Everyone loves an everyman. Sure, we love when superheroes are geniuses and possess super strength that can parallel the monstrosities in our world — but nothing quite beats those moments that show us how superheroes, bona fide gods among men, are just like us. Like that moment in “Captain America: Civil War” where Spider-Man (Tom Holland, “Uncharted”) says, “I can’t go to Germany!” and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., “Avengers: Endgame”) asks, “Why?” and Spiderman replies, “I got … homework!”
Scenes like these remind us why we should care about the epic flashes of light and earth-shattering shows of power that have become the bread and butter of the Marvel franchise; superheroes are like us, which means we can be like them.
But what about the series has made it worthy of breaking critical records? Marvel’s Phase 4 has been packed with swings and misses, perhaps not coincidentally alongside stories of their VFX producers quitting amid poor work conditions. Marvel has released nearly double the amount of content it did during Phase 3 in the same amount of time, and audiences have become privy to what such a quantity of releases in a short amount of time can mean for the quality of production. And yet, “Ms. Marvel” pulled through as an original, thoughtfully crafted series.
The strengths of the show are hard to miss: Its vibrant use of hand-drawn effects, which director Adil El Arbi describes as an attempt to translate “the comic book feel,” its relatable teenage superhero and, of course, its South Asian representation presented by South Asian creators. It’s a series that rings with authenticity and subtle charm, differentiating itself from the mass of superhuman content we’ve become accustomed to.
Maybe you think we already had a good, relatable teenager story through Marvel’s reboot of Spider-Man or perhaps Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld, “Pitch Perfect 3”) in “Hawkeye.” Kamala (Iman Vellani, “The Marvels”), or Ms. Marvel, is different because even as the fantasy elements of her powers take off, she is never whisked away from her life before powers. Her high school friends, namely her best friend Bruno (Matt Lintz, “Pixels”), help her discover the source of her powers and are there even when things get dicey — like during an attack at her brother’s wedding. Many pivotal moments occur at locations Kamala frequented regularly even before she discovered her powers, like her mosque and her high school. While Spider-Man and Kate Bishop leave their families and normal lives behind to exhibit their heroism, Kamala’s superhero journey actually makes her delve deeper into her family history and personal relationships because unlike Spider-Man, her powers are ancestral. She even flies to Karachi, Pakistan to meet with her grandmother and uncover the extent of her powers. The show depicts Karachi without the exoticism of other Marvel productions, like “Doctor Strange”; instead, Karachi is portrayed as a second home, different from what Kamala’s used to but not strange. Magical elements do come into play, as this is a Marvel series after all, but Karachi is a setting like any other: a powerful showcase of representation without mockery.
Karachi’s unique representation is likely a result of the directing and production work of people from the South Asian and Muslim communities, including Pakistani-American Sana Amanat, the executive producer and co-creator. In her TedTalk, Amanat said, “The big idea behind ‘Ms. Marvel’ was very much about minority representation, the bigger idea was about finding your authentic self.” Her outlook on representation likely contributed to the ways “Ms. Marvel” wove Kamala’s ethnic and religious background into the fundamental parts of the story, rather than presenting her background as a performative show of representation. This is not a story that merely features a hijabi in the background and calls it inclusion — this story explores what life is like for a teenager who regularly attends mosque, whose parents speak a different language at home and whose extended family lives in a different country. The result is a show that feels authentic and interesting and tells a story through a lens we don’t often see in mainstream media.
In spite of its strengths, it’d be foolish to overlook the ways “Ms. Marvel” didn’t measure up to expectations. Despite its carefully laid plans that built audience anticipation at the end of each episode, its six-episode run felt rushed at times, and its ending lacked thorough payoff. Perhaps purposefully on Marvel’s front, viewers were left with more questions than answers — questions that will hopefully be answered in “The Marvels” movie, which will be released next year. The series also limited its unique use of animation in later episodes with no real explanation. So what exactly made “Ms. Marvel” worthy of the top title among critics when it could be argued that the “Hawkeye” series provided another charming origin story featuring a relatable teen, and other content, like “Loki,” had its own stylistic and narrative merits? There are a few possible explanations.
For one, “Ms. Marvel” had the unique position of reacting to the expansive MCU that preceded it, while still having complete creative space to explore a character that isn’t tied to the existing lore — effectively having no expectations to live up to. Audiences are familiar with Hawkeye’s and Loki’s characters, and while this familiarity is a draw, it’s also a limitation for creators. Fans and critics have their own ideas about how characters should act, and shows are subject to criticism regarding inconsistencies that do not align with what other content has established. Director Bilall Fallah notes that “because ‘Ms. Marvel’ is an origin story, it’s truly (Kamala’s) story. We didn’t have to link it with any other universe or superhero. The only (link) is that she’s a fan of Marvel superheroes.” The effect is refreshing: Audiences can enjoy the show as a standalone production and appreciate it for what it is.
There’s also accounting for the show’s accomplishment in catering to its intended younger audience. “Ms. Marvel” isn’t trying to be a gritty drama — it’s trying to be a vibrant, whimsical yet meaningful portrayal of a high schooler accessing her ancestral superpowers. It intends to invite a new generation of Marvel fans to see themselves in the heroes on-screen, even if they haven’t seen the 29 Marvel films that have been released up until now. To these ends, “Ms. Marvel” succeeds. Of course, there’s no telling precisely why critics responded the way they did or how much value we should give them, but in the mixed bag of Phase 4 releases, it’s clear “Ms. Marvel” deserves its place near the top.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.