In the first few minutes of Ms. Marvel, as unique animated scribbles flood the screen, imaginatively conveying the inner thoughts and feelings of Kamala Khan (an immediately charming Iman Vellani), you’ll realize something: this has all the trappings of early 2000s-era teen TV. After some rather more grown-up entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of late (Moon Knight; Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness), the latest small-screen MCU offering arrives like a colorful sledgehammer, functioning more as a fun and dreamy teenage comedy, wrapped up in a superhero spectacular. Less Batman Begins, more Lizzie McGuire, then — if Lizzie suddenly got glowing mystical powers, a Marvel-sized budget, and appeal beyond the 12-18 age bracket.
Unlike Moon Knight, which kept its distance from the wider universe, Ms. Marvel wastes no time explaining how the events of the MCU have impacted Kamala’s life. The series opens with a vibrant doodle montage recap of Avengers: Endgame, ostensibly animated by Kamala herself. As with Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop, who idolized Clint Barton, Kamala worships the very air that Captain Marvel swan dived through to sucker punch Thanos in the face; more than anything, Kamala desires to become like Carol Danvers. But before she tries to impossibly will herself into having superpowers, she must first try to conquer high school.
Like most teenagers, Kamala feels like she doesn’t quite fit anywhere, a quirky teen who exists on the fringes of popular high school society. What she lacks in understanding the more practical aspects of everyday life, she makes up for in passionate ideas about what type of person she wants to be, and how she fits into her world. This is a show that leans into its high school setting: crushes, besties, and hero-worshipping are Kamala’s priorities.
That means Ms. Marvel is, it’s fair to say, a relatively low-stakes affair across the opening two hours: the first episode largely focuses on Kamala working on a cosplay Captain Marvel outfit for an Avengers-themed fan convention, with the biggest threat only whether her traditional parents will allow her to attend — no apocalypse-level dangers just yet. However, even though the first two episodes lack punch, its third hour is quite the emotional bombshell. Episode 3 beautifully manages to encapsulate the essence of the series and get to the strife at the core of Kamala’s heart, her relationship with her family but most importantly her mother (Zenobia Shroff). In one candid scene between Kamala and her mother, Kamala learns that the bond between mothers and daughters “is [an] eternal struggle” in more ways than one. As her own mother shares grievances about being abandoned by her mother, Kamala must process how her decision to be a superhero might incur the same rift. With this episode, Ms. Marvel reveals itself as not just another superhero origin story for fans to slog through to get to the next entry, but instead a unique examination of matriarchal-based intergenerational trauma. It’s both cathartic and heartwrenching.
Under the stewardship of creator Bisha K. Ali, a British-Pakistani comedian and writer who previously wrote on Sex Education, the show does a great job balancing the comedic and dramatic. There are witty visual gags, like a delightfully choreographed fight scene set to New Jersey native Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,”—a favorite of Kamala’s mom—and well-rounded, warmly funny, instantly likeable characters such as Kamala’s perpetually broke, but extremely woke brother Aamir (played with great comedic timing by Saagar Shaikh) who sticks up for his sister when their parents are too hard on her. The series also has an authentic take on Pakistani-American culture; one memorable montage explains the different cliques within their close-knit community, and the show takes admirable care in explaining the rituals and realities of life as a modern Muslim.
Sure, it’s a show with a target audience: designed more to appeal to teenagers than adults. But for those who can roll with the punches of the awkward-but-relatable approach, there is much promise here. Kamala clearly has a bright future mapped out for her in the MCU — we have the delightful prospect of a meeting with Carol Danvers in next year’s The Marvels — and these initial episodes are an encouraging start.
[A first draft of this article was originally published on Empire Magazine online. This subsequent draft has significant changes.]