellani is a superstar. Vellani plays Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager living in New Jersey; Kamala lives with her parents and older brother, goes to school with her best friends Bruno and Nakia, and tries her best to drown out any talk about exams, college admissions, and careers. “It’s time to really think about your future,” a career counselor tells her, and Kamala sinks into her seat at the thought of planning the rest of her life before lunch.
What they really care about is the Avengers. Kamala is a big fan of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, makes YouTube videos (“Bitted by a Radioactive Feminist?”), writes fan fiction, attends conventions, enters cosplay competitions, and draws cartoons of her favourites. (Lovingly, the same goes for Vellani, a lifelong Marvel fan who counts Iron Man as one of her favorite films. What’s really funny, though, is that she didn’t really like Captain Marvel.) When Kamala finally and inevitably comes to superpowers of her own, she models herself – who else? – her own hero, Captain Marvel.
Ms. Marvel is a twist on the classic – and really best – superhero template. It’s a coming-of-age tale of Kamala balancing superheroism with schoolwork not a million miles away from a modern-day version of Peter Parker: Probably the easiest way to explain Ms. Marvel is that it’s about a show that asks the question, “What if the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies were actually good?” (That’s a bit unfair, but it’s not the unfair, as anyone who’s suffered through Far From Home can surely attest.) Even better, it has a convincing answer – they’d probably look a bit more alike This.
In any case, Vellani brings a breath of fresh air as Kamala Khan. In terms of her sheer charm – from Kamala’s fan enthusiasm to her newfound confidence – she lights up the screen, and all of the best parts of the show stem from that performance. There is indeed a remarkable seriousness to her performance, in stark contrast to Oscar Isaac’s visibly resentful efforts in Moon Knight; Vellani brings a much more genuine quality to Ms. Marvel, and the show is all the better for it. Kamala teasing her parents after a fight is a lot more impactful than, say, Moon Knight trying to stop Ammit from drowning the sun, Loki trying to save the multiverse, or whatever we’re into Hawkeye should be important.
That unabashed sincerity extends to the rest of the show, which manages to be the first Marvel series with anything resembling an actual personality. Bringing real visual flair and flourishes, directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah and Meera Menon move beyond the Avengers film’s drab realism to something bolder and brighter. It’s just a tad more expressive — in its camera angles, in the colors of its set design, in its delivery of text messages — and it makes a huge difference. It’s a superhero show that remembers these things should be fun, and has a keen sense of how to mix comic book silliness with heightened teen TV stylings.
Aspects of the show occasionally rust. You catch characters having conversations as if it were the first time they’ve certainly had them before — it’s a shortcut to quick acting, but the clumsiness is noticeable at times. It could perhaps be a bit more playful with some of the archetypes it draws on (although in fairness it’s quite capable of going further in the final two-thirds of its runtime). And it’s admittedly a shame that the television series that trades Kamala’s lanky “magnifying” powers from the comics for the simpler hard light constructs we see here – that primal metaphor of a teenager struggling to fit in, loses.
Those are minor concerns, however. After a series of television ventures that can hardly be called successful, Ms. Marvel seems, at least initially, to represent a marked improvement – an example of the superhero genre at its most charming.
Mrs. Miracle begins Wednesday, June 8 on Disney+ with new episodes weekly. I watched the first two episodes of maybe six before writing this review.