Ms. Marvel had the potential to be the strongest Marvel project in years, but the studio’s difficulty executing competent television reared its head again and knocked it down a peg or two. Still, the future is incredibly bright for this character who looks to be an even bigger deal in the MCU going forward than anyone expected.
Bullet Point Review
- The strongest ensemble cast to date, led by an incredible find in Iman Vellani.
- At its best when it is a low stakes high school comedy.
- Bolstered by genuine Muslim and South Asian representation
- Marvel’s usual problems (villains and CGI) reared their head again, most notably their Phase 4 tendency of trying to do too much.
- That being said, while there is still a long way to go, the production quality is generally better than the other Marvel shows.
- Plenty of fertile ground for a second season, as well as directly connecting to The Marvels and the arrival of the X-Men in the MCU.
Boy howdy did they nail the casting for this show. It obviously starts with new talent Iman Vellani, a mega nerd who went from dressing as Kamala Khan for Halloween to arguing with Kevin Feige about the intricacies of the multiverse on the red carpet. I still can’t believe she had no major acting experience before this, because she took to the role remarkably well, from the dorky charisma to the emotional pathos and of course the superhero shenanigans. Her next test will be if it feels like she belongs in a movie alongside Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris, but I have every confidence she will pass with flying colours and I truly believe they’re found their third long-term player alongside Florence Pugh and Hailee Steinfeld.
Vellani has incredible chemistry with the rest of the cast, who are all superb. Matt Lintz elevates a fairly stereotypical dorky ‘platonic’ best friend character into an extremely likeable young man, as Bruno sincerely engages with his friends’ culture despite it being so different to his own. Just being a really good kid can go a long way, and you can see why Lintz was a finalist to play Spider-Man in the MCU. Yasmeen Fletcher is electric as Nakia, and she and Vellani make their friendship incredibly compelling. It’s the way they look at each other, the pet names, the trust, the respect. It’s all lovely. Nakia’s sub-plot of running for a position on the Mosque board was fun, and one of the many things I’m sad we deviated away from for the messier stuff (more below).
Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur and Saagar Shaikh play Kamala’s mother, father and brother respectively, and much like Lintz, break free of what could be generic roles and inject a great deal of warmth and three-dimensionality. Muneeba starts out as a strict, overbearing mother, but makes attempts to meet her daughter halfway and details of her own rebellious past begin to come out. Her reconciliation with her own mother acts as a salve for her and Kamala’s bond and by the end you feel they truly understand each other. Yusuf struggles with technology and tries to play the good cop, but his heartbreak over the rejection of Pakistani Hulk and wedding-day counsel are dripping in Great Dad energy. Plus his little skirmish to buy forbidden snacks from Bruno is adorable. Aamir is the perfect elder sibling who can do no wrong, but his attempt to console Kamala and the heartfelt confession of monetary worries on the morning of his wedding turn him into more of a real person as well.
I didn’t think as much of Rish Shah as Kamran, the object of Kamala’s affections, as he always smacked of British actor trying to make American dialogue work. It’s all just a little too stilted. Or maybe he just isn’t as good as the others. Laurel Marsden has potential as Zoe, but the show decided to forget about her for 3 episodes. The villains are blah, with Arian Moayed and Alysia Reiner sleepwalking through pretty one-note roles as Damage Control agents. Both are talented and would have benefited from being the season-long foes. The Clandestine are so bad they get their own section below.
The Pakistan cast are a mixed bag. I was pleased to see Aramis Knight pop back up as I’m a fan of Into the Badlands, but he struggled with the accent. Farhan Akhtar was solid as Waleed, and the flashback actors Mehwish Hayat and Faward Khan were excellent. I wish we got more of all three.
All in all, the show is buoyed by a deep, likeable cast. The opposite of Moon Knight, which hung its hat entirely on Oscar Isaac, and while they can’t match Loki’s heavy hitters, they outnumber them, which bodes well for their future. The season was undeniably at its best when they just let these people talk to each other, and one day Marvel will be brave and make a season of television that is just that.
It’s depressing that this kind of thing still needs to be touched about in 2022, but it was really nice to see a story from the preeminent entertainment juggernaut devoted to a muslim family from New Jersey. Kamala’s very existence pisses off some pretty deplorable people, and that’s reflected in the low viewership and review bombing that went on. I don’t know if Disney will respond to those things and tone this aspect down, but I’m glad that they went for it here at least.
Better still, they didn’t feel compelled to constantly explain everything for white people. Characters speak briefly in Urdu and use nomenclature and customs that I have no awareness of, and you know what? I didn’t die! I picked some things up from context clues and even did a little reading after, which also didn’t kill me!
I am inescapably some generic white boy, so my opinions on this aspect of the show should only be taken with a grain of salt, but based on the responses I’ve seen from South Asians I follow on social media and in various articles and reviews I sought out, it does seem to have touched their community in a wonderful way.
Leah Williams once said “to be denied your likeness is to be made monstrous”, and while this silly little show is not going to cure decades of islamophobia, it is a step, however small, towards normalising the culture of a huge chunk of the world’s population. Disney are still an evil corporation, and it will take a huge number of positive actions to put a dent in their historical wrongdoings, but using their enormous influence to shine the spotlight on a brown girl from Jersey City is the least they could do.
Also just to repeat a point from Episode 4, this show did FAR more to represent modern Pakistan than Moon Knight did for Egypt.
Too Much Marvel
That heading is emblematic not only of the fact Disney are now pumping out 10 MCU projects per year, but that they’re trying to do too much with a lot of them these days, particularly on the television side. Their lack of experience with making TV has been evident from the jump, both in that many of the shows were produced like long movies and then edited into episodes, and their general misunderstanding of how the medium is meant to work. They’re not alone in that (looking at you, Netflix), but there’s very little care for seasonal structure, crafting true episodes or what to do with the extra time afforded.
Their most common way to address the longer runtime has been to shove two movie plots together, even if they’re in direct conflict. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did this with Baron Zemo, The Power Broker and Wakanda, a side story that mostly resolved itself before the finale, which returned to the original premise with the GRC, Flag Smashers and Batroc. Moon Knight did it too, diverting away from the psychological mystery thriller and into a reaaaaally bad low budget Mummy movie.
Ms. Marvel does this as well, heading to Karachi for two episodes, leaving most of the cast behind in favour of a less interesting End of the World story because Marvel simply cannot help themselves with that shit. For one episode, it was a fine little break with some fresh faces, but to take up a third of the season with it really hurt things.
The Cladestine didn’t help anything. They felt like movie villains, in that they were boring, underdeveloped and essentially teleport in when the script demands it and then vanish into a void. Every one of their scenes is dull at best and outright bad at worst, and there was always an inescapable feeling that they were interrupting the show we were all enjoying. That they were casually killed off one at a time and their storyline wraps up with a neat little bow before the finale is emblematic of what I’m talking about above.
It’s not that the stuff in Pakistan was all bad – in fact a lot of it was fun, including the really strong flashback section – more that it felt like an entirely different show. Alan Sepinwall wisely suggested Pakistan should have been the setting of the second season and I could not agree more. Bruno is leaving for California, so the kids decide to go explore Kamala’s roots as a last hurrah together. You keep Bruno and Nakia around (maybe Zoe forces her way in as well), and then let all the good stuff breath even more. It would also feel more appropriate to go from a small New Jersey story trying to evade Damage Control in season 1, to a grander scale in season 2. Maybe the Clandestine could have all talked and had anything resembling three dimensional personalities!
Ultimately, Marvel need to have more confidence in the foundations they lay down, and fill the extra time with character moments. Hawkeye did this a little, with the drunken Christmas tree decoration and extended dinner scene with Kate and Yelena. I covered the cast above; trust them! Give them all things to do! Let things breath!
CGI has been a huge talking point for the MCU in general of late, with non-union VFX artists clearly struggling to keep up with the demanding release schedule, and Feige clearly preferring to shoot everything green screen so they can remake the entire movie in post. Ms. Marvel isn’t quite as bad on that front, but the ‘superhero action’ is the least interesting part.
Lights, Camera, Action
Not to keep piling on all the things Marvel continually do wrong, but in addition to the above, they’ve never been the most visually interesting studio. I’m talking in particular about interesting shot composition and clean, clear action sequences. Much of that is because of their preference for shooting on the same handful of sound stages in Atlanta and London and heavy use of green screen. The more complicated you make a shot, the harder it is to reshoot or completely change it in post.
They also prefer to have second units shoot the action, and like most of the industry in the last 20 years, they like shaky-cam and rapid cutting to achieve a lower age rating and better hide their stunt people. I understand it, but when you see wider angles and longer takes in things like The Raid, John Wick and Daredevil… you notice.
I say all of this because it does seem like some Marvel creatives get it. Shang-Chi benefitted enormously from the greater technical ambition of Destin Daniel Cretton, with the gorgeous opening fight scene between Wenwu and Ying Li (particularly in contrast with the quasi-recreation of it near the end), and the much touted San Francisco bus sequence.
Likewise, Ms. Marvel, which is generally dripping in personality, puts slightly more effort into things like camera placement than any of the MCU shows did previously. I attribute that mostly to Adil & Bilall, who set the stylistic tone. Episode 1 featured something as simple as the camera pulling back to reveal the Khans and Kamala’s driving instructor framing the wrecked car. It’s the kind of thing most ‘real’ TV shows do every single week, but is completely absent in the average Marvel project. They also made an attempt with Kamala hurling herself down onto the couch while the camera turned upside down to follow her and didn’t quite pull it off, but hey, they tried!
The direction in general was pretty strong throughout the season, including Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s understated work in the Pakistan episodes. This helped keep the show engaging even when they started trying to do too much as mentioned above. This is kind of a big deal, because direction tends to be the weak point of their productions.
Finally, I know this is a personal preference thing, but I’m a sucker for on-screen graphics. Whether it’s graffiti coming to life or animated text message conversations, it tickles some fanciful corner of my brain. Likewise, the little musical numbers in ‘Crushed’ are right up my street. If neither of those work for you, I understand why you think I’m a little too high on the show.
It should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the episodes that were about Kamala hanging out with her friends, trying to figure out her powers and avoid Damage Control. I initially throught I could go either way on the first two episodes, but the musical sequences, Nakia’s political aspirations and the Eid celebrations tip it over the edge. I do still really like the first episode though, with AvengerCon acting as great world building.
From there, things get trickier. I know that I liked Episode 5 the least, despite really enjoying the flashback sequence. That I’ve still placed it last speaks volumes about how bad the Clandestine and the Veil of Noor plotline were, and their lack of conviction to follow through on their ideas. Just above it goes ‘Seeing Red’, the other Pakistan episode. Again, I enjoyed much of what happened in Pakistan, but I missed Bruno, Nakia and the Khans too much to let it go any higher.
In terms of placing the remaining two episodes, my instinct is that while the finale got things back on track, it suffered too many consequences from the deviation, and just as a pure episode of television, Episode 3 is stronger despite the Clandestine threatening to muck it up. I really enjoyed the wedding, Sheikh Abdullah’s quiet council with Kamala and of the three major Clandestine appearances, it was the least bad one.
- ‘Crushed’ (Episode 2)
- ‘Generation Why’ (Episode 1)
- ‘Destined’ (Episode 3)
- ‘No Normal’ (Episode 6)
- ‘Seeing Red’ (Episode 4)
- ‘Time and Again’ (Episode 5)
While I will not stop saying Marvel need a more cohesive overarching direction for Phase 4, Ms. Marvel does plant some more interesting seeds than most entries have been lately. Instead of just debuting a new character that we have no idea when we’ll see again, we got the strong implication Kamala is the first MCU mutant and a direct tease for a movie that is coming in the next 6 months (give or take).
I tackled the X-Men bombshell in my episode 6 review, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. But one more time for the people in the back: The Inhumans suck. Agents of Shield is NOT canon. Kamala was conceived as a mutant. Ike Perlmutter is an awful human being. These simple facts should help you navigate this difficult time. But yeah, the X-Men were always known to be coming, and now Kamala’s status as a major player in the future of the MCU is even more secure as she is functionally our first canonical mutant. I’m ecstatic about the prospect of her getting to play in that corner of the MCU instead of the Inhuman Royal Family. Also, I’m not the first to say it, but Marvel riffing on the iconic animated theme song twice in live action when Fox never did in twenty years is very funny.
The direct lead-in to The Marvels is intriguing, with the likely explanation being the bangle is indeed one half of either the Nega Bands/Quantum Bands. The former literally allow the wearer to swap places with the original Captain Marvel at one point. Between the bangle(s) and The Ten Rings, there is a strong implication that the Kree (or possibly the Builders!) may attempt to invade earth and that will be the next Avengers-level threat. Who knows? What we do know, is Carol is back on earth and freaked out to see her likeness all over a teenage girl’s room, and we will probably see a longer version of that exact scene in the movie. This is the kind of mid-credits scene Marvel should be doing more of, because the payoff is more immediate and is based in a story element instead of ‘hey look at this cameo!’ Having seen leaked images of Kamala’s costume in the film though, I sincerely hope she’s back in the one from the show by the end of it.
Speaking of which, this is the most worthy show since Loki of a second season. You COULD do follow-ups to most of them, but Ms. Marvel deserves one. Ms. Marvel as Jersey’s protector, Bruno’s letter in Kamala’s locker, the possible Zoe/Nakia story and whatever happens with Kamran and Kareem in Karachi are all good threads to pick back up. Will she meet more mutants? How about some Young Avengers? Give me more of this show and commit harder to the parts that work better, please!
This column will return with the start of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law… unless they drop What If…? Season 2 earlier than expected… Gosh, what a threat!
For podcast thoughts on the MCU, check out Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey, which will be back early next year to discuss this and the other 2022 projects.
My other podcast, There Will Be Movies, is back for possibly the final run, as Ben and I look at our 25 favourite films of the 1980s. This week: Thief.