Is Ms. Marvel Losing The Plot?

So far, we’ve got a fantastic teen hero, Farhan Akhtar and a whole lotta Marvel magic. In spite of all this, Ms. Marvel isn’t living up to the promise of its early episodes
Is Ms. Marvel Losing The Plot?

Directors: Meera Menon, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah
Writers: Bisha K. Ali, Sana Amanat
Cast: Iman Vellani, Matt Linz, Yasmeen Fletcher, Zenobia Shroff, Rish Shah, Laurel Marsden
Cinematographers: Carmen Cabana, Robrecht Heyvaert, Jules O'Loughlin
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Four out of six episodes in, Ms. Marvel, which began promisingly, has landed in the swamp of exposition and staid visuals. Choppy editing bogs down a drawn-out fight sequence. Recurring talk of alternate dimensions threatens to reshape this self-contained, intimate, coming-of-age story into yet another property that needs to tie into the larger franchise. What's also odd for a show that has so far delivered an unclichéd representation of Muslim culture is the introduction of a character (hello Farhan Akhtar!) with kohl-rimmed eyes and a beard. All this is a shame not only because it's hard not to wish that Akhtar had been served better by the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), but also because Ms. Marvel started off as an inventive look at teenage angst, the South Asian diaspora and fandom. 

In its early episodes, Ms. Marvel was a delight. It didn't resort to the well-worn MCU-style of snarky quips and was empathetic in the way it handled teenage rebellion. One of its most charming aspects was the joyous ode to pop art and earnest celebration of fan-culture, which served as a reminder that long before the MCU dominated the cinematic landscape with an endless self-referential loop of serialised storytelling, there was something inherently pure about shared fandom, fanart, fanfiction and cosplay. Here was art created not for profit, but out of sheer love. As absorbing as it is to watch a show like The Boys sneer at the idolisation of superheroes and demonstrate the utter meaninglessness of celebrity worship, Ms. Marvel crucially showcased how a rich inner fantasy life is worth celebrating. 

The creative flair of the show's teen protagonist, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), translated into some of the MCU's most visually striking storytelling. Ms. Marvel opened with a vibrant, animated retelling of the climactic battle from Avengers: Endgame (2019), which was revealed to be a stop-motion video on Kamala's YouTube channel. Quick cuts and dramatic zooms made her driving test look like it'd been transplanted right out of a comic panel. Split-second flashbacks conveyed entire high-school backstories. When she texted another character in the first two episodes, the messages appeared as elements in the surrounding environments, like the neon sign of a store or as graffiti on a spray-painted wall in New Jersey. One scene even found musicality in the clicking of a pen, the meowing of a cat and the slurp of a coffee, splicing these together to create a slick beat.

Contrast that with the Karachi shown in the fourth episode, which has a man playing dhol at the airport, a scene in a colourful market, confusing directions ("you go left, and then left again and then a little right") and of course, a shot showing mangoes. Directed by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the episode has far too many moments of exposition and you get the feeling that she knows this. At one point, a Pakistani character asks Kamala, "Come on, is this not exotic enough for the ABCD's (American-Born Confused Desi) Instagram?" Far more fun than the predictable Orientalist gaze is the sequence in which Kamala follows a mysterious stranger into a Chinese restaurant (playing 'Disco Deewane' on tinny speakers), which has a secret passageway into the headquarters of a secret society. It's a charming nod to Karachi as well as a love letter to desi Chinese cuisine. 

That Ms. Marvel wasn't in any rush to get to its set pieces or lore and chose instead to focus on the ins and outs of Kamala's everyday life, worked in its favour in the first few episodes. It took till the end of the third episode to get to a fight scene. Until then, all Kamala was seen wrestling with were her strict parents (played by Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur), her fluctuating sense of self-esteem and her crush on her classmate, Kamran (Rish Shah). The prospect of missing out on a social event because of strict parents was on the lower end of MCU stakes, but it felt world-ending because of how astutely the show conveyed the acuteness of teenage embarrassment and angst. In a cheeky reversal, Ms. Marvel also showed Kamala as a hero who prioritised hanging out with Kamran (in the guise of getting driving lessons from him) over testing her newfound powers.

The show's writers smartly mined Kamala's experience of growing up in a South Asian family. In one scene, she asks her parents for permission to go out and gets, "We trust you. It's just that we don't trust anyone else" in response. It's a detail so specific, it could've been pulled from my own adolescent experiences. Moments like these added to Ms. Marvel's exploration of the emotional distance between children who can't relate to their parents' traditional worldview and adults who struggle to adapt to the modern world their children inhabit. 

The series also deftly navigated a middle ground between opposing ideas. The bangle Kamala inherits from her grandmother doesn't give her powers. It only unlocks the superhuman part of her — "like an idea come to life," is how she describes it — which is an acknowledgement that imagination is just as much at the crux of her ability as her heritage. The show also balanced its depictions of tradition with the acknowledgement that there's room for modernity. A scene of Muslims practising namaaz is followed by a conversation on how female worshippers are relegated to the crumbling section of the mosque and why more of them need to run for positions of power on the board. Even the more fantastical elements of Ms. Marvel were grimly contrasted with the reality of being part of a minority community. 

As Kamala grows into her newfound abilities, lines of dialogue remind viewers that being a superhero doesn't mean she can evade being kept in check. After Kamala's powers manifest in public for the second time, a law enforcement officer says of mosques in Kamala's neighbourhood, "The FBI is already surveilling them." In another touching scene, Kamala discovers the flip side of the superheroic life she's long dreamed of runs parallel to her immigrant parents' experiences and the unforeseen costs of the American dream.

Ms. Marvel's creeping inconsistency, however, is part of a recurring storytelling issue across series in the MCU. Loki began as a character study of its titular hero, finding surprisingly nuanced ways to recontextualise his motives; and ended with the threat of multiversal war and the introduction of an unidentified villain that the studio was confident viewers would recognise from news reports about the next Ant-Man film (scheduled for 2023). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier let its heroes be vulnerable for exactly one of six episodes. The rest of their time was spent battling ineffectual villains and bouncing from one confounding situation to the next. Even WandaVision's delicate exploration of grief culminated in characters hurtling through the sky shooting laser beams at each other by the end.

Less proves to be more in Ms. Marvel and the final scene in the fourth episode conveys the horrors of Partition better than all the pointed speeches about it. Fans of MCU know it can do scope and scale, but what made Ms. Marvel special were the sub-plots with their pared-down narratives and scenes like the one in which Kamala hangs out with a group of Pakistani teenagers and eats biriyani out of a packet. Watching her navigate the pressures of adolescent life was so much more compelling than watching her carve a niche for herself in the vast MCU multiverse and its dense lore. In a show about the importance of stories, Kamala's own — rather than the formulaic superhero narrative — is one that deserves to be told.

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