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The MCU Roots of ‘Ms. Marvel’ Run Deep

The new Marvel series feels lived-in from the first scene on, largely because it’s so steeped in the MCU’s established lore

Disney/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

The series premiere of Ms. Marvel begins with a quick history lesson narrated by the MCU’s newest superhero herself, Kamala Khan. Unlike the standard origin story, the lesson doesn’t concern Kamala’s family history or how she got her supernatural abilities. Instead, it’s about the hero who inspired her: Captain Marvel. It’s actually the last chapter of a 10-part web series Kamala has created about Earth’s mightiest cosmic hero, focused on how Carol Danvers saved the day during the Battle of Earth, when—as Kamala puts it—Thanos was “being a jerk about magical stones.” In other words, Ms. Marvel starts with Kamala retelling the climactic battle of Avengers: Endgame.

The history of the MCU is a crucial element in establishing the world of Ms. Marvel: Marvel Studios’ latest Disney+ series utilizes more than a decade’s worth of mythmaking to help introduce a new superhero to a universe already full of them. In the first episode of the series, which premiered on Wednesday, we quickly learn that Kamala’s opening Captain Marvel minidoc is just the latest of her Sloth Baby Productions YouTube videos; she’s done her research for this one by listening to Scott Lang’s podcast, Big Me Little Me. (If any Avenger was going to get into the podcast game, it had to be Ant-Man, right?) “The REAL Carol Danvers Story,” as Kamala titles her new release, is supported by some cute hand-drawn animations to depict important moments in the battle (like Captain Marvel punching that jerk Thanos in the face), and the young filmmaker takes some time at the end to tease her next series, which will investigate whether Thor is secretly a gamer.

Screenshots via Disney+

It’s all an endearing introduction to a 16-year-old high schooler who has grown up in a world where superheroes save humanity from the apocalypse of the week—and the premiere doesn’t stop there with the Avengers fanfare. The central conflict in “Generation Why” is Kamala’s desire to attend the first-ever AvengerCon against the will of her strict parents, so that she and her best friend Bruno can experience what Kamala considers to be a historic event (where she’ll also have the chance to participate in a special Captain Marvel cosplay contest). More than any Marvel movie or series before it, Ms. Marvel is steeped in the shared on-screen reality that the studio has been crafting since the MCU started with Iron Man in 2008, using it not just as its setting, but also as a launching pad for Kamala’s own story.

The intertextuality of Marvel projects is, of course, not new in and of itself—it’s one of the main ways Marvel Studios was able to create and sustain its success in the first place. You can bet on any Marvel affair including some Easter eggs or callbacks to previous projects or to the comics they’re based on, while big crossover movies like Infinity War and Endgame combine the characters and plots of an ever-growing number of films. But Ms. Marvel is unique in that the series as a whole isn’t really building on any single story, but rather an entire universe of stories and characters that, after almost 30 films and half a dozen Disney+ shows, make the show’s world feel lived-in.

There doesn’t seem to be any team-ups in the show’s near future—Kamala may have to wait until The Marvels for that—as the focus, for now, remains on the normal people living among the gods. But between Kamala’s Endgame lesson and the trip to AvengerCon, the premiere is loaded with MCU references both big and small. AvengerCon is just Comic-Con re-created in the MCU, with attendees dressing up as their favorite superheroes for a celebration in their honor. This makes for an odd bit of meta-referencing, where the lines are blurred between the MCU and real-world fandom.

There are Funko Pop! toys of Captain Marvel at AvengerCon that look like the ones you can purchase online, along with Captain America comic books. There’s also a somewhat surprising number of fans at AvengerCon dressed up as the Guardians of the Galaxy, despite the superteam members spending their movies mostly on other planets, and there are even some references to specific conversations between superheroes that the civilians of the MCU probably couldn’t be aware of—like the matter of a certain Avenger having the ass of America. (Then again, apparently the Avengers don’t pay very well, and podcaster extraordinaire Scott Lang seems to be putting his love of talking to good use. And who knows what wonders are revealed in the Peter Quill docuseries that’s also being promoted at the event.)

Given how much time has passed in the MCU since Nick Fury first told Tony Stark that he wasn’t the only superhero in the world—and just how many end-of-the-world scenarios the Avengers have prevented—it makes sense that a high schooler like Kamala would be obsessed with them. It’s also true to the character’s history, considering Kamala is an Avengers fan fiction writer in the comics who will wear Avengers-themed clothing on a regular day. The recent Marvel’s Avengers video game even starts in similar fashion to Kamala’s trip to AvengerCon in Ms. Marvel, as the player controls Kamala as she attends the Avengers Day celebration in San Francisco, where she’s a finalist in a fan fiction contest.

Kamala isn’t the first MCU character in Phase 4 to be inspired by an Avenger: Last year’s Hawkeye was as much about introducing Kate Bishop as it was about Clint Barton. (And soon enough, the Iron Man–inspired Riri Williams will be introduced in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, before getting her own Disney+ series, Ironheart.) But the approach in Ms. Marvel is much different than that of the holiday-themed Hawkeye. “Generation Why” uses animated sequences to fill in for the actual Avengers, whereas the Hawkeye premiere opened with a flashback to the Battle of New York from 2012’s The Avengers, in which a young Kate Bishop witnesses Hawkeye’s arrow-flinging heroics firsthand years before teaming up with him. Phase 4 has been a Multiverse of Sadness defined by the dramatic tone so many projects have employed in dealing with loss and recovery after the Infinity Saga, but Ms. Marvel is taking a more playful, irreverent approach to the MCU’s traumatic past, akin to the opening “In Memoriam” segment in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Ms. Marvel presents an interesting contrast to Moon Knight, the Oscar Isaac–led series that marked Marvel Studios’ first attempt at introducing a new title character in their own Disney+ show. Not only is Ms. Marvel much lighter in tone, but it’s also so loaded with MCU references that even its credits sequence features a Trust a Bro Moving Company truck from Hawkeye, whereas Moon Knight made room for only a few small allusions to the MCU over its entire season. The new series frontloads enough references to hook frequent MCU watchers through fan service alone.

All the Avengers fanfare can take a new character only so far, though, and Ms. Marvel soon begins to build a stand-alone story by exploring the obstacles Kamala faces as she tries to balance her life at home and at school with the newfound abilities unlocked by the mysterious bangle she grabbed from the family attic. “Generation Why” shows intriguing signs of the unique perspective that can come from centering a teenager who’s grappling with her identity as a Pakistani American and a Muslim, not to mention a nascent superhero—and the charming Iman Vellani seems up to the task of portraying her. In the episodes ahead, Ms. Marvel will endeavor to turn Kamala into a compelling enough protagonist in her own right that the Marvel-loving audience will want to watch her not only as a title character, but as a crossover character too.