Ms. Marvel Gets Fan Culture Right
Ms. Marvel Season 1, Episode 1: “Generation Why”
Kamala Khan attends Avengercon only to discover that she herself might have superpowers.
From the beginning of the pilot episode, it is obvious that Disney’s new Ms. Marvel series has a keen and unique sense of style. From its striking pink and blue neon bubblegum color scheme to its creative incorporation of hand-drawn art and street art, to its rich and character-driven set design, every frame of Ms. Marvel is immediately stunning. Luckily, the pilot, titled “Generation Why,” introduces a narrative and characters that live up to the expectations set by the impressive design. The result is a promising pilot that bodes well for the future of the exciting new series.
The show follows Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a teenage cosplayer and a huge fan of superheroes. She often finds herself caught up in a fantasy world, frequently daydreaming and becoming distracted from the real world in front of her. While she is criticized for having her head in the clouds, her fantasies end up becoming closer to reality than expected when she discovers that an old family heirloom gives her real-life superpowers. Because Kamala has already been struggling with family, social life, and school due to her frequent fantasies, the first episode ends with a suggestion that these dynamics will become even more complicated now that the line between fantasy and reality has blurred.
One of the most distinctive character traits of Kamala Khan in the Marvel comics that Miss Marvel is based on is her relationship with fan culture. She has been depicted as an award-winning writer of fan fiction, a huge comic book nerd, and such a big Carol Danvers fan that she chooses her superhero name based on a retired Danvers moniker. Kamala’s story reflects on the unique subcultures that have grown around things like fan conventions and fan art, and it is exciting to see these phenomena explored in live-action.
Vellani portrays Kamala excellently, providing a believable and lovable portrayal of a die-hard superhero fan. Anyone who has ever been swept up in the worlds of Tumblr and Archive of Our Own will likely find a sense of familiarity in Vellani’s high-energy, passionate and imaginative portrayal. Kamala’s parents Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and Yusuf (Mohan Kapur) are also immediately lovable. They are clearly written with compassion and love, and the actors’ empathetic and realistic delivery makes them two of the most compelling characters in the show. Kamala’s relationship with her complex, lovable, and well-developed family is set up to be one of the highlights of the series.
The show also seems like it may be setting up an ADHD-related plotline, considering how Kamala’s trouble with focus is often portrayed in an intense sensory way. There are moments where Kamala tries to focus on a conversation, only to find her attention blurring as she slowly drifts away. She also frequently doodles during class and exhibits other behaviour that viewers with ADHD are likely to relate to. It’s unclear from the pilot if they’re going to develop this potential, but having a superhero with ADHD will be a welcome addition to the MCU.
Comic book fans will likely have noticed that Ms. Marvel’s origin story and powers have been changed for the series. Rather than being exposed to Terrigen mist like in the comics, Kamala instead gets her powers from an old bangle that she finds in a box of family heirlooms. She also no longer has the ability to stretch out her body as in the comic books, but now is able to conjure glowing constructs in a way that’s very similar to the Green Lantern.
While these changes may upset some fans, they make sense. It’s really hard to show stretch-based powers in live-action – particularly ones like Kamala’s that involve reshaping her body to create things like giant hands – in a way that doesn’t end up looking creepy and distracting. Ever since the negative fan reception of Sonic the Hedgehog’s initially uncanny design, it makes sense that producers are wary of creating visual effects that might end up looking disturbing or strange. Khan’s new powers allow her to do similar things to what her stretch powers did (including conjuring a giant hand) but are easier to animate in a way that looks appealing.
Similarly, her comic book origin story would be a hard sell to anyone who isn’t a die-hard Marvel fan. Explaining what Terrigen mist is, why some people have latent Inhuman powers, what Inhumans even are in the first place, and how Ms. Marvel’s powers fit into the larger Marvel lore would be a huge undertaking that could prove distracting from the main narrative focus of the series and alienating to casual viewers. Choosing an easy plot device like a magic bangle is an easy way to keep her origin story accessible and efficient. Furthermore, considering how important family is to the series, it makes sense to connect Kamala’s powers to a family heirloom.
Speaking of family, the choice to center a Muslim, Pakistani-American family in an MCU series is an extremely important decision. Kamala herself is an extremely meaningful character, being a well-written and compelling Muslim superhero. The choice to highlight her parents and brother as key characters ensures that Kamala does not have to carry the burden of representation by representing her entire community. It also ensures that she will not be seen as a stand-alone exceptional character who is “not like other Muslims.” Rather, Kamala’s story will be told in dialogue with her family, ensuring a breadth and variety of representation and development for meaningful and nuanced Muslim characters.
For any new viewer, the immediate appeal of Miss Marvel is obvious with its brilliantly executed bright, poppy aesthetic. However. behind the bubblegum veneer and fun, quirky dialogue is a grounded story about a realistic and relatable family and a teenager trying to figure out who she is. The pilot is phenomenal, and it paves the way for what is sure to be a knockout series.