The two halves of high-schooler Kamala Khan’s life initially seem unbridgeable. By day, she’s a second-generation Pakistani American teen with strict parents and a low profile at school. By night, she’s an Avengers stan, creating fan videos of the battle against Thanos, though her favorite is Captain Marvel, the space-traveling former fighter pilot played by Brie Larson in the movies.
In the first episode of “Ms. Marvel,” the new Disney Plus adaptation of the comic, the tension between the two aspects of Kamala’s (newcomer Iman Vellani) existence manifests in her mom and dad forbidding her from attending Avengercon, where the teen hoped to debut a homemade Captain Marvel costume her parents would deem too form-fitting.
Such is “Ms. Marvel’s” clever spin on the age-old Asian American narrative formula of straddling dual worlds. In its first two episodes (the portion screened for critics), the six-part YA series also feels like a bisected unit — an earnest step forward in Disney and Marvel’s efforts to tell more diverse stories and an irksome display of Big Mouse’s increasing, and increasingly exhausting, self-referentiality.
“It’s not really the Brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” sighs Kamala to her science-geek friend Bruno (Matt Lintz). The point of the show is, of course, that it absolutely can be, and that there’s no reason a budding “enhanced individual,” as emerging superheroes are called by the bureaucrats who track them, can’t incorporate their cultural heritage into their super-identity. In her Captain Marvel costume, Kamala sports plastic blond “hair” glued to the top of her helmet. But underneath, her long, wavy black braid trails behind her, which would be no less glamorous were it allowed to fly free.
The two episodes flit through so many different facets and issues pertaining to a Pakistani immigrant family like Kamala’s that they all feel a bit shoehorned in. A teacher habitually calls her “Camellia,” her older brother (Saagar Shaikh) is afforded much more freedom on account of his sex by their parents (Mohan Kapur and Zenobia Shroff), and Kamala’s outspoken friend Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) rolls her eyes at how much more their history curriculum focuses on Rome than Persia. Nakia then runs for a prominent position at the mosque to challenge its overwhelmingly male leadership.
There’s also a passing reference to the government’s surveillance of Muslim houses of worship — social commentary that becomes a plot point when Kamala attempts one of her first rescues with inchoate powers she can’t rely on yet, then has to run away from agents who racially profile her.
Despite these more serious themes, “Ms. Marvel” is a candy-coated visual delight, Kamala’s powers glowing in blues, pinks and purples and crystallizing into gemlike structures she can step on to climb into the sky. And because she is a fantasy-prone doodler, her bike rides with Bruno are full of her brightly colored artistic musings plastered as murals on the buildings behind her.
It is, as always, a relief when the stakes in a Marvel thingamabob aren’t the fate of the universe, but solvable by human ingenuity and just a wee bit of phosphorescent magic. Here, the (rather promising) season-long mystery seems to be the source of Kamala’s powers, which appear to relate to a great-grandmother’s unexplained disappearance during Partition, when, following British colonial rule, Pakistan broke away from India to form its own country in 1947.
Kamala’s fandom of Captain Marvel and the other superheroes is an integral part of her origin story — her character arc suggests a transformation from an admirer to an active participant. And yet I can’t be the only bystander to Marvel’s reign over pop culture made cranky by its burgeoning insularity.
The day after Kamala discovers she has powers, she tells Bruno at school, “I tried to shrink and fly and talk to ants.” Asked why she thought she’d have Ant-Man’s powers, she responds, “Because we’re both charming, and we look a lot younger than we are.” Vellani’s confident delivery can’t salvage a joke that smug (and unfunny). The rest of the series feels like a prod to revisit the other offerings on Disney Plus, like the animated “Mulan,” which is quoted here, or the Avengers movies, which get their own (admittedly very cute) paper-doll tribute in the opening scene.
There’s plenty to praise here but also just enough to twitch a few fingers in preparation for a Hulk Smash.
Ms. Marvel (45 minutes) premieres Wednesday on Disney Plus. New episodes air weekly.