'Ms. Marvel' Has the Heart the Rest of the MCU Needs

The Disney+ series is one of the best things Marvel has produced in its rocky Phase 4.

ms. marvel iman vellani

After watching the first episode of Ms. Marvel, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's ever unwieldy television offerings, I wasn't sold. The visual style was interesting, if perhaps a little too busy, and star Iman Vellani was charming, but it just felt too self-referential. When we're introduced to Kamala Khan, a teenager in New Jersey, the first thing we learn about her is she's a HUGE Marvel fan. She's desperately trying to get to a Marvel fan convention so she can cosplay as her favorite hero, Brie Larson's Captain Marvel. After so many hours of MCU programming, I was wary to invest in a show that seemed less invested in its new character than it was in her obsession with the exhausting lore of the franchise.

I'm so glad I didn't quit. Ms. Marvel, developed by Bisha K. Ali, is one of the rare products to come out of Marvel's messy Phase 4 that feels truly special. The finale of Ms. Marvel dropped this Wednesday, just a few short days after Thor: Love and Thunder was released in theaters. While the highly anticipated follow-up to Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, made a boatload of money, it has also ignited debate as to whether it's good, bad, rushed, or worthy of its predecessors. Love and Thunder does feel a little tossed off, like no one really cared enough to make the jokes land or the characters coherent. Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, is all heart, but has not received the viewership it deserves.

In Ms. Marvel, Kamala starts to discover the extent of her powers, which emerged thanks to a family heirloom bangle, and the series evolves into one of the most deeply felt sagas this world has yielded yet. Ali created a story that is packed with superhero mysticism, but also thoroughly rooted in the Pakistani diaspora. Sure, there's some confusing backstory involving the ClanDestines, a group of Djinn who have spent decades wandering the Earth trying to get home to their dimension; and, yes, there's a big wink to the X-Men in the final minutes that feels like a studio note. (Kamala learns about a "mutation" in her genes as the familiar X-Men guitar riff plays.) But Ms. Marvel truly shines when it's about a girl learning that her family and community is an asset rather than something from which to hide. I can't remember the last time something from Marvel made me well up with tears multiple times, and that's something to celebrate.

Eventually Kamala learns that doesn't need to just idolize superheroes, she can actually be one—a girl who shoots hardened light out of her hands. It's after this shift that Ali and her writers hone in on the Jersey City Pakistani Muslim community with joy and tenderness. Ali gives us a Bollywood dance sequence at a wedding, and a subplot about Kamala's friend Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) running for the board of the local mosque, a detail which becomes important during the series' big showdown. At the same time, Ali finds time to weave in typical teenager stuff set to a banging soundtrack. There's an adorable, squee-inducing love triangle between Kamala and her Duckie, the inventor whiz kid Bruno (Matt Lintz), and the magic-possessing Kamran (Rish Shah).

But the absolute best part of Ms. Marvel is Kamala's relationship with her mother, Muneeba, played by the great Zenobia Shroff. What begins as a familiarly tense dynamic—the strict mother versus the rebellious daughter—transforms on a sojourn to Pakistan where a reunion with Kamala's grandmother helps her learn about her new abilities as well as her history. This trip, which takes place throughout the fourth and fifth episodes, uses the background of the 1947 partition of India, where Muslims were exiled to Pakistan after the dissolution of British rule to deepen our heroine's connection to her own past. All the while the show is anchored by the glittering performance of Vellani, a first-time actor who radiates a kind of genuine wonder as Kamala.

Ms. Marvel is by no means perfect. The villain arc is unnecessarily confusing, and, frankly, the narrative probably would have been stronger as a two-hour movie rather than a six-hour TV show. But it has something it feels like the rest of the MCU is missing right now: bald-faced emotion based on lived-in experiences.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.