Ms Marvel: Forget Tokenism and Representation, Just Write A Good Story
Ordinarily, this isn't kind of series I would have bothered with. I've never been into comic books or been a teenage girl. What the hell would a 41 year old white guy have in common with a Pakistani-Muslim teenager from Jersey?
But as someone who grew up right next door to a mostly South Asian community in White Rock, BC, Canada, and since the main actress, Iman Vellani is Canadian, I thought I'd check it out and see what the backlash was about.
As it would turn out (surprise, surprise), apparently some people just don't like the idea of a Muslim or hell, a non-white superhero. As a white person, that's pretty embarrassing, but here we are.
I watched the first episode, and not being a comic book fan at any time in my life and as someone who is generally sick and tired of the over-reliance on computer graphics, especially in the "live action" genre, I'm not going to lie - I was blown away. And most of it was based on the storytelling and the performances of all the actors, especially the lead actress.
The first episode felt like I was back in high school just hanging out with some of the kids who I rarely saw because I was - and still am - so introverted.
The producers and casting director could have easily gone the standard route and found a 28 year old model full of botox and no personality to play this role like they usually do, but they found a Canadian girl from Markham, Ontario with a ton of personality, charm and believability to play the role.
Too many of these stories focus almost entirely on the comic book aspects of these stories, with cliched lines like "with great power comes great responsibility." Instead, the writers decided to just tell the story of this high school girl in this situation and how she and others might realistically react to it. The first episode particularly did an excellent job of balancing out the superhero aspects of the story with culture and just finding your way in the world as a teenager.
There are the odd moments where it gets a little too Disney Channel, with Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan (Vellani), caught in a bit of a love triangle between your standard male model type with the British accent and her geeky best friend, Bruno, who clearly loves her but she's too oblivious to realize it. I've been there. That's pretty standard for these kinds of shows, and I'm glad there's enough going on elsewhere that it doesn't bring down the series in any way.
When they deal with history and Pakistani-Muslim culture, it never comes off as tokenism or involuntary representation. They don't over emphasize the realities of being a Muslim in America but they don't ignore it either and I appreciated that, because I knew kids in the late 90s and early 2000s who would have been proud of this.
I had a major problem with the Ghostbusters reboot, mostly because it had been done before. The original characters that were created were male, and I think women deserve to have their own heroes and not just lazy female versions of what we men have. How do you relate to a character that wasn't created with you in mind? But that's the problem with most superhero movies. They focus so much on the supernatural aspects that they all too often forget to make these characters relatable, relegating the genre to a very niche, cliquey thing.
Here, the originality is all over the place. Sure, there are borrowed elements, like the Scott Pilgrim homages, particularly in Episode 1, but they even manage to keep those things fresh and new. The idea of a teenage girl dancing around her room or house to a 1950s or 60s song has been done before (most famously in the Elizabeth Shue teen film Adventures in Babysitting), but Iman Vellani's performance is infectious and the writing is just fresh enough that it remains more of a homage than simply cheap robbery. The show understands kids and too few productions these days seem to get that. They feel like a 50 year old writing for a 16 year old. Growing up, I could always tell the difference.
As predictable as these kinds of productions can be, they did more than enough to keep you guessing throughout the series, even if the other episodes can't quite compete with the terrific premiere. They could have just kept the inventive Scott Pilgrim style filmmaking throughout and it might have gotten stale quickly for the non-die-hards. Instead, they switch it up entirely and to avoid too many spoilers, I'll let you check that out on your own, but I will say that they do an excellent job, coming from a dumb white guy who grew up with these kids, of showing the reality of that culture and religion without hitting you over the head with it. Everyone is just living their lives day to day. They're not trying to make a political statement about it. I also like that they tied her "powers" to her culture. Thematically, that's what you're supposed to do. If you're going beyond tokenism or mere representation, don't just make a character Muslim - show how that affects her life and why it's important to the plot. And it is.
But Iman Vellani is definitely one to watch. I understand the Ms Marvel series is just a one-off, which is a shame, but instead they're doing a Marvels movie, and Vellani will return for that film. It will be interesting to see how that works out, but I would have appreciated at least one more season or miniseries with just this character on her own because I think there was more to explore there, especially her relationship with her best friend Bruno.
In a sea of uninspired, CGI-fests in superhero movies in the last 20 years, Ms. Marvel was a terrific series and hopefully The Marvels doesn't forget to tell stories rather than just your standard supernatural stuff with goofy villains in jumpsuits and one liners that are instantly dated.