Monday, May 20, 2024

Ms. Marvel’s Midseason Highs and Lows

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Ms. Marvel, the latest MCU streaming venture introducing everyone to the awesomeness that is Kamala Khan, had a bit of a rocky start before a single episode ever aired. Between controversial casting choices, behind the scenes figures, and power changes, Marvel’s latest created skeptics galore well before an episode released. Add in the unfortunate review bombing expected of practically any streaming show at this point and Ms. Marvel started off as defined by its controversies as it was by its main character.

Pre-loaded controversy tends to create extremes on one side or the other, and lead people to go into Ms. Marvel expecting either the worst thing ever or the best show yet. What has it actually been so far though? Well, something more in the middle.

Kamala dancing at Ms. Marvel's big wedding scene

At its best, Ms. Marvel’s first three episodes feel like the most entertaining and enjoyable show the MCU has made yet. It is endlessly stylish, with cool visual effects at every turn. The dialogue is snappy and fun. The acting is consistently terrific, and the characters relatable and easy to love. Ms. Marvel is a show with a clear vision of what it wants to be, and that sense of style and character lovingly covers every single scene.

What that show has largely been is one based in community. One of my favorite things about the Ms. Marvel comics is the way it carves out a slice of this huge, interconnected Marvel universe that belongs to Kamala and those around her. Ms. Marvel has done a terrific job recreating that feeling for live-action. There is a closeness and interconnectivity between Kamala, her family, her friends, and everyone else who calls this neighborhood home.

Practically all of the best scenes revolve around these feelings. Whether it is Kamala’s parents creating custom Hulk costumes for her father and her, Nakia guilt-tripping Kamala’s father into voting for her to join the board at their mosque, the discussions of everyone’s shared cultural history stretching back to the Partition of British-controlled India, or just those little moments and comments characters make regarding each other, Ms. Marvel always makes these scenes, big or small, stand out in a good way.

It obviously helps when these tertiary characters are so well drawn and realized. Kamala’s parents are consistent highlights as warm, caring people with a deep sadness from their experiences in moving to America. Bruno’s pining for Kamala and jealousy over her budding relationship with Kamran is a bit much, but nowhere near enough to ruin his loyalty, intelligence, and commitment to trying to respect and fit in with everyone else. Nakia is a smart, fierce, protective character with a strong desire to change the world around her for the better. They are all wonderful to watch, with easily identifiable strengths and flaws.

The culmination of this feeling of community occurs in the third episode with a massive, glorious wedding scene for Kamala’s brother Aamir and his new wife, Tyesha. It is so grand, colorful, and festive, so large and joyous and fun to watch, and all the more so because we spent the previous two episodes seeing everyone prepare for it and meeting so many of the people who attended it. I loved every second of it because Ms. Marvel has made that investment in this community mean something.

I am not Muslim and cannot speak to the cultural details, but I don’t think you need to be intimately familiar with this culture to understand and relate to the Khan family and their friends. That sense of larger family and community is one anyone can identify with.

Kamala herself is often a very fun character to watch, especially in these scenes. Iman Vellani is a home run casting choice who captures much of what I love about the comic version of Kamala Khan, but also gives the character her own endearing touches. The key to any Ms. Marvel project is Kamala herself, and there is so much good to her.

Kamala Khan is a great lead character for the same reasons that Peter Parker is such a good lead for Spider-Man. She is a funny, intelligent, believable person who struggles to balance her sense of duty towards her family and social life with the sense of duty inherent to her powers. She is grounded in a reality we all identify with. Where other superheroes are lost in epic clashes of world-breaking good and evil, these more grounded characters feel like what we would look like if we got powers tomorrow.

Unfortunately, Ms. Marvel has not quite managed that same balance between her two lives. Where it succeeds with Kamala’s non-powered life, it has not been as successful with the hero side of things.

I suppose this is a matter of opinion, but in my own opinion, the controversy and concerns over changing Kamala’s powers have generally all proven to be legitimate worries. Besides the visual effects being the worst of the show, they are also poorly defined. Comic Kamala is incredibly defined. She grows or shrinks what part of her body she wants. It’s awesome. And it is hers alone. I’m still not sure what exactly MCU Kamala’s power is. Is it Green Lantern style projections? Holographic embiggening? Does she have increased strength or resistance?

Kamala's grandmother from Ms. Marvel

They also took away the uniqueness of her powers by making this a family thing, and one specifically tied to her grandmother’s bangle. While not the worst idea in the world or anything, it still feels underwhelming compared to comic Kamala.

Ms. Marvel mostly never bothered with the idea of a villain until the end of the third episode, when it is revealed that her mysterious, lost grandmother was part of a group of people from another dimension who are trapped in this dimension. They need Kamala and her bangle in order to return home. Their turn from friendly to physically hostile is quick, unearned, and, frankly, beyond cheesy. It is a considerable low point immediately following arguably the show’s high point with Aamir and Tyesha’s wedding.

Besides the controversy over conflating whatever ClanDestine is with djinn, and there is plenty that others have to say about that decision, it just feels like a bad decision from a storytelling standpoint. The turn happens so quickly and without much justification. It creates a Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim conflict as the main superhero story thread. The villains kind of suck when they are so suddenly and unambiguously evil. If they want to go that route, they should have just kept Damage Control as the main villain.

I get it, ClanDestine is supposed to serve the same role the Inhumans did when they recruited Kamala in the comics. They prey on her insecurities and loneliness and show her a home with people who have powers like she does, all to manipulate her to their own means. It just does not work the same way, though.

This change also further robs Kamala of her uniqueness. Her powers are now something from another dimension that others have. A big reason why Inhuman Kamala is such a good idea in the comics, regardless of what anyone thinks of the concept of Inhumans, is that her powers further fuel Kamala’s sense of being different from everyone else. They are a manifestation of her sense of isolation. They are also interesting symbolism of puberty, with Kamala’s powers related to growth and often looking physically awkward.

Ms. Marvel has lacked that feeling by making this an inherited family power set and changing her them into glowy power blasts and projections. Right now, it is a step down from what made comic Kamala great. It is harder for her to feel isolated when her family has these same powers, and I would assume we will find out her mother has them, too.

Now this is not enough to wipe away all the good Ms. Marvel has done through three episodes. Kamala still gets to be a unique superhero representing a unique slice of the Marvel universe, and she gets to represent her community in a way that will inspire a lot of people watching this show, no matter their age. Marvel has done a terrific job bringing Kamala’s New Jersey to life.

Much like Kamala herself, though, this is a show with two distinct sides to it. If Ms. Marvel wants to reach its full potential, they will need to find a way to reconcile these two sides and place them on equal footing.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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