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Ms. Marvel soars thanks to good humor and Iman Vellani (Review)

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

As we approach the premiere of Ms. Marvel, let’s take a moment to assess the television side of the MCU. Ms. Marvel marks the sixth live action MCU series (seventh overall if What If… “counts”). These shows seem primarily to be servicing two sorts of characters: filmic supporting players who would might struggle to carry their own big budget tentpole (Falcon, Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Loki) and interesting characters without the big screen obvious hooks ready made to sell a blockbuster. Shang-Chi fights dragons and Captain Marvel battles alien warriors – they’re more overtly and obviously cinematic than Moon Knight’s mind asylum or Ms. Marvel’s high school hijinx.

As far as I’m concerned four of those shows are of fairly similar – and excellent – quality: WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye, and Moon Knight. Despite the noble intention of examining race in the 616 Universe, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier delivers big screen-type action but exceedingly messy character dynamics and the weakest antagonist in all of the MCU. It is a far inferior product and probably the biggest Marvel misfire since Thor: The Dark World back in Phase II.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

Broadly speaking, however, the shows have served as effective means of deepening the connection to underserved old characters (War Machine and Nick Fury are among those with MCU shows arriving next year). They’ve also done the legwork of introducing a new generation of young heroes to the MCU including Kate Bishop, a deepened connection with Yelena Belova, and now Kamala Khan.

Across the board, it appears the pandemic has really done a number on visual effects across the industry. It’s difficult to escape the simple reality that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has far inferior effects, and a hell of a lot more obvious greenscreening, than the original Doctor Strange six years prior. Some of it is the filming; it’s hard to get all those people together, especially the cameos, in the best of times, let alone filming during a pandemic. It means that Elizabeth Olsen and [SPOILERS] John Krasinski [END SPOILERS] can film a scene “together” without ever having met. And you can feel it in the finished product. Spider-Man: No Way Home, for all the joy its triumvirate of Peter Parkers provides, is perhaps the ugliest movie in the entire MCU canon. Many of the Disney+ MCU series suffer from this overabundance of obvious green screen rear projection. So the simplest joy with Ms. Marvel begins with the aesthetic. It feels, mercifully, like it exists in the real world.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

Kamala Khan is a Muslim girl, a child of Pakistani immigrants, who lives not in New York City (like seemingly two thirds of the MCU) rather she lives in Jersey City, across the river. The aesthetic choice to film largely on practical locations helps the series feel visually vibrant in a way that the MCU has lost of late. Directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah and Meera Menon populate Kamala’s world as a land of imaginative visual flourishes. Text messages come vibrantly to life on the streets and in the air around Kamala. Her imagination projects on the walls around her. Emotions quite literally appear on screen around her and flights of fancy come to life in ways reminiscent of, among others, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or (500) Days of Summer. It gives the show the sort of visual style that the MCU so often lacks.

Kamala herself is a fantastic character. Her first volume of comics is easily one of the best runs of Marvel Comics during the last decade. I gather that some people are concerned that the show has focused on the potentially cliché story of a young Muslim woman rebelling against the conservative religious elements around her. I can’t speak well to this element as a straight white man, but I flag that it’s a topic worthy of further discussion. I’ll say I found Kamala and best friend Nakia’s tensions with their faith-based community interesting and well acted, but it’s certainly a story beat I’ve seen deployed elsewhere. Nevertheless, I found so many of the details of Kamala’s life to be so well fleshed out. When she geeks out with a boy about Bollywood cinema, there’s a verve to the dialogue that speaks to writers pulling from genuine experience.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

Marvel has found themselves one hell of a young actress in Iman Vellani. She’s charming, funny, and dorky with just the right amount of gravity. She makes the show fun. The rest of the cast is game as well. I found Yasmeen Fletcher to be a real standout as Kamala’s friend Nakia. The rest of the cast is deep with actors relatively unknown in the States. Matt Lintz (The Walking Dead) and Arian Moayed (Succession, Spider-Man: No Way Home) are likely the only familiar faces to most American viewers. Nevertheless, the cast has a great, easy chemistry and they all seem to vibe with the pitter patter of the show’s dialogue.

I’ve seen two episodes of Ms. Marvel and I’m more than content to say it’s off to the strongest start of any MCU show. That it seems, mercifully, removed from any sort of global consequences and instead tells a story largely walled-off from the rest of the MCU (even Moon Knight gave itself over to global stakes in its last act) seems like just the right place for Kamala Khan to operate. I cannot wait to see what else the show, and Iman Vellani, has in store for us.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

Ms. Marvel debuts on Disney+ tomorrow, June 8.