‘Ms. Marvel’ Capture seeing the Melancholy and Wonder of Growing Up


The newest series in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ms. Marvel, already has a lot going for it that sets it apart from what has come before. In a strong debut episode, we have been introduced to its charming cast, sharp comedic writing, creative sense of presentation, and intriguing hints of the story ahead. However, what deserves equal praise is just how wonderfully it captures the experience of its young character in a way that most superhero stories have been lacking.

Much of this is due to newcomer Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan and her funny and charismatic performance as she navigates the pitfalls of young adulthood. Working hand-in-hand with that is that the story is also written to more emotionally engage with the texture of her life that becomes remarkably detailed and genuine. We learn so much about the character as an endearing yet goofy underdog in the first episode. It offers more than we have gotten for characters across multiple movies in the series so far. From facing the pressures of her parents to decisions about her future education and how to pursue her passion for cosplay, she feels like a more fully realized everyday person.

Even as she looks up to superheroes flying in the sky, the story centers her experiences back on Earth. Be it in the introduction of her making YouTube videos to planning out an escape from her home to go to a convention, in an art style that resembles the excellent recent animated film The Mitchells vs the Machines, she is overflowing with an enduring authenticity that never gets lost as she discovers her power. Thus far, it is already shaping up to be a far more nuanced and comprehensive character study. More Marvel stories would benefit from following in its confident footsteps. It is able to mix the complicated and evolving emotional experience of growing up, fraught with unexpected challenges that can only be fully understood with the wisdom of age. Kamala is often left alone to sort this out, making for equally melancholic and wondrous moments at every turn. It is her endless imagination and prevailing loneliness that hits home, making for an experience that truthfully captures what it means to grow up. It is a superhero show made more personal and grounded.

While many superhero stories are all about pushing further into spectacle, there is something sweet about an experience that largely whittles all that away to reveal a work all its own. While there is bound to be a larger conflict on the horizon, to simply see a character trying to get through the day is refreshing and a welcome change of pace. Sometimes life is full of navigating the perils of driver’s ed and, even worse, the halls of high school. There is plenty of humor in these scenes, though it is intertwined with a more impactful sense of isolation. Early on, we see Kamala trying to get to her locker to get a book she needs for an upcoming class. Of course, this is not so easy as there are two other students who block her way. Though she makes a joke about it, her expression falls when she can’t get through to people who don’t even give her a second thought. It is a fleeting moment that you would almost miss as her smile returns when she runs into her friend Bruno (Matt Lintz) though it still leaves a lasting impression. Growing up and finding your way is painful, especially when experiencing the death by a thousand cuts of small indignities that add up when people look right through you like you aren’t even there. This is something Kamala is distinctly aware of as she encounters it in many aspects of her life. It isn’t the world exploding; it instead cuts deeper to become infinitely more impactful in its exploration of the character behind the soon-to-be hero.

In one standout scene, she talks with Bruno on a rooftop where the two have gone to get away from the cacophony of the rest of the world. It unfolds with gentle pacing, a change of speed from the scenes with quicker edits. It makes clear he is one of the few people she can actually be herself with. While a confidant who is supportive of her, he can’t fix the way the world can be a rather tough place to sort through. Much of this is due to how others in her life, from a school counselor to her strict parents, often putting immense pressure on her. While certainly well-intentioned, we can see how this is a lot to take on for a teenager still trying to find her footing in the world. She is trying to do so through her art, something she is talented and passionate about, though it often invites criticism. Teachers say she is getting distracted with her doodles and her mother reprimands her toward the end of the episode. These are disconnects that come not from malice, but from two people who are at different points in their lives. Her mother in particular cares for her, trying to support her in going to the superhero convention by offering to have another family member go painted in green and make it a double Hulk costume. This overlooks how Kamala wants to go as Captain Marvel, something she has put a lot of time into making come together unbeknownst to her family.

It is all perfectly attuned to strike a silly yet sad tone, a testament to how someone can attempt to be there for those they care deeply for, only to fall short in ways that land with humor and heartbreak. This all works best not because of the superhero powers she is discovering, but because of the foundation of the character outside that. This experience is universal in its emotional scope while being specific in its execution, drawing us into the little aspects of her life that would otherwise go overlooked in a more bombastic story. While the moments where she discovers the abilities she can access are good fun, the foundation is key to giving these moments a more profound weight.

As we see Kamala beginning to sort through her hopes and dreams for herself, often uncertain about what to do, the show ensures we begin to feel a deeper connection with her all-too-familiar state of being. The feeling of being adrift and seeking direction is fundamental to growing up as you work to discover what it is that you really want. It is that journey that Kamala is now on, one that will be full of the triumphs and tribulations that come with being a kid. This is where Ms. Marvel has proven to be most successful, striking a balance between being both aspirational and absorbing in portraying a character with all the potential in the world. She just doesn’t know it yet.

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