How ‘Ms. Marvel’ changed the MCU — and TV itself — for the better

Lorraine Ali and Tracy Brown
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Over the course of its six episodes, “Ms. Marvel” has taken its viewers on a whirlwind trip across continents and time. Kamala Khan’s superhero origin story, which concluded Wednesday, saw the Avengers-loving New Jersey teen learning about her hidden supernatural family history while weaving actual historical events into the narrative.

With its youthful tone, inclusive storytelling and loose Marvel Cinematic Universe connections, “Ms. Marvel” has the ingredients to be another MCU show that appeals to audiences beyond the usual Marvel faithful. Now that the series has wrapped, L.A. Times TV critic Lorraine Ali and staff writer Tracy Brown discuss what worked, the show’s representational milestones and more.

Tracy Brown: There are a couple of moments in the “Ms. Marvel” finale that actually made me scream, but there is plenty we should discuss before I derail our conversation by delving into what I thought were the most exciting reveals from the episode.

More:Cheese carving, sea lions and concerts galore: Your guide to the 2022 York State Fair

More:This popular, longtime York City restaurant is a survivor — and now it can be yours

More:Landmark Haines Shoe House could soon book overnight stays

I cannot overstate how much fun “Ms. Marvel” has been to watch. I don’t want to rehash everything you nailed in your initial review of the series, but it really leaned into the joy and youthful energy and the cultural specificity that I have always believed is the comic book Ms. Marvel’s strengths.

People love to talk about superhero fatigue, or dismiss any film or TV show within the genre, but “Ms. Marvel” is a perfect example of the different kind of storytelling that can happen within the superhero space. When has an American TV show even addressed the Partition of India and Pakistan?

That said, part of Kamala Khan’s legacy is that her comic books appealed to readers who had never checked out superhero comics before. I think outside of a couple of standouts like “WandaVision,” the MCU’s Disney+ shows have struggled to attract an audience beyond existing Marvel fans. Lorraine, I know you are not a stranger to Marvel shows or the genre, but how did you find the full series? How friendly do you think it is to viewers who haven’t kept up with the MCU in its entirety?

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in Marvel Studios' "Ms. Marvel" on Disney+. (Marvel Studios/TNS)

Lorraine Ali: Youthful energy and cultural specificity are definitely key ingredients in “Ms. Marvel’s” special sauce. The series has been a joy to watch for many reasons. Though all of Marvel’s Disney+ series have differed from one another in terms of tone and approach, “Ms. Marvel” is truly an outlier, and that’s a good thing.

For starters, our hero Kamala Khan (played by the supremely charismatic Iman Vellani) is an American Pakistani, Muslim teen. Her heritage, gender and faith play a major role in the trajectory of her character and the origins of her power. And the music and artistic flourishes in the series — all the moving animation on billboards, chalkboards, in the sky — feels entirely original. The series has a deep respect for Marvel storylines and mythologies, but it also understands immigrant culture, from clashes between South Asian parents and their American-born children to the journey of an American kid delving into their old-world roots. “Ms. Marvel” naturally blends those worlds together, and the result is a superhero show that doesn’t feel like just another superhero show. In that sense, I think it’s been more accessible for viewers who aren’t invested in the MCU.

Tracy, how do you think it has resonated with the hardcore MCU fan base? And you are also the child of immigrant parents. Did you see any of yourself in Kamala? I certainly did. I must say that after watching the finale, I know what I’m wearing for Halloween. Now I just need to find “Halal” and “Haram” baseball caps for my son and husband to complete the look.

Brown: According to reports, “Ms. Marvel” has had sluggish viewership numbers. As you mentioned, the show is about a teenage Pakistani American girl, and there are plenty of people — including among MCU fans — who have no interest in, or will outright reject, a series just on that fact alone. But my feeling is that anybody who was already a Kamala Khan fan, and the people who have been waiting for the MCU to be more inclusive, have embraced it.

I will say the reveal about Kamala’s DNA during the finale will have just about every MCU fan talking about it.

As a nerdy comic book fan who was prone to drawing my favorite characters instead of doing homework as a kid, there are definitely aspects of Kamala I very much relate to. But what I think I appreciated the most about this show is its nuance around growing up a second-generation immigrant kid who embraces all aspects of her identity. I think for a very long time stories around being an Asian American kid with immigrant parents defaulted to a binary — traditional Asian bad, modern American good; traditional parents bad, modern friends and found family good. But that’s not how it is for all of us.

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in Marvel Studios' "Ms. Marvel" on Disney+. (Marvel Studios/TNS)

In shows like “Ms. Marvel” and movies like Pixar’s “Turning Red,” we’re getting stories that show how the “tension” comes from a place of love. Kamala clearly loves her parents, and she embraces being Pakistani American and Muslim just as much as she embraces being a giant superhero nerd. It might be hard figuring out how to mesh different parts of our identity together as we grow up, but it’s never about rejecting one or the other.

We’ve touched on how “Ms. Marvel” is a representational milestone for both the MCU and TV in general, but not so much specifically about Kamala’s faith. What was it like for you to see the MCU’s first Muslim superhero? How do you think this series handled that aspect of Kamala’s story?

Ali: The finale’s DNA twist is such a great cliffhanger. And you’re so right about the cross-cultural, cross-generational nuance in the series. It’s rare to find such an intimate yet nonjudgmental immigrant family dynamic onscreen, even in the best TV dramas.

As for how the show integrated themes of Muslim American life into the bigger story? “Ms. Marvel” somehow managed to compete with one of my favorite series, Hulu’s darkly funny sitcom “Ramy,” in terms of portraying the faith through one individual’s journey rather than a monolithic experience. From the early scenes when her friend Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) is explaining why she chose to wear a hijab, to the women complaining about the shabbiness of their prayer space at the masjid compared with the men’s area, to their descriptions of the various cliques at the Islamic center (the Mosque Bros, the Pious Boys, the Mini Harami Girls, the Illumin-Aunties), it was so spot-on and so damn funny. And they were never too precious, which was my fear going into the series.

The subplot of her mosque being surveilled by law enforcement was the font of several jokes about the realities U.S. Muslims have faced post-9/11. And I’m assuming all the Islam-centric humor I related to was woven in with Avengers references that I totally missed because I’m not super versed on the Verse. My point is that this fun little series did a lot over six episodes, including combining worlds that initially seemed at odds.

One more thing: In the finale, her sweet father (played by Mohan Kapur) tells her that Kamal means “wonder” or “marvel” in Urdu. It’s then Kamala realizes she shares a name with Carol Danvers, and when her dad says: “Our own little Ms. Marvel.” Call me sappy, but I got a little choked up.

Brown: That scene is so lovely. I got a little misty-eyed watching it too. And it’s also an example of what this show did so well in terms of paying homage to the comics and letting Kamala and the series stand on their own.

Kamala and her dad have a similar conversation in one of the early issues of “Ms. Marvel,” but her dad only mentions Kamal means “perfection” in Arabic. In the comics, the Ms. Marvel name and iconography was something that already existed, because Carol Danvers was Ms. Marvel before she became Captain Marvel. So in the comics, Kamala just took over the name of a hero she admired.

But there has never been a Ms. Marvel in the MCU. In the show, Kamala doesn’t inherit an existing mantle. With her dad’s explanation, she gets to claim the name and identity that’s always been hers. What’s more powerful than that?

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism.