Ms. Marvel Journeys Into Mystery, Heroism, and Culture With a Confounding Remix

Ms. Marvel Journeys Into Mystery, Heroism, and Culture With a Confounding Remix
Kamala takes her first steps to becoming the hero she wants to be. (Image: Marvel Studios)

When we left Kamala (Iman Vellani) last week, she discovered she has powers! She’s a hero for saving Zoe Zimmer (Laurel Marsden). But how will she further move forward as a hero?

Ms. Marvel Journeys Into Mystery, Heroism, and Culture With a Confounding Remix

Having awakened her powers in episode one, “Crushed” opens as Kamala comes to school much more confident than before. She stands up to randos blocking her locker, plays a few hoops in the hallway, and even musters up the courage to correct the gym teacher on how to pronounce her name! But all that is cut short as she finds out that Zoe has been getting success on her social media channel talking about their experiences at AvengerCon–and Kamala feels she deserved those views and popularity. And to make things worse, Zoe dubs her hero name as “Night-Light”! Despite her frustrations, Kamala wants to go to Zoe’s party celebrating her close call at AvengerCon, right after seeing Zoe invite their new, dashing Desi-British classmate Kamran (Rish Shah). Cue the first of many jealous looks from Bruno (Matt Lintz) that we’ll be getting a lot more of this episode.

Before all that teenage business however, Bruno and Kamala then investigate the latter’s new powers, as Kamala makes a big light fist, calling it an “idea come to life.” Which, incidentally, is similar to how a Green Lantern’s, or other Lantern Corps’, powers work: by tapping into their imaginations while also focusing on their thematic emotion. But Kamala is far from mastering these powers. Thankfully she has Bruno run her through a training montage as they investigate further, sharpening at least a few of her abilities. She has purple light blasts, can walk on light constructs in midair, and potentially more. Right now it’s very unclear just what the scope of her powers — radically different to those she has in the comics — are, but clearly the skies and Kamala’s imagination are the limit.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

I’s also made clear that it’s not simply that the bangle gives Kamala her powers like a “magical object,” but rather that there is something genetic in her. Or as Bruno tells her, “It looks like your power isn’t coming from the bangle. It’s coming from within you, like the bangle unlocked the superhuman part of you.” I can’t help but wonder, especially as sharp eyes on social media may suggest, could the bangle be related to the Terrigen Mist that unlocks Kamala’s abilities as an Inhuman in the comics? That would at least maintain Kamala’s comics origins even as this MCU-version-of-her gains what is, right now, a very aesthetically different set of powers. Until I am fully disproven, I shall continue to peddle this conspiracy in hope!

After testing out her powers, Kamala realises that she and Nakia are late for prayers. We transition to the Masjid (or, when anglicized, “mosque”) where Kamala and Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) are admonished for their tardiness as they get to their prayers. In this montage, we see the girls practice Wudu, the washing of their faces, hands, arms, and feet before Islamic prayer. It’s a nice moment that’s one of many casual moments of portraying Islam that is refreshing to see in this series. What’s not so nice, apparently, is the prayer scene itself that results in frustrations for Kamala and Nakia. Sheikh Abdullah’s (Laith Nakli) audio for the women’s section is very bad, along with, as Nakia says, “mould under their carpets,” and “walls…literally crumbling,” but the “men’s section is pristine.” In comparison, in the comics the only problem is expressed by Kamala when she tells Sheikh Abdullah that it’s difficult to see him from the women’s section. To help make it better for the women in the Masjid, Kamala suggests to Nakia that she runs for mosque board. “Are you crazy? Do I look like a 90-year-old man to you?” Nakia says in retort.

The version of the temple scene we get in 2014's Ms. Marvel #3. (Image: Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring, and Joe Caramagna/Marvel Comics)The version of the temple scene we get in 2014’s Ms. Marvel #3. (Image: Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring, and Joe Caramagna/Marvel Comics)

The show here at the least seems to be poising Nakia, known and beloved in the comics for her staunch Muslim identity and liberal political activism–frequently seen protesting against violent capitalism, gentrification, and basically any of the various problems caused by white supremacy–as a “Muslim reformer” who will make the Masjid better for the women. Obviously, as in many patriarchal societies and countries worldwide, some Muslim communities absolutely need to improve conditions for women. Nakia’s arc here will certainly resonate with at least some Muslims. The question, however, is why this is the focus for this series when Nakia in the comics virtually never expressed such qualms, and the gender inequities were never really her focus in the comics? Again, that’s not to say there aren’t overly conservative Muslim communities in the U.S. that could use some reform, but why is that the focus so far, instead of the Islamophobia and racism that Kamala, Nakia, and their community still face today, as has been addressed continuously in the Ms. Marvel comics? Why is almost all her activism focused internally instead of externally?

Nakia’s focus in the comics has always been about the systemic problems that come from the rich elite who oppress and ostracize her community, and she has always been hyper cognisant about the Islamophobia her community faces. She calls out injustice wherever it is most immediately in front of her, even at times when Ms. Marvel herself has seemingly been the target of her ire. In the comics, Nakia is a character that always dedicates herself to undoing systems of power, and as the past few years have emphasised even further, those systems are rooted in violent capitalism and racism.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

Perhaps we’ll see all of that later on in the series and her growth into it, but the version of Nakia we’re presented with here just doesn’t line up. The additional knowledge that the casting directors cast a non-Muslim actress for Nakia unfortunately plays deeper into a “saviour trope,” when this arc could have meant so much more for a Muslim woman to play. There is definitely need for reform when it comes to women’s issues in certain Muslim societies. I just hope that we get much more of what Nakia is usually about in the source material, instead of her bemoaning “That is the 22nd pair of shoes that’s been stolen and the uncles don’t even care!”

After prayers are over, we see Kamala go home and apologise to her mum for sneaking out to AvengerCon, and she uses the opportunity to get permission to go to Zoe’s party… as long as she makes curfew, of course. It’s a nice moment of reconciliation between the two, and Zenobia Shroff and Iman Vellani continue to skillfully convey their complex and multi-layered mother-daughter dynamic on screen. It’s clear that this is the focal point for the series in this early stage, and there’s a lot of heart here.

As Kamala, Nakia, and Bruno arrive at the party, a random guy offers Kamala a drink, and she asks if there’s any alcohol in it. He says no and she drinks it, only to spit the actually alcoholic beverage out, and see her friends rightfully enraged. This is a direct callback to the comics where this unfortunately happens to Kamala at the same party where she gets her powers, and it works well here to convey some of the ostracization Kamala feels from her peers, even if the show has yet to quite fully address the Islamophobia and racism Kamala and Nakia face from their peers. After that unfortunate moment, we see thrill boy Kamran jump from a high height into the pool, prompting Kamala and Nakia to swoon whilst saying “Mashallah.” Kamala bonds with Kamran over their shared Desi backgrounds and experiences, such as over Bollywood and music taste, to Bruno’s chagrin. We have our love triangle everybody! While Bruno’s very nice, I’m currently #teamKamran.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

It’s clear the next day at school however, Kamala is lovesick over Kamran, daydreaming and dancing to music in her head as she swoons, in the same ways we saw her fantasizing about superheroes in episode one. This time however, things are a little different: while daydreaming in class, some hard-light appears on Kamala’s nose! She rushes to the bathroom to hide, discovering that she doesn’t yet have full control over her powers. This is essentially a callback in the comics to how her polymorphic abilities are awkward, but without the literal bodily change, I’m not sure it lands here as well as it could. Nakia thankfully comes to the aid of her friend (with Kamala avoiding showing her her powers), and the hard-light goes away. They then have a heartfelt conversation on how they deal with awkwardness at school, which leads to Nakia saying “My whole life I’ve either been too white for some people or too ethnic for others,” an acknowledgement that Fletcher herself is half white and half Lebanese–in the comics, Nakia is only ever stated as Turkish. But even though the series touches on this tweak here, there’s a bizarre choice to not actually explicitly mention Nakia’s Turkish ethnicity at this moment.

Between it and all the other changes to Nakia as a character we get to see this episode, there’s something altogether questionable about Ms. Marvel’s approach to one of its most fundamental supporting stars. But if we step back from the context of the comics, it’s at least a nice conversation between friends. But there was no real need to change Nakia’s background, or at least Ms. Marvel hasn’t given Nakia the screentime to show why it was necessary to change that background just yet, and it’s a detraction in an otherwise solid episode. After a fun sequence of Kamala out with Kamran–where she’s nearly spotted at a restaurant by her brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) and his fiancée Tyesha (Travina Springer) — we cut to a nice dinner with Kamala’s family, with Tyesha reminiscing over Aamir and talking about their family history. Once Yusef mentions that his “family has been in Karachi for generations,” he says that “Muneeba’s family moved to Karachi only after the partition.”

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

“The British left us with a mess,” Muneeba says, “which was very hard for many people and then there was a civil war.” Almost two million people died and 15 million were displaced or had to move as a result. The trauma left by Western Imperialism (including in today’s current events) informs the experiences of many SWANASA families today, an intergenerational trauma that informs our identities, but doesn’t define us. Often depictions in popular media may haphazardly trend towards the latter, and while I appreciate the resonant conversation here, I hope Ms. Marvel keeps trying to find a proper balance as it explores Kamala and her family’s culture and history. Things get very interesting however when Yusef starts to tell a story about Muneeba’s family after the partition, having to get onto the “last train,” and how Kamala’s Nani Sana — then just a toddler — got separated from her parents. Miraculously, Yusuf explains, Sana managed to get back on the train just before it pulled out of the station. “She followed a trail of stars right back to her father,” he says. Once he mentions that Sana’s own mother, Aisha, disappeared that same night, Kamala’s bangle begins glowing — and she sees a vision of a mysterious Desi woman, whether it’s Aisha, Sana, or someone else, it’s left unclear. What isn’t is that the experience has had a big impact on Kamala, who promptly passes out only to awaken and find her family worrying over her, in a wonderfully funny little family moment

Later that night, Kamala calls her Nani Sana, asking her about the bangle she’s now inherited, but Sana refuses to tell Kamala anything further. She gets no help from her mother the next morning, trying to ask Muneeba about what happened to Aisha — who’s apparently surprised that Kamala even knows Aisha’s name — only to be promptly shut down, as Muneeba clearly harbours some grief over something Aisha did long in the past. We’re left to ponder Kamala’s family mystery however, as we cut to the local community celebrating Eid. It’s a fantastic scene: bright, colourful, and vibrant as any Muslim celebration would be, with lots of delicious food, beautiful clothing, fun conversations, and people clearly having a great time. There’s a particularly fun sequence showcasing the “Illumin-aunties,” “Mosque Bros,” “Pious Boys,” “Sunday School Teachers,” “insta-clique,” Converts/Re-verts,” and “Mini Harami Girls,” a touchingly fun way for Ms. Marvel to showcase glimpses of different Muslim-Americans, as we are very much not a monolith. Give them all spinoffs, I say.

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

That’s apparently enough Muslim joy for now however, as the story quickly transitions to danger: Zoe being interrogated by the agents we saw in the mid-credits scenes of the first episode. Agent Cleary (Arian Moayed) and Agent Deever (Alysia Reiner) pander to her social media prowess, and question her about the “enhanced individual” at AvengerCon, while guilt tripping her into saying she did it for social media clout. They list through the possible ethnicities of Night-Light, complete with a weird, unnecessary low blow of a “woke joke” when Reiner’s character somewhat sarcastically says “Was she ‘Latina’, no, I’m supposed to say ‘Latinx’ now?” before asking “Was she Middle Eastern? South Asian?” It’s at that last suggestion, however, when she gets a glimmer from Zoe’s eyes. But how would Zoe know that when Kamala was masked, and she couldn’t see many particular features of her face? It feels a bit of a contrivance to move this plot along, but time will tell if it was worth it.

Cleary then tells Deever to sweep every temple, community centre, and mosque in the tri-state area, before adding “Just be respectful, the FBI is already surveilling them, they know that.” It’s about as close Ms. Marvel has been willing to get so far about acknowledging an external aspect of Islamophobia instead of the internalized focus it brought with Nakia’s arc this episode. It’s a necessary step for the show to take, but I do once again wish more of the interpersonal, everyday microaggressions from people like Zoe were more of the focus of the show’s intentions on this subject. Back to the Eid party meanwhile, Kamala — while campaigning for Nakia to join the mosque’s board — finds out from the Aunties that her great-grandmother Aisha was infamous, with all sorts of scurrilous rumours about her bringing shame to her family. But before Kamala can ponder her family history any further, disaster strikes: a young boy has tripped on top of the mosque tower, clutching on for dear life, and she sees the chance to come to the rescue, using her Captain Marvel cosplay as a disguise again. It’s time for “Night Light” to get her first adventure underway!

Image: Marvel StudiosImage: Marvel Studios

Kamala sweetly calms the boy down, getting him to think about his favourite food (pizza with ice cream on it), before managing to make a set of light steps for him to descend on — only for Kamala to stumble, trying and failing to make a series of platforms for the young boy until he eventually makes his way to the ground… although not without some injuries. Kamala clearly still has a lot to learn, and as she scurries away into an alley to make her escape, she finds herself surrounded by drones — ones which look awfully like the EDITH drones from Spider-Man: Far From Home. Cleary and Deever aren’t far behind either, but Kamala manages to escape… but not before bumping back into Kamran, who pulls up in a fancy car and offers her a ride, with a mysterious passenger: his own mother (played by Nimra Bucha). “Kamala. I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you,” she says, but that’s all we’re given so far. What does this mysterious woman want? Why are these agents after Kamala? Will Nakia win a seat on the mosque board? Who is the great shoe thief?

Overall, episode two is overall a good step forward for the show, setting the stage for some mysteries for Ms. Marvel to keep digging into while still thoughtfully exploring resonant conversations on the role of intergenerational trauma that turn up for many of us in brown families. Some more modern-day explorations of the prejudice we still endure, at least balanced with the internal conversations we have, may propel these storylines forward into even deeper resonance and more compelling storytelling as the series continues–hopefully, Ms. Marvel will find that just as important as exploring the bigger picture around Kamala’s growth into a hero going forward.

New episodes of Ms. Marvel arrive Wednesdays on Disney+.

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