Ms. Marvel: The next hit (or miss) for Disney Plus?

Photo: Ms. Marvel.. key art.. Courtesy Marvel Studios, Disney+
Photo: Ms. Marvel.. key art.. Courtesy Marvel Studios, Disney+ /

With the role of Kamala Khan already cast, we take a look at what a Ms. Marvel television series may need to succeed, and whatever pitfalls it may face.

Creating a new superhero who can be appealing to younger audiences while also being both successful and culturally relevant can be a difficult task. Yet seven years ago, Marvel Comics managed to do exactly that with one Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel. The character not only endeared herself with teenage girls and boys, but young adults, too.

The Ms. Marvel comic book series, written and illustrated by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, was also a hit with critics, winning both the Eisner and Hugo Awards. And not only has she appeared in animation and video games, Kamala has been featured in news magazines, talk shows, and political posters.

Naturally, a live-action adaptation of Ms. Marvel was inevitable. Thus, last Wednesday, Marvel Studios and Disney announced that eighteen year old newcomer Iman Vellani would star as Kamala Khan in a brand new television series for Disney+. Now the question becomes will such a series strike a chord with general audiences as the comics did. While it may be premature to know whether Ms. Marvel will be the next big series for the streaming services, the odds are, for the moment, in it’s favor.

The appeal and authenticity of Ms. Marvel

To begin with, the Ms. Marvel series will be set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is still quite popular. This is no guarantee for success, however. Netflix’s Jessica Jones was certainly one of Marvel’s bigger hits when it aired; but when it came to Captain Marvel – the studio’s first film with a female lead – the results were decidedly mixed. While critics favored the movie, it’s one of Marvel Studios’ lowest ranked films according to Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score.

Fortunately, Disney does have a great track record when it comes to producing live-action TV shows starring young, spunky female protagonists. Granted, they were primarily of the sitcom variety, but make no mistake: Lizzie McGuire (2001-2004), That’s So Raven (2003-2007), and especially Hannah Montana (2006-2011) were some the Disney Channel’s biggest hits. The same goes for animated shows, like Kim Possible (2002-2007), which found wide audience appeal among both girls and boys. Disney knows how to do this because they’ve done it so many times before.

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Ms. Marvel does have an advantage that her predecessor, Carol Danvers, does not. Like Spider-Man and Shazam, Kamala is a teenage superhero who isn’t anyone’s sidekick. This, in turn, allows young people to better identify with her, particularly when it comes to her life out of costume. In addition, Kamala is typically portrayed as being a Carol Danvers fan, and a fan of superheroes in general. Her being Ms. Marvel becomes a form of cosplay as much as it does being a means to disguise herself. Instead of her status as a “legacy character” becoming a hindrance (as it does for other superheroes), it becomes an asset.

She also offers a unique cultural perspective that’s rare in superhero fiction. Just as Catholicism is integral for Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, Kamala being a Muslim Pakistani American shapes who she is at her core. The comics often explored the conflict between her growing up as a contemporary teenage girl in a devout Islamic family, and did so with genuine authenticity. Both writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sara Amanat used their own personal experiences when creating and shaping Kamala as a character. If the writers of the Ms. Marvel television series can also do this, then they, too, could create a feeling of authenticity that audiences will believe, regardless of their religious or ancestral backgrounds.

Not that Kamala’s religious affiliation didn’t become a source of controversy upon Ms. Marvel’s initial appearance, even with practitioners of Islam. After the debut of Ms. Marvel #1, any such controversies, no matter how manufactured, quickly died away to the point of irrelevance.  It does highlight, however, that Kamala is still a product of her time, and not just because of what America was undergoing back then. When it came to their superheroes, Marvel Comics was in an awkward place, too.

Will Kamala remain distanced from Marvel’s Inhumans?

For years, Marvel couldn’t hold the film and television rights to the X-Men or Fantastic Four, as both were owned by 20th Century Fox. Thus, Marvel discontinued their publication of Fantastic Four, and also downplayed the X-Men’s greater role in the comics. In its place, they began promoting the Inhumans as an alternative to their line-up of X-Men and other mutants, even rebranding them as heroes hated and feared by the public at large. Ms. Marvel was part of that Inhumans push.

Except while Ms. Marvel resonated with her readers, the Inhumans did not. Their new line-up of comics severely under-performed, and ABC’s short-lived Inhumans television series became one of Marvel Studios’ biggest flops. Thus other than her origin involving Terrigen Mists, Ms. Marvel wound up having no association with the Inhumans whatsoever. Marvel and Disney would be wise to keep it that way for the TV series. If they wind up using the show to reintroduce the Inhumans again, it will (rightly) be seen as a cynical attempt to revive an already failed and unpopular franchise.

A star is born?

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There’s also another, less obvious concern. Ms. Marvel will be Iman Vellani’s first starring role in major television series. In fact, according to her IMDB page, this is the only television or film work she has ever appeared in. On the one hand, her landing the role of Kamala Khan is quite an impressive beginning for her acting career. At the same time, the pressure is bound to be enormous considering this sounds like her very first gig – in a starring role no less. It risks hinging the entire series on the strength of her performance, and if audiences believe she isn’t good or convincing, then the series will suffer for it. Then again, Disney and Marvel Studios are obviously confident in her since they did cast her.

The real challenge, however, is that Ms. Marvel must be appealing to the parents of its intended target audience. Disney+ is a subscription service, and in most cases, it will be moms and dads controlling the purse strings. At least the streaming service has the advantage of having a library of films and television programming suitable for family viewing – even the Marvel Studios and Star Wars movies, which tend to skew slightly older, are considered a soft PG-13 in terms of content. While a Ms. Marvel television show should attract comic book fans, its content shouldn’t also alienate parents with young teenage kids if it wants to be a hit.

We’ll certainly know more once Ms. Marvel arrives on Disney+ sometime in 2022. Yes, that’s still very much a ways off, especially since production hasn’t even started, and Iman Vellani has been the only casting announcement thus far. Yet it certainly appears Marvel Studios has clear plans for their cinematic universe moving forward, and that Kamala Khan will be a part of them.

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Are you excited for Ms. Marvel? Will you be checking it out when the show arrives on the streaming service? Let us know in the comments below!