Ms. Marvel Pits Kamala’s Family Against Her Fandom in “Generation Why”

Ms. Marvel is finally here! The premiere episode, written by Bisha K. Ali and directed by Adil & Bilall, gives us a sweet introduction to Kamala Khan and her world. And after the Multiverse shenanigans of Loki and What If…?, the complex worldbuilding of Hawkeye, and the literal gods of Moon Knight, it’s nice to be back with a true street-level hero again. In fact, in its opening episode Ms. Marvel doesn’t focus on heroics at all! We meet the adorable, daydreamy, Captain Marvel-obsessed Kamala. We see her life with her family, and her relationship with her bff Bruno. The episode’s biggest conflict is that she wants to go to AvengersCon, and her Ammi and Abbu absolutely do not want to give her permission.

Her own superpowers don’t even kick in until the last few minutes of the episode. And let me tell you, it was so much fun to just watch a show about a kid who loves superheroes and wants to go to Con.

Recap

We open with an animation Kamala’s made for her Youtube channel, Sloth Baby Productions. Kamala Khan is re-telling the story of Endgame from an entirely Carol Danvers-centric perspective. It’s nice, actually, to see this story without the Weight of Tony Stark’s Sacrifice hanging over it—Kamala is a Captain Marvel stan, and Tony isn’t the focus here. But enough animation! Ami is yelling up the stairs that it’s time for breakfast.

Kamala’s family is introduced in one quick scene: Ammi is fretful and worried about, well, everything; Abu is twinkly and amused; Kamala’s big brother Aamir is the religious one, and takes so long praying over breakfast that Abu cautions him he’s going to starve to death. We learn quickly that he’s getting married soon! And today is Kamala’s driver’s test! And she needs to focus!

Focusing will prove to be a theme.

Like a lot of teenagers, Kamala is so busy trying to look cool while she drives that she botches the test, ramming her parents’ car into the instructor’s. (I did way worse on my test! You’ll get there, Kamala! …and it’s okay, I live in a city with trains now.) Then it’s off to school, where Kamala is not an utter outcast, but she’s also not exactly popular. Her best friend Bruno has brought her an electric blue morning slushie; another friend, Nakia, looks out for her in the halls when she gets distracted; and they briefly talk to a girl named Zoe who I’m guessing used to be a friend? Mr. Wilson, a guidance counselor, also tries to get Kamala to focus during a meeting, even throwing inspirational Mulan lyrics at her.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

We quickly understand the rhythm of Kamala’s life: home is warm and loving but also restrictive; school isn’t torture—Kamala isn’t bullied or anything—but she’s also seen as a dreamy dork; afterschool is split between time doing geeky shit with Bruno and trying to tolerate her Ammi.

The big conflict at the moment is that Kamala wants to go to AvnegersCon and she knows her parents won’t approve, but it’s the first one, it’s historic, and they’re having a Captain Marvel cosplay contest that she must win. She finally asks. They say no. (They think it’s a party and boys might be there. I’m honestly not sure if they’d be more or less comfortable if they understood what a Con actually was?) She’s upset. Then, after Aamir talks to them, they relent—but only on the condition that Abbu goes with her. Dressed as The Hulk. And she’s dressed as Little Hulk in a very loose costume.

Abbu is already dressed in his Hulk costume. He’s painted his face green. It’s fantastic.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

But obviously Kamala’s furious that they still don’t understand. This isn’t a costume party, she’s not a little girl, there is no “Little Hulk” what even is that, it’s Captain Marvel that she loves, that’s the contest she’s entering, this is how she’s trying to step into adulthood a little bit, and going like this would be humiliating. Unfortunately, being a kid, she yells some of that at them, and, also obviously, they’re angry that she won’t take their generous offer, but more than that they’re hurt that she’s horrified by Abbu’s idea.

Now she really isn’t going.

And obviously that leads to a plan to sneak out, with Bruno, and go anyway. Typical teenage stuff—except that this will only be possible because Bruno’s a tech wiz who created a Siri-like smart home system for Abbu (It’s called ZuZu, he taught it Urdu). But of course, Kamala’s superpowers manifest during the Con, complicating everything quite a bit.

About that. Earlier in the episode Kamala’s Nani, Ammi’s mother, sent a box of junk from Pakistan. One particular piece of junk was a lovely gold armband that Ammi took away the second she saw Kamala fiddling with it. Kamala decided to incorporate it into her Captain Marvel costume, and, seemingly, it called up a strange glowing light that knocked Kamala into a heightened sense of reality. No one else noticed and the next thing she knew she was onstage, blasting some sort of energy out of her band. Everyone thought it was part of her costume, but the energy knocked a giant Ant-Man decoration loose, and then Mjolnir, which swung through the crowd knocking Zoe into the air. Kamala’s band extended her arm just barely far enough to break the girl’s fall, and then she and Bruno fled the scene.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Is it the armband? Is it channeling some innate, previously-unknown power of her own? In the comics this tied into the Inhumans storyline, but given some of Ammi’s warning about “dreaminess” running in the family I’m wondering if Kamala’s power in the show might be more intimately bound up with her Nani?

Again, though, the action at Con isn’t the real drama here. Kamala goes home, sneaks into her room, and Ammi is there, waiting. It’s 11:30 at night. She doesn’t even seem that angry, exactly, it’s not like they’re screaming at each other. She just can’t understand why her daughter is turning into a person who lies and sneaks around. Why she’s so obsessed with a bunch of superhero stories instead of creating her own story, doing well in school, and finally: “Do you want to be good? Or a cosmic head-in-the-clouds person?”

Kamala really is sorry she upset her parents. But as Ammi leaves the room, she stares at her glowing arm and declares that she wants to be cosmic.

Meanwhile, after the credits, officers from the Department of Damage Control watch a video of Kamala’s powers manifesting, and decide they need to bring her in.

 

Cosmic Thoughts!

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

My first thought: This was fun as heck! How fantastic is it to watch such a blast of pure, uncomplicated fandom. Kamala and Bruno are great, their friendship makes me so happy, and seeing them express their love for each other through geeky shit… well, saying I feel seen by a show about teenagers probably speaks to something awry in society, but screw it: seeing the way Bruno steps back and grins at Kamala while Kamala gazes up at a statue of Captain Marvel made my heart grow a bunch of sizes.

The feel is kind of like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Hawkeye, as we’re with a modern kid who has grown up idolizing the Avengers and talking about their adventures like lore that’s unfolding around them in the real world. Unlike Peter Parker and Kate Bishop, however, Kamala has no access to the world of heroes. She lives in Jersey City, in a community so tight-knit that breaking off an engagement to go travel to Europe is seen as horrifying debauchery.

How great is AvengersCon??? It’s been many, many years since the first time I ever went to a Con, but seeing Kamala and Bruno stagger starry-eyed into a wonderland full of cosplayers, games, merch, “The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan”, the de rigeur shrine to Tony and Natasha covered in notes, merch, gorgeous people dressed as their heroes excitedly shrieking about other people’s costumes reminded me why I started writing about this stuff in the first place. Even with all the toxic elements of fandom, and “content”, and my worries about what the Marvel steamroller is doing to cinema as a whole, it’s still a magical thing to walk into a space and not just feel like you belong, but that you belong because of what you love.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Ms. Marvel is very much about being a teen, and being a fan in a world where superheroes are celebrities, and I love that the show is tapping into that so well.

And also how great was it that after rejecting her Abbu’s Hulk idea, she ends up with Bruno dressed as Banner? Nice touch, writers’ room.

Kamala’s family is wonderful, warm and loving and idiosyncratic, but you can also totally see how a 16-year-old nerd would long to get away from them. The clashes between Kamala and her mom rang especially true—neither of them want to hurt each other, but they can’t help but talk past each other with every successive sentence, and you just want to shake both of them. And then make them hug. And of course Ammi makes Bruno an unhinged amount of food to take home, all neatly stacked in tupperware, in a matter of seconds. It’s her superpower.

Two scenes in particular show off their dynamic. When Kamala fails her driving test her parents both yell at the instructor, trying to convince him somehow that he set her up to fail. When they’re back in the car on the way home, Ammi lectures Kamala on how she needs to focus and stop daydreaming so much. Of course, Kamala largely ignores her while she gazes out over the Manhattan skyline and imagines Captain Marvel flying over it. The second time comes when Kamala’s helping her mom with errands for Aamir’s wedding. While she’s being fitted for a dress, the tailor comments that she’s too short. Her mom immediately comes back with “Your dress is too long!” but a moment later, when a friend has joined them to gossip about the aforementioned girl who went off to Europe, the mood shifts. Kamala says she thinks it’s good that the girl wanted to see the world, and now when the friend tells her the dress is too long, her mom agrees. It’ a fabulous, subtle element—as long as Ammi is protecting her child she absolutely has her back, but she’s also deeply worried that Kamala is actually too dreamy, too rebellious, not responsible enough, and she takes every opportunity to mold her into a more mature—but also still a little girl!—version of herself.

The acting is uniformly great. Iman Vellani is so real as Kamala. She’s absolutely believable as a superhero-besotted teen, because she actually is one, but more than that she’s excellent in all the scenes of conflict with Ammi and Abbu. The way her anger at them flares up behind her eyes and is then instantly crushed with guilt and remorse is perfect.

Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur are both fantastic as Ammi and Abbu—I actually almost sympathized with them a little bit even though I’m very much #TeamLetHerGoToCon. They also get a nice scene alone after she’s snuck out that encapsulates their dynamic in a really sweet way, where they actually get to be Muneeba, making decorations for her son’s wedding but willing to be distracted, and Yusuf, who would really like to take this post-kids-in-bed opportunity for some romance.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

I think my two favorites are two of the boys, though? I love Matt Lintz as bff/tech wizard Bruno, who is so clearly lonely, who’s tried to turn that loneliness into independence, and who is so happy to be welcomed by the Khans. And Saagar Shaikh only gets a few scenes so far as Aamir, but when he brings chai to Kamala after one of the arguments with her parents was so sweet, and felt so lived-in.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Now about Kamala’s powers, first of all I thought it was amazing that she’s just like “I actually have powers???” and then she’s just happy about it. There’s no angst (yet), she doesn’t seem frightened or overwhelmed. It’s such a nice touch of quiet worldbuilding that a kid who grew up in this world would always know that they might have a superpower, in the same way that they might have that thing that makes cilantro taste like soap. But it builds so well on the rest of this episode, the way Kamala is just a regular kid dealing with her life in Jersey City—basically the way Peter Parker used to be before he joined up with the Avengers and things got out of hand. It seems like the show has found a way to keep her stretching ability, but possibly also made the powers more nebulous (and thus, more adaptable for plot needs) but also by tying the armband in I’m hoping they’ll be able to tie her abilities in even more with her Pakistani heritage.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

I feel like I still haven’t done justice to Kamala’s geekiness. The entire opening of the episode is a movie she’s making for her YT channel, using excellent fumetti-style animation to retell the events of Endgame. She and Bruno brainstorm ways she can personalize her Captain Marvel cosplay, during which she declares steampunk dead (ouch), dismisses Princess Marvel, and debates between Captain Doctor Marvel Strange and Zombie Captain Marvel. All of these musings morph into murals on the wall behind them as they ride their bikes. Bruno makes her photon gloves! Any time she needs to think, Kamala does it via sketching and caricatures.

Also! My other favorite thing! The show does a great thing with texting, where Kamala and Bruno’s text conversations are shown through their environment: as stars on Kamala’s bedroom wall:

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Grafitti on a sidewalk:

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Or neon signs in a shop window. It’s really sweet, and flows well with the way Kamala expresses herself through her art and animation, and how Jersey City itself teems with street art, murals, and glowing neon. It also reminded me quite a bit of Eighth Grade, both in the soft bi-lighting choice, and in and the way the kids in the movie live equally IRL, in text, and online with none of the jolts of an older person, like Abbu with his Zuzu.

Oh and speaking of bi lighting Kamala seems to assume that Captain Marvel is queer, so huzzah to that.

And now the most important revelation of the show: Scott Lang has a podcast? Where he just… tells everyone all about the Avengers, and probably reveals all sorts of classified stuff? This is probably the most realistic thing that’s happened in the entire MCU.

 

Favorite Quotes

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Abbu: The road is a long and winding one…so never fully stop at stop signs.

***

Kamala: Bismillah

Driving instructor: Bless you.

***

Mr. Wilson: No, Mr. Wilson was my father. My name is Gabe. His name was also Gabe so…it doesn’t super work.

***

Mr. Wilson: Kamala, who is that girl I see? Staring straight back at me?

Kamala: You’re reciting lyrics from Mulan.

***

Abbu: You’re not normal!

Kamala: Aughhh!!! (storms out of room)

Abbu: I meant you’re special!

***

Kamala: It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.

***

Abbu: Tell Bruno that ZuZu is possessed by an evil djinn!

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Ammi: Do you want to be good? Or a cosmic head-in-the clouds person?

Kamala: Cosmic.

 

Leah Schnelbach is gonna have to listen to After Hours again now. Come join them in the blinding lights of Twitter!

citation

Back to the top of the page

32 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.