The origin story of Kamala Khan is a very Young Adult tale of a hero caught between worlds. There’s her family and her traditions, passed on from generation to generation, there’s her friends and her school, and beyond that there’s a future she isn’t interested in wondering about. The fate of the world is, as it seems to be every other day in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at stake again, this time with a light dose of great power requiring great responsibility.
What separates someone like Kamala from Peter Parker isn’t just because she’s a woman, or because she’s Pakistani, or because she’s Muslim, but rather the resulting character stories that emerge from the cross section of all three. There’s her family, strict to her but less so to her brother. There’s her cousin, off to push for change at the local mosque. There’s the upcoming wedding to prepare for.
It’s here, in the first two episodes especially, that Ms. Marvel shines as a small scale show flavored by superheroes. Kamala is a fan of Captain Marvel, but icons like the Avengers are just heroes to be seen in the distance, appreciated alongside others at fan conventions. Tradition is important but there’s still social media breaking into the morning prayer as girls take selfies in the back rows. No one’s out to threaten the world just yet, but if Kamala can’t go to the first Avengers convention, it would ruin hers.
This is still a superhero show, regardless of the promises of its first two episodes, and there must be villains. On one end there is Damage Control, a new superhero oversight force on the lookout for unknown superpowered individuals, conducting their search with a penchant for collateral damage. On the other end there are the Clandestines, a new group of otherworldly superpowered individuals, on the search for Kamala. Neither of these groups will get much character development beyond who they are, and what they’re trying to do.
Kamala’s powers in this adaptation come with a bit of a makeover, modified from the original version. In the comics she can stretch herself while also shrinking or enlarging. In the show she creates patterns of hard light out of thin air. She can still stretch herself out, but now with a cosmic edge. If an action scene has some degree of special effects in it, it will likely look good. From extending herself to throw punches across the room, to hopping up platforms like an inexperienced Mario, to car chases in crowded streets, no expense was spared. For the action scenes where no special effects happen, and it’s just people fighting each other, so many expenses were spared. Fast camera whips and quick edits do more to hide any manner of fight choreography, giving the impression that no choreography was filmed at all.
History, and the generational trauma that results from it, are important aspects of the show, but when the storyline goes back in time to reveal answers to old family questions everything happens so fast that character development gets thrown out the window. For instance, there’s a common trope in romantic plots that feature enemies that become lovers. Usually, their first meeting doesn’t work out so well, but regardless of how poorly that first meeting goes, even if it comes along with violence between the future lovebirds, there’s usually a scene where they reminisce over that one occasion so long ago when they were about to kill each other. Now, imagine those two scenes happening back to back; it’s storytelling on fast forward.
That’s the biggest problem with the second half of the season, as the story that has expanded its scope far too big for a six-episode series suddenly cares less about developing its characters and more about hitting its plot points, rushing to resolve every subplot that is set up in the first three episodes. It wants to be a superhero story with a big, world threatening plot, while also being about family and the connections between generations, while also setting up future storylines. It’s a blend that makes the show as a whole uneven, raised up by a stylistic coming of age narrative, and then brought down by a superhero plot that doesn’t have the depth of the smaller scale stories that surround it.