Monday, July 15, 2024

Ms. Marvel Sandwiches An Uneven Show Within A Great One

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Last time I talked about Ms. Marvel’s premiere season, I focused on the show’s struggles to reconcile its superhero side with Kamala’s personal life. On the one hand, there was a GREAT show here, one where Kamala Khan interacts with her family and friends within their close-knit slice of New Jersey. On the other, there was the superhero show, where she explored her newfound powers and battled villains threatening the people she loves.

With the final three episodes in the can, let’s talk about how successful (or not) Ms. Marvel was at figuring out how its flaws.

Ms. Marvel in the mirror

I wish I could say Ms. Marvel figured everything out. Unfortunately, the fourth and fifth episodes were plagued by the same problems that caused the third episode’s post-wedding downturn. Poor villains made for boring antagonists. Kamala’s powers were inconsistent and poorly explained. The change in setting to Karachi, Pakistan made for an interesting setting and characters but also took away characters like Bruno, Nakia, and most of Kamala’s family, who were vital to the moment-to-moment enjoyment level of the show.

Instead, we ended up with more of Clandestine, who solidified themselves as possibly the worst villains in the entire MCU. Look, it was bad when they flipped from kind and supportive to openly attacking and harming Kamala’s loved ones with no justification, but there was room to improve. Ms. Marvel could have made up for it. That never really happened.

These villains were at the core of Ms. Marvel’s biggest problem; it was a superhero show lacking interesting superhero content. These episodes also lacked any interesting or consistent explanation of what Kamala’s powers were, what the “djinn” could do, what they really were, what the djinn dimension was or what threat it posed, and so forth. Things just sort of happened as whatever magic, glowing nonsense needed to happen for the moment.

From the second episode on, there was almost a new explanation for Kamala’s powers every episode. First, it was just the bangle. Then the bangle was just unlocking her own hidden power. Then it was her being a “djinn” and inheriting her powers. Finally, in an explanation that is wonderful for the overarching MCU but frustrating for Ms. Marvel itself, one last scene in the finale has Bruno explain that Kamala that she has a “mutation” differentiating her from Clandestine as well.

Why couldn’t they go with that explanation early on? Using Kamala to introduce mutants is a pretty solid idea that should have been used to craft a season around Damage Control’s efforts to hunt Kamala down. As is, it’s a cool but frustrating swerve at the last minute that once again feels like this show never really knew what it wanted to do with Kamala’s powers.

This is the biggest problem with the Karachi episodes. Since Ms. Marvel leaves Bruno, Nakia, and Jersey City behind, it puts more attention on villains and power lore that was not good enough to justify said attention, a problem made worse by Ms. Marvel rushing through the best thing in these episodes.

The first half or so of the fifth episode sees Kamala transport through time so we can watch her great-grandmother, Aisha, build her life in this dimension before fleeing during the Partition. This was genuinely interesting, and while the reveal of Kamala leading her grandmother to safety was predictable, it was also fairly well done. But it should have been more! This look at Aisha’s life should have been its own episode that truly delved into who Aisha was, why she stayed and started a family, and why she ultimately betrayed Clandestine. It works okay enough as is, and leads to a wonderful generational shared hug between Kamala, her mother, and her grandmother, but this generational grief over the Partition was such a big part of Ms. Marvel that Aisha’s story should have been its own episode.

I do appreciate Muneeba’s chance to shine in these episodes, though. If anything beats out Aisha’s tale, it is Muneeba and her reconciliations with her daughter and mother.

With Clandestine out of the picture at the end of the fifth episode, Kamala heads back to Jersey and Damage Control for the finale. Predictably, with the worst part of the show out of the way and the best part back in it, the finale was pretty great. Ms. Marvel has easily one of the best finales of the Disney Plus shows. It is fun, emotional, and gets everyone involved in interesting ways.

I love the Home Alone feel of Kamala and friends defending their high school against Damage Control. Aamir getting involved was unexpected and a joy. The way the community flocked to the school and watched Damage Control’s awful abuse of power was pretty obviously relevant to America, with the scene of them opening fire on Kamran and Kamala feeling especially uncomfortable in a powerful, effective way.

This was everything good about Ms. Marvel. The entertainment factor, the relevant social commentary, the representation, everything was in this episode. Stick this finale after the third episode and the season would be nearly perfect. Have Clandestine arrested by Damage Control, Najma transfer her powers to Kamran while imprisoned, keep everything else the same, and you have a basically perfectly enclosed storyline. Having Damage Control as the main villain running throughout every episode would have been excellent. Even better, just make this story into a movie.

Ms. Marvel plotting on a chalkboard

It’s either that or add another 2-3 episodes and give Clandestine a proper exploration of their motives, history, relationship with Aisha, and reasons for turning on Kamala. Either way, six episodes was both too much and not enough for Ms. Marvel’s story to satisfy the way it could have.

Ms. Marvel was basically one good show with a much worse show sandwiched in-between. It is a superhero show that lacks compelling superhero content. This was really the last criticism I ever expected to level at an MCU show. I can understand why (outside of prejudice) Ms. Marvel is a downturn from the audiences that Disney has been pulling for these shows. If someone tunes in looking for a fun show exploring an underrepresented culture, Ms. Marvel is the show for you. If you wanted the usual brand of satisfying MCU superhero action, well, this one was a disappointment.

The Marvels should give Kamala’s superhero side a better chance to shine. The mid-credits scene throws everything for a loop as Kamala is somehow sucked out of her room and replaced with a very confused Carol Danvers. We’ll see where things go from here, but I have unshakable faith that The Marvels will give us something closer to the best superhero side of Kamala Khan.

Until then, we have this introduction to Kamala as a person who is capable of being a great superhero. It’s a mixed bag, but one I hope people can appreciate for its strengths.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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