“I wish that you would just focus on you. Your grades, your family, your story. I mean, who do you want to be in this world, hain? Do you want to be good like we raised you to be? Or do you want to be some cosmic-head-in-the-clouds person?” Those words from Muneeba Khan (Zenobia Shroff), directed at her daughter Kamala (Iman Vellani), come at the close of the first episode of Ms. Marvel and tidily sum up the premise of the series: Who is it that Kamala Khan actually wants to be?
But let’s rewind for a second and talk a little about Kamala. She lives in Jersey City and is totally obsessed with superheroes, running her own YouTube channel, Sloth Baby Productions, about Captain Marvel, Thor, and the like. The show opens with Kamala’s narration, as cartoon superheroes fly across the screen. With this intro, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah set a fun, irreverent tone, with cartoon elements, animation, comic-book panels, and text that superimposes itself onto buildings. (It’s a really rich show visually and sonically so far, with a bright jewel-toned color palette and choice soundtrack.)
Apart from her superhero obsession, here’s what’s going on in Kamala’s life: Her mom Muneeba, dad Yusuf, and older brother Aamir are prepping for the latter’s wedding, but the only thing Kamala wants to prep for is AvengerCon and its Captain Marvel cosplay contest. Kamala’s got an ace look, thanks in part to the aid of best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz), but it’s missing that final flourish. Could that be a cuff Kamala spots in a box her grandmother has sent over from Pakistan? Definitely, since Muneeba confiscates it right away and is acting very sus about the whole thing.
The pilot of Ms. Marvel aims to ground us in Kamala’s everyday life as part of a Pakistani immigrant family and the history, culture, and practices that brings with it. From the moment Kamala calls her mom ammi and rolls up a paratha for breakfast, it’s clear this show has thought about the little touches needed to present the Khans as authentically as possible. The use of untranslated Urdu, and the way characters use Urdu and English in the same sentence feels natural, as do the comic elements (shopping trips are definitely a chance to catch up on gossip, and the auntie outrage that a woman would rather go traveling than get married is spot on). And Muneeba’s lament after Kamala fails her driving test is the kind every Pakistani mother specializes in, perfectly blending passive aggressiveness and woe-is-me while making you feel guilty.
Episode one focuses on Kamala’s cultural background, but it also tackles Islam. It’s there in Aamir’s praying over food before he eats, Kamala’s “bismillah” before she takes her driving test, the “astaghfirullah” Muneeba lets out when she finds out Kamala wants to dress in Captain Marvel’s skintight costume, and the wall hangings in the Khans house that have scripture on them. This is a representation of Islam we rarely see onscreen: subtle but not hidden, and one that feels realistic to me. Islam is woven into the fabric of my life, not something that lives separately to me; it manifests in different ways at different moments; and it’s always there, like it is for the Khans.
While culture and religion are woven into Kamala’s life seamlessly, she still doesn’t feel like she fits in, especially at school, despite the presence of Bruno and her other best friend Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher). Her gym teacher pronounces her name as “Camellia,” a microaggression that hit me straight in the gut, and her encounter with cool girl Zoe is full of so much cringe that I almost watched through my fingers. The only thing more cringy was Kamala’s guidance counselor Mr Wilson, although his proclamation that in Kamala he sees “a girl divided” is spot on.
But school and Aamir’s wedding are all a distraction from Kamala’s goal of getting to AvengerCon. Despite her initial reluctance, Muneeba agrees to let Kamala go, on a couple of conditions. Firstly, she must wear the Incredible Hulk costume Muneeba has fashioned for her from a shalwar kameez, and secondly, she must take her dad, who leaps into the room dressed in his own matching Hulk shalwar kameez.
“I can’t wear a shalwar kameez to AvengerCon, okay, and you can’t come with me, not dressed like that because it is so humiliating.” And then, silence, as we feel the weight of those sentences settle in. This scene—as the horror drifts over Kamala’s face at the realization of what she’s said, as her father tries to hide his hurt over his daughter’s rejection, as her mother expresses her disappointed in a quiet, controlled voice—is the most powerful in this episode, because it feels so true. It’s a rare brown child living in a white world who hasn’t at some point, however momentarily, rejected their heritage and then regretted it instantly. And that’s why it hurts so much as well.
It also hurts because Kamala’s mother sees her so clearly in some ways. The shalwar kameez Hulk costume may not be perfect, but neither is Kamala’s Captain Marvel outfit. When she tries it on she’s clearly uncomfortable. It’s only by tying a scarf around the waist and donning her grandmother’s bracelet (stolen from the box in the attic) that Kamala can go on stage at AvengerCon, after she and Bruno sneak out of the house and make it there despite a series of small disasters.
And finally, right at the end of the episode, on that stage at AvengerCon, we see Kamala’s powers. And yes, they’re a departure from the comics. Something in Kamala’s bracelet causes her hands to emit purplish lights rays that can somehow solidify. The audience loves it, but Kamala and Bruno are stunned, especially when a beam causes a giant Ant Man head to release a giant Mjollnir that almost kills Zoe. It’s only by stretching a beam of light in the shape of an elongated arm that Kamala saves her. The change in powers won’t make everyone happy, but I’m willing to hold out before I judge, especially as it’s clear that in the show Kamala’s powers are in some way linked to her family and heritage.
What that heritage is will no doubt be one of the central plot points this season, especially as it seems Muneeba is reluctant to discuss her mother or family in any great detail. She clearly doesn’t want Kamala to be that “cosmic-head-in-the-clouds person.” Kamala disagrees, closing the episode by watching in awe as purple rays emanate from her hand, so stunned she can only say one word: “Cosmic.”
Me? I have a feeling good and cosmic aren’t mutually exclusive, and that in coming episodes we’ll see how Kamala can be both.
- Coles High School’s plaque lists its founders as G. Willow Wilson, Stephen Wacker, Adrian Alphona, Jamie McKelvie, Ian Herring, Takeshi Miyazawa, Joe Caramagna, and Nico Leon, i.e. all people who have worked on the Ms. Marvel graphic novels.
- Among all the excellent merch at AvengerCon is an “Asgard Pride” T-shirt, with Pride in the colors of the rainbow flag, perhaps a nod to Valkyrie’s queer storyline in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder.
- You may have spotted a familiar face in the mid-credits scene; Agent Cleary (Arian Moayed) appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home. He works for the United States Department of Damage Control, and he’s definitely Not Nice.
- Kamala sneaks back into her house at 11:11, commonly considered an “angel number,” signifying new beginnings.
- That soundtrack! It features everything from Riz Ahmed to Bollywood music like “Oh Nanba” (from the Tamil film Lingaa) to Pakistani classics like “Ko Ko Kareena.”
- Kamala’s clothing (and bedroom) features a lot of purple, reflecting that light she can emit.
- An incomplete list of Very Pakistani Things: Yusuf’s love of a bargain and then his frustration at a cheap knock-off breaking; Muneeba packing up a full banquet for Bruno in approximately eight seconds; Muneeba telling Kamala to “turn that off” at the exact moment the TV is showing a couple kissing.
- Bruno texts with Kamala’s mom, he speaks Urdu, and he hangs out with Yusuf. Boy, your Kamala crush is showing.
- I want an “I love Kamala” T-shirt.