clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Ms. Marvel’ Honors and Reinvents the Traditional Superhero Origin Story

Kamala Khan’s origin story as Ms. Marvel echoes others in the MCU, but it also puts its own distinctive spin on a familiar formula

Disney+/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Marvel Studios’ latest Disney+ series, Ms. Marvel, dedicated much of its premiere to positioning Kamala Khan in a world full of superheroes. “Generation Why” started with an animated retelling of the Battle of Earth in Avengers: Endgame and centered its plot on Kamala and her friend Bruno attending the first-ever AvengerCon to celebrate the same characters we’ve watched in real-life theaters (or streaming services) for more than a decade. In its second episode, Ms. Marvel continues to be loaded with references to the MCU, whether through casual conversations about Bollywood star/immortal alien Kingo from Eternals, a returning minor character in Agent Cleary from Spider-Man: No Way Home, or the reemergence of Stark Industries Combat Drones, now under the ownership of the Department of Damage Control (DODC). With her relatable fandom well established, though, this week’s episode begins to dive deeper into Kamala’s life as she becomes a superhero in her own right.

If “Generation Why” was an introduction to Kamala and her slice of the MCU in Jersey City, then “Crushed” is more of an origin story for Ms. Marvel. After worshiping superheroes her whole life, Kamala starts to learn how to become one herself after a bangle passed down through her family suddenly unlocks her superpowers. In the process, she gets the full superhero origin treatment, as Ms. Marvel plays off of familiar tropes of movies past.

Of all the major Marvel characters, Ms. Marvel’s closest comp is probably Spider-Man. Like Peter Parker, Kamala is a nerdy teenager who gains superpowers and uses them to defend her neighborhood, balancing those extracurricular activities with the everyday challenges of being a high school student who has to withhold her secret identity from her loved ones. (Kamala even finds her own Mary Jane Watson in the dreamy Kamran in this week’s episode, though by the end of it he turns out to be hiding his own secrets.) It isn’t surprising, then, that Ms. Marvel shares the playful tone of the Tom Holland Spider-Man films, with Kamala getting her own coming-of-age tale that weaves in the DODC as an emerging foil amid all the teenage angst and drama. But “Crushed,” in particular, is also reminiscent of another Peter Parker origin story: Just as Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man once began honing his skills on New York City rooftops in 2002’s Spider-Man, Kamala takes to the Jersey City rooftops for her own training montage.

Kamala already knows a thing or two about caped crusaders, and the 16-year-old wastes little time in building up her superhero résumé. She’s discovering her new strengths (and limitations), she’s dubbed her fluorescent, energy-manipulation abilities “hard light,” and she’s already found her “guy in the chair” in Bruno, a tech-savvy confidant whom she can rely on for assistance in her eventual crime-fighting endeavors. (Though Bruno seems to desire more than friendship.) Drawing inspiration from his mobile game, Kamala figures out that she can use her powers to construct little floating islands of pure energy to step on or slide across, and she experiments with them on a roof as Bruno supervises. Before long, she’s presented with her first superhero trial: a classic case of a civilian dangling off the ledge of a tall building, a scenario that every Spider-Man has had to deal with far too often.

For Ms. Marvel, the civilian in need of saving is a young boy who decided it would be a good idea to sneak away from the night’s Eid festivities to take some filtered selfies while leaning his body aggressively far out of a window at the top of the mosque tower. (As ridiculous as this setup is, the show at least acknowledges the absurdity as the kid comically yells down, “I shouldn’t have climbed all the way up here, why did I do this?” Before the scene is over, the kid has also confessed his love for a disturbing concoction he calls “ice cream pizza,” inspiring memes about his questionable taste for combining two beloved foods in one caloric overload. Even in the fictional MCU, the internet works too quickly.) Kamala saves the boy just in time and takes a moment to land a superhero pose that would make Yelena Belova blush:

Screenshot via Disney+

Of course, Kamala gets distracted by a vision seconds later and the kid gets injured in the process, but hey, every superhero has their growing pains, right?

While Ms. Marvel immerses itself in the MCU and builds on familiar superhero beats, the series isn’t just rehashing origin stories we’ve seen before. Although the series is embedded in a universe of Avengers and Asgardian gods, it’s also introducing a South Asian and Muslim character who’s unique in the Marvel Studios library and rare in the history of Hollywood at large. While brilliant shows like Ramy have helped turn the tide in recent years, American movies and TV series have a longstanding history of Islamophobia, often depicting Muslim characters as radical terrorists or submissive wives, most of whom either fall victim to violence or are portrayed as limited by their oppressive religion. (Marvel Studios has been guilty of this in the past, via scenes in Iron Man 3 and Black Panther that depicted Muslim characters as either terrorists or objectified women in need of saving, as well as much of what takes place in Iron Man’s version of Afganistan—even if its terrorists, the Ten Rings, aren’t explicitly Muslim.)

Ms. Marvel, however, humanizes its Muslim characters, presenting them as normal people in their day-to-day lives (which in the charming Kamala’s case includes moonlighting as a superhero). Kids sneak in Instagram time at the mosque—and some of them try to obtain the perfect selfie at all costs. “Crushed” also shows much more of Kamala’s friend Nakia, who’s running for the mosque board to make changes that would empower women, and who delivers a powerful speech about why she chooses to wear a hijab. And the fact that Kamala can gossip with her aunties at the Eid fair and then spring into action as a superhero moments later marks a significant shift in representation.

Through its first two episodes, Ms. Marvel is doing a great job of adapting the comics it’s based on while still taking plenty of intriguing liberties that make it different from the source material, and perhaps even more focused on her family. Bruno’s revelation in this episode that Kamala’s bangle isn’t the source of her power, and that it merely “unlocked the superhuman part” within her, leaves open the possibility that Kamala may still be an Inhuman after all. (A mysterious story at dinner about Muneeba’s mother and grandmother—Kamala’s grandmother and great-grandmother—during the violent Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 may suggest otherwise, though.) Even the title of the second episode, “Crushed,” borrows its name from an early Ms. Marvel story line in the comics in which Kamala similarly meets the dreamy Kamran:

Marvel Comics

But the Disney+ series has already made a major departure from that comics story line, which revolves around Kamran and Kamala’s shared Inhuman genes as it further explores the roots of her superhuman abilities. Instead, mysteries are growing around her great-grandmother, whom Muneeba refuses to speak of, along with the introduction at the end of the episode of Kamran’s mother Najma, who appears to Kamala in strange visions relating to her bangle.

Given that Ms. Marvel is only a six-episode event, next week will mark the midpoint of the season. Seeing as Kamala’s society-given moniker is still Night Light, and that so far she’s managed only to fumble a falling child and destroy a few drones, she has a lot of work to do if she wants to even dream of hanging with Captain Marvel in The Marvels. There are still enough episodes left for that progress to unfold, and the first third of the season has been a promising start for head writer Bisha K. Ali and Co., as the series continues to incorporate the MCU’s history and riff on the superhero genre while entering refreshing new territory of its own.