Ms. Marvel Gives Us Muslim Joy and a Perplexing Villain

Ms. Marvel Gives Us Muslim Joy and a Perplexing Villain
Image: Disney

When we last saw Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) on Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, she was running away from scary government drones and agents, led by Agent Deever (Alyia Reiner) and straight into Kamran’s (Rish Shah) fancy car, where she meets the cute new boy’s mysterious mother Najma (Nimra Bucha). She says she’s been “waiting a very long time to meet” Kamala, but why?

Ms. Marvel Gives Us Muslim Joy and a Perplexing Villain

“Destined” opens in 1942 British Occupied India, where we see Najma, looking the same as in modern-day. She is with a group excavating in what looks like an underground temple (curiously with the symbol of the Ten Rings on the floor), and then hails that she has “found the bangle.” And it’s on a severed blue arm! It’s a Kree arm! Part of this group is Aisha (Mewish Hayat), Kamala’s great-grandmother, and she rejoices with Najma. The two women are clearly friends. But the British Army arrives as well, jeopardizing their mission. “If there’s a chance this bangle can take us back home we have to try,” says Najma. But the temple then collapses around them… and we then cut to Najma telling Kamala this story, informing her that “Aisha was from another dimension, and so are we,” and that “we’re not here by choice, we were exiled.” So, what are they exactly? “As to what we are, we’ve been called Anjabi, Majnoon, Unseen, the list goes on, but what we’re most commonly known as is Djinn.” Huh.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

She also informs Kamala that they “lost” Aisha during partition. But Kamala, who now has the bangle, now has her great-grandmother’s responsibility. But it’s clear Najma isn’t telling Kamala everything — it seems like there’s a lot of mixing context here. Kamala asks how they all look so young after being around over 100 years. But she seems to accept it as a matter of fact (she lives in the MCU, after all). Najma says it is their “Noor” (light in Arabic) that slows down their ageing. They can’t fully access it, but Kamala can. “The bangle and its visions brought you to me.” On the dimension they’re apparently from, Najma says it’s “the Noor dimension,” and “we’re known as the Clandestines.”

Created in 1994, the ClanDestine, as it’s presented in the comics, are a little-known Marvel supervillain family that are descended from Djinn. As one might imagine from superhero comic characters made in the mid-90s, they’re a hyper-Orientalist caricature created by a white writer that barely reflect what Djinn actually are in Islam, and the show seems to be doing a remix with them for Kamala’s origin story. But why are we including such concepts of Islamic exoticization in a show about the first MCU Muslim superhero, even if the show is attempting to offer a new take on them? We still need to wait to see how they pan out in the show, but for now, it’s puzzling, especially considering that the writers of this episode (Freddy Syborn, A.C. Bradley, and Matthew Chancey) are all non-Muslims introducing this inherently Orientalist comics concept into the show. While there are of course Muslims at the top of the writing team, having non-Muslims taking the lead on introducing the Islamic concept of Djinn this episode inevitably led to a lot of clunky exposition. Also, why did we have to involve Djinn at all for Kamala’s MCU origins?

Image: Alan Davis/Marvel ComicsImage: Alan Davis/Marvel Comics

But it’s not something the show, or an unnerved Kamala, willingly embraces, as she later tells Bruno (Matt Lintz) back at his house. With Kamala’s own struggles with the idea here, as well as the Clandestine’s arc this episode, I doubt that the show’s endgame will be to actually make Kamala either completely or part-Djinn. To make the first Muslim superhero character of the MCU a separate class of being in Islamic teachings, one that has been continuously appropriated for hyper Orientalist storytelling tropes in the past, seems like playing with some wildly problematic risks, to say the very least. I can’t imagine many other Muslims I know appreciating this being Kamala’s superhero origin, especially as her comics origin as an Inhuman allows her powers to simply be naturally occurring and not stereotypical “Genie magic.” Seeing the Kree arm earlier in the episode that the bangle came from allows us to deduce that there must be some connection to Kree tech at play, potentially allowing Kamala to still be Inhuman. Fingers crossed we eventually get to see her origins stay connected to genetically modifying aliens, rather than an Orientalist angle.

In the meantime, these mysterious Department of Damage Control agents are still after Kamala and show up at the Masjid. Sheikh Abdullah (Laith Nakli) entertains Agent Deever, who then insists on searching the premises, but Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) reminds them that they have no permission from them and no legal authority otherwise, reciting the U.S. criminal code on how law enforcement officials are not permitted to enter a private space without a signed warrant. But when Nakia stands up to Deever’s strongarming, things get interesting as she pushes the agent as to whether or not their presence is due to the search for an enhanced person, or because said person was spotted at a mosque. I had previously expressed concern last week about the writing of Nakia, and whether the show would retain the exploration of Islamophobia and racism she, Kamala, and their community face — so this moment was one I was happy to see, and it’s Nakia’s strongest scene in the show so far. While I still would have preferred interpersonal peer interactions addressing Islamophobia, such as with Zoe (Laurel Marsden), the acknowledgement here is cathartic. I hope we get more moments like this from Nakia and others during the rest of the show and beyond. Especially with the way Sheikh Abdullah joined in to remind Deever about removing her shoes the next time she barges into a mosque.

Nakia goes over to Kamala’s home in anger about the situation, venting to her friend about feeling targeted by Damage Control, as well as her frustration that “Night Light” could be putting their community at risk by performing superheroics in front of the Masjid. She mentions how the agents wanted to enforce the “whole good Muslim versus bad Muslim, let’s self-surveil our people routine,” with their visit. Yes, more of this, please! It’s not all anger though: telling Kamala she won her Mosque Board seat, Nakia gives her friend a much needed moment of happiness… even if she is visibly worried about the potential danger she has put her community in. It’s one of the best scenes of the show so far, with Vellani doing an impeccable job of conveying silent worry.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

We then cut to the start of Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) and Tyesha’s (Travina Springer) engagement party. Friends and family are coming, but apparently not Muneeba’s (Zenobia Shroff) mother Sana (Samina Ahmad). Muneeba and others also don’t seem happy with this new masked vigilante either, saying that she must be some sort of troublemaker, making Kamala feel even more visibly ashamed. Vellani, usually bright and excitable through her performance, does a great job of portraying Kamala’s discomfort in these scenes that are otherwise full of warmth and joy, and once again the audience is able to empathise deeply with her. Escaping the wedding bustle to sit outside, Kamala inspects a gift from Bruno — which we soon get to see is none other than her domino mask from her eventual costume — but before she can check it, Sheikh Abdullah approaches her to see how she’s feeling. When Kamala bemoans, through a vague distancing to hide that she herself is Night Light, that the hero may be causing more harm than good, Sheikh Abdullah reminds her that Night Light still saved a little boy from certain death, with a little help from a powerful line from her own comics: “Good is not a thing you are, Kamala. It is a thing you do.” It’s a sweet and heartfelt interaction between Vellani and Nakli to give Kamala her iconic catchphrase, especially paired with her joy at receiving the mask from Bruno.

Speaking of Kamala’s dear friend, over at the Circle Q, Bruno is researching about the Djinn, only to bump into Yusef (Mohan Kapur) on a late-night snack run. In exchange for keeping his illicit hostess treats a secret from Muneeba, Yusef helps Bruno translate the Urdu texts, particularly noting “But to unlock an ancient barrier [of the Djinn’s home] will require a primordial power.” Bruno’s eyes light up at this. Could that power be the bangle? Again, I don’t think anyone in this show is actually a Djinn, and it’s far more likely all of this relates back to the Kree. But Yusef’s translation is enough to get Bruno to warn Kamala that there’s a good chance helping the Clandestine get home could take a dangerous amount of explosive power… power Kamala may not be ready to contain or control.

Later, as Muneeba is helping Kamala tend to an injury on her knee, they have a deep conversation on how their family moved to the U.S. and the difficulties they endured. “I’ve never felt so alone in my whole life,” Muneeba tells Kamala, explaining that it was through finding her community and family that she found home. In a country where white supremacy, Islamophobia, and overall ostracization of SWANASA people is still rampant, of course Muneeba and others like her would feel so alone — and maybe it would have been better to hear those prejudices more explicitly stated, but at least the conversation reminds Kamala she doesn’t have to be alone either. It’s overall another wonderfully heartfelt scene between Vellani and Shroff, a pairing that continues to be one of the strongest relationships on the show.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

But enough stress: it’s wedding time! As the Khans and their friends and extended family gather to celebrate Aamir and Tyesha’s matrimony, there’s still a little more stress before the party can really get underway. We get another great parent-child conversation, this time between Yusef and Aamir as the latter worries about his dwindling finances — only for the former to give him words of encouragement and confidence that mirror Muneeba’s own conversation with Kamala. The subsequent wedding scene is beautiful, with clear love between the happy couple and their families, and culminating in the Masjid congregation all saying “Allahu Akbar” with sincere joy that has almost never been displayed in Western media. The show excels at portraying Muslim joy, and it’s at its peak in this episode.

But something’s amiss. Back at Kamran’s home, Najima is going through his texts with Kamala, and her concerns that helping them get to their dimension could be incredibly dangerous. Najma wants to push the girl, but Kamran shares Kamala’s concerns, escalating the situation quite quickly. Meanwhile at the wedding reception, this also escalates in a slightly different manner: it’s time for a dance! All of the Khans, and even Bruno, join in for a special performance for the newlyweds — lots of great group choreography here to the Urdu and Hindi Punjabi and Bollywood music playing. SWANASA weddings are best weddings, to be honest! But as the performance wraps up and the party gets ready to hit the dance floor (Kamala and Bruno included), Kamran barges in, immediately warning Kamala that they’re all in danger… only for Najma and the Clandestines show up.

Kamala pulls the fire alarm to get the wedding guests out, and she starts to face the apparent villains of our show. She’s clearly in over her head, and Vellani’s portrayal of Kamala’s fear is palpable as she struggles to use her powers fleeing from Najma and her fellow Clandestine. This leads us to a horror-lite fights where we get some intentionally clunky choreography, with a nascent hero in Kamala still learning to grasp her powers. Kamran joins in the fight against the Clandestine as well, giving us a conflicted anti-hero with him, and Rish Shah continues to shine in the role, even when the writing doesn’t fully do him justice in terms of what he gets to really do in the series so far. As Kamala gets Bruno out of the venue, Najma and the others ambush them. Kamala pleads with her, reminding her that she said she’d protect Kamala, but Najma responds that she doesn’t protect people who betray her — raising even more questions about just who Najma’s true ire is really aimed at here. As Najma grabs Kamala’s bangle, they’re both blasted with a vision of a rapidly approaching train, labelled as having come from Karachi, but before they can process it the Damage Control agents storm the venue, detaining the Clandestine (Kamran included) and giving Kamala and Bruno the opportunity to escape…

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

Only for their escape to be interrupted by Nakia, who sees Kamala seal a door with her power, exposing her as Night Light. Nakia is clearly upset that Kamala has hidden this from her, but the latter has no time to explain, needing to rush home and attempt to calm down her parents, only to find herself unable to under Muneeba and Yusef’s barrage of questions, disappointing her parents yet again (ouch). But as Kamala despairs up in her bedroom, the episode ends with another layer of family intrigue: Nani Sana calls her on the phone, demanding that Kamala get to Karachi immediately… and asking if she received the vision of the train.

“Destined” feels like a big turning point for Ms. Marvel, the stakes slowly but surely getting established–but there’s still a few moments of concern about just how and what the adaptation is seemingly weakening from the comics. The exploration of Islamophobia from Nakia is great, resulting in the character’s best moments in the show so far and Fletcher’s strongest performance in the role, bringing her closer to the Nakia of the comics in the process. Vellani has been a strong performer throughout the show, but episode three is her best performance yet as she conveys Kamala’s insecurities of putting her already surveilled Muslim community at risk. The Muslim joy on display at the engagement and wedding processions and parties was amazing to see. And yet, there’s still some concerns about just where the show is going to go with Clandestine, and the Djinn in general. Combined with Najma’s extremely rapid heel turn, there’s just too much up in the air right now to see if this take on a tired, Orientalist trope from the comics can justify being revisited here. We’ll have to wait and see, but at this halfway point, I can only hope the show continues to build on the strengths of what it’s actually done well so far.

New Ms. Marvel episodes arrive Wednesdays on Disney+.

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