Iman Vellani is a superstar. That’s the first and most immediate takeaway from Ms. Marvel, the latest Disney+ entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the most important one too. After all, we know by now how this game is played: each successive Marvel offering is functionally fairly similar to the last, and more likely than not the next too. Aesthetic changes lend them a bit more flexibility – you can make Iron Man twice if he’s a magician the second time around – but the underlying pieces remain in place each time. What matters isn’t so much the broad shape of the shows (Ms. Marvel will, presumably, end with Kamala Khan fighting a big CGI mess of some sort) but their moment-to-moment texture, the little details that make it distinct.
So it helps that, as we’ve established, Iman Vellani is a superstar. Vellani plays Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager living in New Jersey; Kamala lives with her parents and her older brother, she goes to school with her best friends Bruno and Nakia, and she’s trying her best to drown out any talk of exams and college admissions and careers. “It’s time to start really thinking about your future,” a guidance counsellor tells her, and Kamala slumps in her seat at the thought of mapping out the rest of her life before lunch.
What she really cares about is the Avengers. Kamala is a huge fan of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” making YouTube videos (“Bitten by a radioactive feminist?”), writing fanfiction, going to conventions, entering cosplay competitions, and drawing cartoons likenesses of her favourites. (Endearingly, the same is true of Vellani, a lifelong Marvel fan who counts Iron Man as one of her favourite films. What’s really funny, though, is that she didn’t actually like Captain Marvel very much.) When Kamala eventually and inevitably comes into superpowers of her own, she models herself on – who else? – her own hero, Captain Marvel.
Ms. Marvel is a riff on the classic – and, really, the best – superhero template. It’s a coming-of-age story, Kamala balancing superheroism with schoolwork, not a million miles away from a modern take on Peter Parker: probably the simplest way to explain Ms. Marvel is that it’s a show that asks the question, “what if the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies were actually good?” (That’s a little unfair, but also, it’s not that unfair, as anyone who’s suffered through Far From Home can surely attest.) Even better, it has a compelling answer – they’d probably look a little more like this.
Vellani, anyway, is a breath of fresh air as Kamala Khan. In terms of sheer charm – from Kamala’s fannish enthusiasm to her newly superpowered confidence – she lights up the screen, and all the best parts of the show come down to that performance. There’s an appreciable earnestness to her performance, actually, a stark contrast to Oscar Isaac’s visibly-taking-the-piss effort in Moon Knight; Vellani gives Ms. Marvel a much more sincere quality, and the show is all the better for it. Kamala upsetting her parents after an argument is far more impactful than, say, Moon Knight trying to stop Ammit drowning the sun, Loki trying to save the multiverse, or whatever we were supposed to care about in Hawkeye.
That unabashed sincerity extends into the rest of the show too, which manages to be the first Marvel series with something resembling an actual personality. Directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah and Meera Menon bring some real visual flair and flourish, moving beyond the drab realism of the Avengers movie in favour of something bolder and brighter. It’s just that little bit more expressive – in its camera angles, in the colours of its set design, in how it represents text messages – and it makes a world of difference. It’s a superhero show that remembers these things should be fun, and has a good handle on how to blend comic book goofiness with heightened teen television stylings.
Aspects of the show grate, occasionally. You catch characters having conversations, as if for the first time, that they surely would’ve had before – it’s a shortcut to quick exposition, but sometimes the clunkiness of it stands out. It could stand, maybe, to be a little more playful with some of the archetypes it draws on (though in fairness it may well go on to in the latter two-thirds of its runtime). And it is, admittedly, a shame that the television series – swapping Kamala’s gangly ‘embiggening’ powers from the comics for the more simplistic hard light constructs we see here – loses that original metaphor of a teenager struggling to fit in.
Those are minor concerns, though. After a run of television projects you’d struggle to call straightforwardly successful, Ms. Marvel at least initially seems to represent a marked improvement – an example of the superhero genre at its most charming.
Ms Marvel begins on Disney+ on Wednesday 8 June, with new episodes released weekly. I’ve seen the first two episodes of an eventual six before writing this review.