Ms. Marvel: Fun Show, Meh Adaptation
*Spoilers for Ms. Marvel Episode 1 & some comic material*
Street level Marvel heroes contain the most impactful stories. Their lives are affected by material conditions unlike other heroes. Most of them lead double lives and this creates tension. Spider-Man has a date with MJ, but the Green Goblin is wreaking havoc across the city. Heroes have to sacrifice their personal lives to protect their community. Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel is the best iteration of this story. It was not shocking that Marvel created Ms. Marvel TV show but, was it any good?
The first episode of Ms. Marvel opens with a cute paper reenactment of Captain Marvel saving the day in Endgame (2019). This scene begs the question, “can a Captain Marvel fan base exist in the MCU?” Already the show is running up against an issue the comics never had. History.
Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel, had a long history before Kamala’s introduction in 2014. There was more lore and history with Captain Marvel for Kamala to be inspired by. The original costume for Carol was important to Kamala because it was a complete rejection of Kamala’s current life. The costume was skimpy with tall boots. Captain Marvel was the type of hero people expected, thus Kamala wanted to be like her. Dressing like her was also rebellious because of the skimpy outfit. In the TV show the connection felt artificial because it quickly glossed over why Captain Marvel was her favorite hero. There is only one Captain Marvel movie that was set in the 90s, nobody knows her. The show will have time to expand on this lack of history, but it doesn’t help that almost every scene is invoking the original comic.
Adaption is difficult. It is important to keep the spirit of the original work intact while also transferring it to a new medium. After the first scene Kamala’s family is introduced in a one to one recreation of the opening comic panels. Muneeba (Amii), Yusef (Abu), Aamir (brother) and Kamala are all cast perfectly. The actors have the chemistry that is required for this story to work. The family dynamics were extremely similar but with Amii taking a more prominent role instead of Abu. The biggest issue from the first episode is when it lifts scenes straight from the comics with alterations that deflate the meaning from the comics.
The scene where Kalama asks her parents to go to AvengersCon is the first example where the show deviates from the original meaning of the comics. In the show, she pleads with her parents to be allowed to go. Thankfully this conversation feels real. The confidence wanes in Kamala as her mom said she doesn’t trust her. Kamala scrambles for any leverage when she already knows the answer is no. The conversation ends with Kamala parading her brother in front of their parents saying they would let him do anything he asked. Kamala leaves for her room in a huff.
In the comics the conservation was different. Importantly, Kalama didn’t want to go to a convention but to a high school party by the waterfront. Abu refused to let her go because there will be boys and drinking. He stated that he trusted her but not the strange boys. Abu then tells Kamala that Bruno works hard for his family and that Kamala should be more like him. Kalama pointed out that he is a boy and if she was one Abu would let her do whatever she wanted. This conversation was not about asking permission, but about Kamala feeling left out of normal high school activities. She felt isolated from her peers. With her instead caring about a convention that only one other student, Zoe, cared about the scene lost meaning.
But the issue runs deeper than that one scene. In the comics Kamala’s family is mocked by the white students for Kamala rebelling. Then the students tricked her into drinking alcohol. Zoe told Kamala that she smells like curry as an excuse to leave. The students are absolutely racist and cruel to Kamala. That edge is lost in the show. Instead the AvengersCon is a smash cut of Marvel fan culture. While it was too much, the chaotic energy is sustained throughout the show and in this scene. However the conflict feels weak with Kamala losing the gloves Bruno made for her. It fits with the tone of Kamala being an absolute space cadet, but it also feels hollow. This is made even worse when she got her powers.
When Kamala got her powers in the comics she had a vision. In Urdu Captain Marvel recited the poem Sakal Bun Phool Rahi Sarson by Amir Khusrau (roughly translated to “The Yellow Mustard is Blooming”). Captain America and Iron Man recited the English Translation. Kamala is informed that the three are the personification of faith. This was a moral message from Allah. The exchange between her and Captain America makes the meaning clear:
Captain America: You thought that if you disobeyed your parents — your culture, your religion — your classmates would accept you. What happened instead?
Kamala: They — laughed at me. Zoe thought that because I snuck out, it was okay for her to make fun of my family. Like, Kamala’s finally seen the light and kicked the dumb interior brown people and their rules to the curb. But that’s not why I snuck out! It’s not that I think Ammi and Abu are dumb, it’s just — I grew up here! I’m from Jersey City, not Karachi!
She was blessed by Allah to do his work through her powers. There was a reason the poem was chosen. The poem is a celebration of the beauty of Allah’s grace. Before rescuing Zoe she thought about an Āyah from the Quran, “If anyone slays a person, it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” When she chose to save Zoe she held her faith in her heart. The comics made Islam explicit and material to Kamala Khan gaining powers.
The show removes religion from her powers, at least for now. Instead, her power comes from “cosmic” bracelets left from her grandmother. When she puts them on a weird cosmic veil envelopes her and she can shoot crystal blasts. There is no hint that her power comes from the will of Allah. The MCU established in Moon Knight that all religions are real. Religion has power in this universe, so the experience wasn’t a religious one. Now, this aspect could change in future episodes since her bracelet has not been explained; however, what won’t change is the power itself.
Instead of being a polymorph, Kamala is a cosmic crystal wielder. In searching for an explanation of why I found this quote from Ms. Marvel co-creator Sana Amanat, “Obviously, so much of the show is an adaptation, and we thought it was more important to make sure that her powers are linking to larger stories in the Marvel universe…This was the right move because there are bigger stories to tell.” Her powers changed so she can fit in the future of Marvel movies. Next year “The Marvels” is slotted with Kamala having a big role. Her story is important to Marvel, but only up to a point. If anything conflicts with the larger brand narrative then it is changed. Kamala must have cosmic powers because she has to fight alongside Carol Danvers.
It is a shame too because the episode is one of the strongest openings of any MCU show. It had an actual cinematic style. Kamala and Bruno talk to each other but the framing is from within their lockers creating two perfect viewing rectangles on the screen. There is a long tracking shot while the two are on their bikes with animated sketches on the walls of buildings. The guidance counselor scene cut away erratically, highlighting Kamala’s scattered brain. Disney knows how to make good teen dramas. This aspect is enjoyable especially compared to other MCU media.
But that’s not enough. Ms. Marvel is special. A watered down version of it is a mistake. The MCU lifted scenes from the comic but it removed the depth. An adaptation should not be a strict translation but it should still have the base themes. Maybe the next five episodes will change that. It will be safe to assume her religion will become important but how important? How central to Kamala will Islam be? With the MCU’s current track record it is highly doubtful they will do her character justice. What matters is future brand synergy, Ms. Marvel will have that in spades.