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‘Ms. Marvel’ Focuses on Family in a New Way

The Disney+ series has separated itself from other MCU projects by centering on its superpowered protagonist’s family as an influential part of her identity and an ongoing presence in her life

Disney+/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
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In the first three episodes of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan’s life started to change rapidly. The 16-year-old from Jersey City began the series as an ordinary high schooler in an extraordinary world where people with superhuman abilities, gods, and aliens have become a part of daily life. But thanks to a mysterious bangle that has been passed down for several generations in Kamala’s family, she instantly went from being a mere Avengers fan who cosplayed as Captain Marvel to a superhero herself. With every installment of Kamala’s origin story, the teenager gains answers to the growing mystery that has become her new life—along with confounding new questions. The latest episode, “Seeing Red,” traces Kamala’s family roots as she travels to Pakistan to seek more information about her mystical bangle and the one who discovered it years ago: her great-grandmother Aisha.

Following Kamala’s bangle-induced vision at the end of last week’s episode, Kamala and her mother, Muneeba, fly to Karachi to visit Kamala’s grandmother, Sana, and the home that Kamala’s parents left behind decades earlier. The fourth episode makes strides in plot development as Kamala forms an alliance with the Red Daggers, a group of local protectors who teach her more about the Noor Dimension and the impending threat that the world faces. As the Red Daggers explain to her, the Clandestines seek to tear down the Veil that separates Earth from the unseen alternate dimension that gives Kamala her powers. But the episode also takes the time to explore the relationships among Kamala, Muneeba, and Sana as Ms. Marvel continues to focus on family as one of the key elements of its story.

In many MCU origin stories, and those within the superhero genre at large, family is a common subject of emphasis in one way or another. Often it’s the tragic loss of a protagonist’s parents or another family member that sets them on their hero’s journey to begin with. They grow up to be brooding loner types like Batman—especially Robert Pattinson’s Emo Batman—or Moon Knight, or they might find family in similar outcasts, like Peter Quill with his Guardians of the Galaxy. Family has been a recurring theme throughout much of Phase 4 in particular: Eternals and Black Widow focus on makeshift super-families, Clint Barton tries to get back to his family and the farm in Hawkeye, Wanda Maximoff grieves the loss of her family in WandaVision, the latest Peter Parker loses the latest Aunt May in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing, team up to face their father in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. One of the ways that Ms. Marvel has separated itself from other MCU projects, though, is how the series has centered on Kamala’s family as such an influential part of her identity and an ongoing presence in her life—even without them having any powers or, I don’t know, being brutally murdered in a dark alley before her eyes.

So much of Ms. Marvel has focused on the relationship between Kamala and her family in Jersey City, whether it be in the form of the classic teenage struggle for independence from strict parents, or in the wedding celebration of Kamala’s brother and sister-in-law as a central event of the third episode. “Seeing Red” introduces and explores another layer of the show’s family dynamics as we meet Sana in earnest, and witness the distance—both literal and figurative—that has grown between her and the family that left for America.

From clothing choices to a struggle to adapt to food spice levels, it’s glaring even to Kamala how much she feels like a foreigner in Pakistan—which she is, of course, having lived her entire life in New Jersey (as her Pakistani cousins and new friends remind her by roasting her for all her hallmarks of being an American). Muneeba and Sana still have a fraught relationship that was strained by Muneeba’s leaving Pakistan for the United States, and the tension that remains between them is palpable. But even with all of their differences, “Seeing Red” reveals the similarities that persist between them. Kamala learns of her mother’s rebellious streak growing up, and how Sana—even in her wise old age—is still trying to make sense of her fractured identity, just as the young Kamala is now. “My passport is Pakistani, and my roots are in India. And in between all of this, there is a border,” Sana tells Kamala, referring to the division of India and Pakistan during the Partition. “There is a border marked with blood and pain. People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishman had when they were fleeing the country.”

The Partition was first mentioned in a dinner conversation at the Khan household during the second episode, and the traumatic historical event continues to play an important role in Ms. Marvel as the series further explores Kamala’s family history. At first, the story of how a toddler-aged Sana followed a “trail of stars” to find her father after being separated from her parents on the night they left India sounded like a work of fiction—a way to find beauty amid loss and tragedy. But after Kamala hears the tale from Sana herself, she reconsiders it in light of recent events (and her newfound powers that look an awful lot like a “trail of stars”), and she realizes that there’s much more to the story than that. Sana knows all about the powers that the bangle possesses, as well as the fact that she and Kamala, like Aisha, are Djinn, but until now, no one else seemed to believe her. As revealed in an emotional scene featuring Sana and Muneeba (with actress Zenobia Shroff continuing to stand out for her performance), it’s outlandish stories like these that contributed to Muneeba’s decision to go to the United States. “Even after Baba left you, you continued to cling to these fantastic theories,” Muneeba says to her mother.

“I just thought I’d share them with you,” Sana replies.

“I didn’t need your stories, mommy. I needed my mother.”

The fourth episode, in particular, develops Muneeba and Sana as three-dimensional characters and makes them easy to empathize with, as we begin to see how their losses and discordant history have trickled down into Muneeba and Kamala’s own relationship, and why Sana had always been dismissed by other members of the family as being a bit kooky. “Seeing Red” also draws inspiration from a Ms. Marvel comic that similarly finds Kamala traveling to Pakistan for a month-long vacation with her relatives and an unexpected team-up with Kareem, the Red Dagger:

Marvel Comics

But the Disney+ series continues to distinguish itself from its source material by weaving Kamala’s family history and heritage into the origins of her superpowers and the story of how she came to be Ms. Marvel. Everything involving Aisha, the Djinn, and the Noor Dimension is a major digression from how Kamala, the Inhuman, became a superhero in the comics. Head writer Bisha K. Ali and the rest of the Ms. Marvel team have instead made storytelling choices that have been a more natural fit for the character as she joins the MCU and as Phase 4 stories continue to build on this concept of the multiverse.

Ms. Marvel started the season by loading up on MCU references to establish Kamala as a teenager growing up in the age of superheroes, and by the season finale, the show will almost certainly help set up the events of The Marvels—or at least establish a connection between Kamala and her idol, Captain Marvel. The episodes in between, however, have thus far kept their focus rightfully on Kamala and her family, and as Kamala gets sent back in time to the Partition itself at the end of “Seeing Red,” that trend seems primed to continue next week.