By: Sayan Mukherjee
When you have as much content as you see these days, it’s pretty rare to find a show with heart. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I watched Marvel’s latest Disney+ show, Ms Marvel. To be honest, I’ve become sort of desensitized to visual flares and CGI shenanigans, having already seen so much of it. I mean, I can still appreciate a nicely shot scene and be excited about a well-executed superhero fight sequence. But the sheer amount of jaw-dropping technical brilliance we get these days has unfortunately made it something to be passively expected, especially from a behemoth such as Disney. What we are often not given, however, is a story that gets who we are. A story that is not only earnest enough for those it represents but also for people from other communities. And Ms Marvel does that.
So, the story starts with the character of Kamala Khan (played by Iman Vellani), a Pakistani-American teenager and superhero-obsessed fangirl. She lives with her mother Muneeba (played by Zenobia Shroff), father Yusuf (played by Mohan Kapur) and brother Amir (played by Saagar Shaikh). Since this is an origin story, the episode mainly revolves around a pre-superpower, Kamala, her friends and her family. And I think that was the biggest strength of this debut episode. Most people often forget that it’s never the powers that make a superhero; it’s the person underneath the costume. For all his powers, what makes Superman a beacon of hope is the uncrushable goodness he has. For all the gadgets and prep time, what Batman the Dark Knight is the pain he carries within him. It is the person who is the hero, never the power. And I like the person Kamala is.
The reason why I like Kamala is stupidly simple and incredibly effective. She is relatable. As a matter of fact, she is so relatable that within the first ten minutes of the episodes, I started reliving unwanted childhood memories. Any kid who was raised in a South Asian family anywhere will immediately know what Kamala is going through. When Kamala mentions how her mother always says no whenever she wants to do something fun, I nodded my head in agreement so hard I’m surprised it didn’t just fall off. When I was young, my mother said no to me so many times I thought that was her default setting. Even today, when I tell her I’m doing something, and she says “yes”, I’m momentarily stunned. In my head, I’m like, really? You knew that word? Or is this a newly acquired ability? I love my mother to death, and I know now that it was her way of protecting me. For many parents, the best way to protect their kids from the world is to keep them away from it. That’s what my parents did, and that’s what Kamala’s parents do. And boy, do I feel her pain. I feel it in my bones.
It’s not just the lack of permissions; it’s also the uncanny valley of support and guilt trips in which we South Asian kids live. Early in the episode, Kamala gives a driver’s test but ends up rear-ending her instructor’s car. Next, we see Mr & Mrs Khan not give an inch as they defend their daughter in front of her underpaid and emotionally distressed driving instructor. After he refuses to pass Kamala, thereby preventing her from causing unintentional vehicular assault in the future, the Khans verbally berate him and walk off. You’d think that would be the end of it. A heart-warming and vigorous show of support, right? Oh, you sweet summer child. In the next scene, we see Kamala in the back seat of her parent’s car as her mother passive-aggressively chides her for fantasizing all the time. You know, at this point, I really started to think, “When did people record my childhood, and why didn’t anyone tell me?” The many times my parents have defended me in public and then whooped my ass in private would fill a very confusing book. But that’s how our parents are. No one has the right to put the fear of the gods in their child apart from them.
By now, you must’ve noticed that I don’t really talk much about Kamala’s powers. Well, that’s because I don’t much care. I don’t care if she uses “Hard Light” (as the show calls it), I don’t care if she can “embiggen” herself, and I don’t care whether she gets her power from a bracelet or Terrigen mist or latent genetic abilities triggered by multiples snaps of the Infinity Gauntlet. I don’t care, not because it doesn’t matter, but because I care more about Kamala’s character. I care that she is a confused kid for whom the future is a blur. I care that she is a person brought up in the middle of two worlds, holding onto her roots while branching out towards her dreams. I care that she has to fight her parents to show who she is. And I care that she doesn’t need the courage to defy her parents; she needs it because she fears that she might hurt them. I care about the person, not the powers.
This is a huge thing and an achievement that the MCU has been struggling to land in recent times. I don’t know how this show will eventually pan out, but this is as good a start as I could’ve hoped for. A lot can be forgiven when you admire and relate to a character. And that includes terrible shows and movies. I mean, I watched X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and I will still fight anyone who argues that there can be a better Logan than Hugh Jackman. Also, it is not just Kamala who’s fantastic; it’s the rest of the cast. From the sexist aunt who thinks a woman backpacking through Europe is blasphemous to Bruno struggling to be more than a friend to Kamala, they all make this a living, breathing and curious world. I love insane superhero fights as much as the other geek, but sometimes it just feels so nice to know that there are others like you. And it felt great to look at Kamala and think, “Been there and done that, kid”.
At the end of the day, Ms Marvel is an origin story. Most of these are pretty similar. You have an unsuspecting person, you have some sort of life-altering event, you have said person struggling with powers and/or the right course of action, and, finally, you have them taking a stand. The same trope will take place here. But I love that Marvel realized this and decided to focus on building the characters around the origin story instead. These people feel real, and their reality helps ground the more nebulous concepts of superpowers and abilities. But I would like to end on a more cautious note. Marvel doesn’t have the most excellent track record for sticking the landing on their shows. If the focus of the showing remains on fleshing out who Kamala is, what she wants, and who she can become, things are in good hands. However, if they suddenly begin to go all out on stuff like flashy CGI, over-the-top fights, and unnecessary cameos, then they are in trouble. Make the base; the rest can wait. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wait for Wednesday to come around.
Contributing Author: Sayan Mukherjee is a PhD student at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information Technology in Gandhinagar, India. He is currently working on the semiotic structure of Indian graphic narratives. His areas of interest include graphic narratives, visual culture, gender studies, cultural studies, and popular culture.
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