Review: 'Ms. Marvel' is as Much About Culture as it is About Superpowers

The Greatest American Hero Is a Muslim Teen
July 1, 2022
Critics have almost uniformly praised Ms. Marvel. So why is no one watching it?  (MARVEL STUDIOS)

Originally published on our sister site, The Stranger.

I wanted to begin this post by identifying the similarities between Greatest American Hero, an early ’80s comedy-drama that aired on ABC, and Ms. Marvel, a new series on Disney Plus. But I feared that many would find the former superhero show too obscure, and the connections between it and Ms. Marvel too theoretical. So, I finally decided to go straight to the heart of the matter: Why am I writing about Ms. Marvel? Because no one is watching it.

Or, put another way (and less dramatically), its viewership is considerably lower than other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series on Disney Plus. According to Samba TV, only 775,000 US households watched Ms. Marvel’s premiere. WandaVision, another excellent superhero TV show, drew 1.6 million viewers. (The mediocre Loki, 2.5 million.) And yet critics have almost uniformly praised Ms. Marvel. It’s original, it’s actually funny, and it’s culturally rich. Ms. Marvel is about a teenager who is Muslim and Pakistani American. The show is as much about culture as it is about superpowers (the most boring thing in superhero shows). Indeed, I will argue that the latter is of no real importance.    

As I said, I almost began this post by considering the similarities between Greatest American Hero and Ms. Marvel, which are certainly not irrelevant, but a better or closer fit would be Luke Cage. The Netflix show, which began in 2016 and died after its second season in 2018, was adapted to a contemporary urban sequence structured by the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the finalization of gentrification. It also celebrated ’90s hiphop. When Luke uses his superpowers, which include being bulletproof, a power that would save the lives of too many young black men, Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring da Ruckus” erupts on the soundtrack.

Ms. Marvel has at its center 16-year-old Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), who is learning about the history and the extent of her superpowers (the show’s closest connection with Greatest American Hero). Ms. Marvel is much like Luke Cage in the sense that it does little to accommodate or speak directly to white viewers. It’s a show that, above all, is about the Muslim American experience, followed by the immigrant experience, and thirdly, the experience of culturally and racially mixed and remixed urban enclaves. In Seattle, that kind of neighborhood is found around Othello Station. In Detroit, it’s all of Hamtramck. (The primary—if not sole—white character on Ms. Marvel is Bruno Carrelli. Played by Matt Lintz, Bruno spends much of the show just worshipping Kamala, who is in love with a South Asian man with a British accent.)

This non-white orientation explains Ms. Marvel’s low ratings, and also why Luke Cage only lasted two seasons. (The only white character in that show, Theo Rossi, is a criminal and fuck puppet for a Black woman who looks twice his age, the amazing Alfre Woodard.) They share an attempt to narrate the superhero from a perspective plainly outside of white America and its very well-known and well-worn worldviews.

Oddly enough, Black Panther, a superhero movie primarily set in Africa, went out of its way to include white America, which already has Thor, Captan America, Batman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Flash, and so on and so on. In fact, Ms. Marvel makes more effort to connect with Black America than the race that rules American economics, politics, and religion.

Ms. Marvel has a soundtrack that continuously pumps contemporary South Asian pop. It spends much of its runtime dealing with the politics of a mosque. It explores the history and national traumas of Pakistan—indeed, episode four is set in that Muslim country. And so it is not a surprise that the show is popular with “Gen Z and Black, Hispanic and Asian households.” Mainstream white people can’t stop telling and consuming superhero stories about themselves. 

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