It’s wild to realize while watching “Ms. Marvel” that the studio’s newest heroine would have been about 2 years old in 2008, the year “Iron Man” kick-started Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe as we know it. Like the comic books that inspired it, the on-screen MCU has officially become old enough to spawn a literal new generation of superheroes who grew up watching the Avengers shoot through time and space and back again to stop the bad guys. Now, some 15 years later, they’re getting their own shows to do the same.
“Hawkeye” laid the groundwork for such an evolution in 2021, with Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) learning and fighting alongside her archery idol. This summer, “Ms. Marvel” has arrived to tell an entirely different kind of story, though with a character who shares Kate’s stubborn spark. Created by Bisha K. Ali (“Loki,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), the series follows Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a 16-year-old who spends her days in Jersey City, N.J., creating Avengers fan videos and hanging out with her tech-savvy best friend, Bruno (Matt Lintz). She’s smart, if a bit spacey, and is less of an outcast at her high school than an afterthought, much to her annoyance.
In the first (decidedly PG-rated) two episodes, the first of which drops June 8 on Disney+, Kamala’s hero worship of Captain Marvel (played in previous films by Brie Larson) makes sure that the well-established Avengers are never too far from mind. Still, it’s undeniably refreshing to see an origin story from the perspective of a Muslim Pakistani American, whose only role in the first wave of Marvel movies might have been handing Captain America a sandwich from behind a bodega counter. Whether exploring Kamala’s life at school, in the mosque with friend Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher), or at home with her mother (Zenobia Shroff), father (Mohan Kapur, delightful), and brother (Saagar Shaikh), the series makes her specific corner of the world feel fleshed out before too long. And as played with infectious charm by Vellani in her first TV role, Kamala is a believably starry-eyed teenager whose bursting creativity and imagination spill over onto the screen — often literally.
Marvel’s Disney+ shows, from “WandaVision” to “Loki” to “Moon Knight,” have done their best to gently twist Marvel’s typical house style in terms of their overall aesthetics. “Ms. Marvel,” however, manages to explode it by cleverly incorporating animation throughout. Kamala fantasizes about her Captain Marvel cosplay as chalk renderings fly on the buildings behind her and reads texts that pop up in storefronts as neon-light emojis. She imagines herself saving the world and twirling around her dashing crush, Kamran (Rish Shah), in drawings that come to dancing life. So while it takes almost the full first episode for a mysterious family heirloom to activate Kamala’s powers, “Ms. Marvel” taps into a tangibly kinetic magic well beforehand.
When combined with Ali’s breezy pilot script and Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah and Meera Menon’s fluid directing, the seamless integration of these visuals makes it especially easy to understand Kamala from the outside in. (Credit here should also go to the production and set designers, who create impressively textured scenes for the actors and animation alike to play with.) In fact, the closest Marvel comparison point for “Ms. Marvel” has to be “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the 2018 animated film about thoughtful teen Miles Morales becoming an unlikely new Spider-Man in Brooklyn. Just as “Into the Spider-Verse” found innovation and joy in the bright colors and imagery of comic books, so too does “Ms. Marvel” in its most immediately compelling moments.
As for the actual birth of a new superhero … well, it’s hard to say without seeing beyond the second episode, which ends on a narrative cliffhanger that could go any which way. Also, and more frankly: This wouldn’t be the first time we got a preview of a Disney+ Marvel show that then became something else in the following episode. (Was there even a point to reviewing “WandaVision” before the show revealed the S.H.I.E.L.D. camp lurking just outside Wanda’s suburban fantasy? Probably not, but oh well!)
Going off the hints we do get, though, it seems relatively safe to say that the explanation for Kamala’s powers — which, in a departure from the “Ms. Marvel” comics, manifest as tangible planes of refracted light — will be rooted in a line of her heritage that her mother refuses to discuss. Until whatever that reveal might be, though, watching Kamala try to finesse her skills in an echo of “Spider-Man” scenes past proves satisfying, in large part thanks to Vellani’s palpable enthusiasm and easy chemistry with Lintz’s Bruno, Kamala’s steadfast wingman.
Inevitably, “Ms. Marvel” will take the now familiar turn of almost every other Disney+ venture from the studio and tee up Kamala’s story to dovetail with the rest of the MCU. Indeed, Vellani is set to star in Nia DaCosta’s “The Marvels” alongside Larson and Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau (formerly of “WandaVision”). But the looming specter of Marvel obligations to come almost makes this series, with its determination to make Kamala an individual and her neighborhood a home, an even more precious commodity. Before Kamala formally becomes Ms. Marvel and gets subsumed into something greater than herself, she just gets to be herself, and that’s more than enough.
“Ms. Marvel” premieres Wednesday, June 8 on Disney+