The true triumph of the Ms Marvel series — all six episodes out now on Disney+ Hotstar — lies in the way it introduces Shah Rukh Khan to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “There’s no such thing as a bad Shah Rukh Khan film,” declares Pakistani-origin protagonist Kamala Khan from New Jersey to a fellow desi on a date, as they bond over Baazigar. This is brilliant because it shows not only how SRK-love transcends generations, but because it deftly demonstrates a massive blind-spot of diaspora audiences: we can all cite far too many examples of lousy Shah Rukh Khan films, but the brown audience abroad focusses exclusively on the Greatest Hits.
Straight off the bat, Ms Marvel impresses with insights into the South Asian community. Kamala is played by spunky young actress Iman Vellani — quite a find — as a hardcore superhero-fangirl, one who gushes over Captain Marvel obsessively till she stumbles upon her own fantastical powers. The first two episodes are an absolute treat. Like Ramy, they provide perspective into modern Muslim-American life and ritual, like We Are Lady Parts they give us dynamic brown girls with genuine moxie, and like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, there is a comic-book feel to the show’s visual treatment, with text-messages and Kamala’s drawings coming to life around the characters. It all feels highly inventive and original, and Vellani is a great Kamala, all enthusiastic ambition and half-formed plans.
It’s a ride till we get to the action, after which Ms Marvel becomes hit-or-miss Marvel.
(It is no coincidence that Marvel sent out screeners to critics only for the first two episodes instead of this entire clunky series, which is, to go back to the bit about bad Shah Rukh Khan movies, more Dilwale than Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. My commiserations to critics who gushed about the series based only on the opening episodes. We should know by now that Marvel shows and films need to be reviewed after their explosive-but-hollow climaxes, which have traditionally been their weakest point. So much superhero awesomeness, but so rarely do they stick the landing.)
Once the bad guys show up and start attacking the heroine (at her brother’s wedding ceremony) in the third episode, Ms Marvel loses its brio. All that cool comicbook-y style is replaced by generic, unmemorable action sequences.
It’s tragic how much of the early charm — where all-knowing neighbourhood gossips are, deliciously, nicknamed ‘The Illumin-Aunties’ — is squandered as Djinns show up who can’t be killed by space or time, but appear awful vulnerable to… knives. Fight scenes in Karachi markets look like they were using the Street Rat bazaar sequence from Aladdin as a visual reference. Rumi is quoted. Pasoori is played.
Zenobia Shroff delivers the best performance in the show as Kamala’s concerned but spirited mother, Muneeba, and our very own Mohan Kapur is quite wonderful as Kamala’s warm and indulgent father, the one who finally explains to audiences why a Pakistani girl has a name like Kamala. Farhan Akhtar displays strong presence in an exclusively expository guest appearance, and Fawad Khan shows up to remind Indian audiences just how much they’re missing. Sigh. His role is a solemn one, but even with a brief moment of flirtation — “Do you have a name? Or should I just call you hungry?” — he can make a nation swoon.
The other powerful Pakistani performer, Nimra Bucha, who was so striking in Churails (Zee5), is given a thoughtless villain character whose plans seem far too reckless; one would imagine an immortal Djinn could wait a few days to fox a thunderstruck opponent. Vellani herself, so lovely as the enthused Kamala, appears as befuddled as the viewers once she gets overwhelmed and confused by her powers, and their heavily exoticised Eastern backstory. She doesn’t seem to be having any fun once things start going boom, and you can’t blame her.
For the Marvel Universe, the big deal in Ms Marvel involves the use of the word ‘mutant’ — a suggestion that opens the door to upcoming X-Men madness. This show is, however, an even bigger landmark for South Asian representation. “It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” Kamala says early in the show, and one can picture lightning bolts popping above many, many subcontinental young heads who will fan hard about Ms Marvel. A brown girl has entered the ring. There will be Ms Marvel cosplayers this Halloween, and I hope this middling series guides them to the infinitely better, genuinely inventive comic books about the character.
As a TV show, Ms Marvel cares less about sense and story than it does about soundtrack choices: there are some fine selections — Nazia Hassan croons Disco Deewane while heroic and shady characters walk through a Karachi restaurant — but there has to be more to an origin story than playlist-picking and needle-drops. To understand a culture, or its heroes, you need to look beyond the Greatest Hits.
Streaming tip of the week:
What’s In A Name? (Netflix) is a speech Dave Chappelle gave his alma mater. The controversial comedian emphasises how you cannot “report on an artist’s work and remove artistic nuance from his words.” He likens this to a newspaper reporting a man shot in the face by a rabbit, without telling you it’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.