Ms. Marvel is the Most Comic Book Show, Ever

I hate to bring politics into this piece in the first paragraph, but that’s what the Incels have just required me to do. I can’t just say, “This is awesome, you should go see it,” anymore; I now have to delve into why a brown kid from the Rust Belt is as-deserving of her own series as her white straight boy side kick. So, let me say, if you want to accuse Disney Plus of “Wokeism” (whatever the fuck that is), I should remind you that you can look up Peter Pan (1953) on the exact same service, and that film has some horrifying amounts of old-time racism on display. There are classic cartoons, with that same great, American taste of racism, if not on that platform (seriously, some of those Goofy cartoons are much darker than you remember them), then on various YouTube channels. The point is; Disney Consolidated Global Holdings, Inc. has a long, proud history of racism, and apart from 60-odd years of desperately pretending Song of the South was a bad dream all along, the Disney Corp. isn’t whitewashing their sordid past of bigotry with half the zeal of Tucker Carlson. If you demand ludicrous amounts of entertainment that treat the able-bodied, straight, white male as the sole being in existence, Disney has you covered with (checks notes), literally everything they did prior to the 00’s. Accusing one of the major exporters of American racial stereotypes of suddenly becoming enlightened is like accusing noted actual neoNazi and man with a truly unfortunate mustache, David Duke, of being “too politically correct.” The man may be reformed, but you would still tell that nice black family in the park to avoid the guy devouring pigeons (I’m assuming he has to eat something). A recent turn of heart doesn’t erase decades of racism and misogyny, is all I’m saying. Here’s what I think upsets all of these insecure white people who think MiMaw’s deviled eggs are too spicy: Disney is an utterly amoral, ruthless hyper-capitalist machine, dedicated to making money by any and every means. If the shareholders thought it would be more-profitable to reenact 101 Dalmations (Speaking of which, am I the only one who thinks Cruella DeVil resembles that really cool drunk aunt who’d show up to family events just to crash them and get you out of a nine-hour session in church? The one who never married but always had several female roomma- Goddamn, there’s bigotry in every aspect of this company), you can bet your sweet ass that “Disney Dog Adoption Centers” would become a thing tomorrow. No, what really scares the racists is that Disney coldly crunched the numbers, and decided that emotionally labile xenophobes are a negligible market force, and decided to release Ms. Marvel, because Disney likes money far more than it fears man babies on social media. Once in a while, capitalism arrives at the right conclusion through market forces.

Having said that, I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate, non-sexist or non-racist reasons to dislike the show. Maybe you’re allergic to joy. Or perhaps you despise fun; I don’t know; I’m not here to judge. And, if you believe that there’s some vast conspiracy to undermine your 17th century values, well, yeah, it’s called the 21st century, we have streaming. However, instead of mindlessly saying, “Reverse racism caused this show to exist,” I would suggest that white men have controlled (checks notes) the overwhelming majority of media since some vandals spilled paint all over Lascaux, and, in the intervening 19000 years, white men have had a virtual monopoly on culture and the stories available to us; which isn’t to say that white dudes aren’t capable of churning out new and compelling stories, but Sandman doesn’t come out until next month, and Christopher Moore’s next novel isn’t due out for a few years. In the intervening time, is it really so bad that different groups pick up the nerd slack, and fill any market gaps?

So, after that elaborate pre-show act of rationalizing minority’s rights to exist and tell their own stories, one might expect an exhausted, exasperated tone from this series (as a cripple, playing the, “No, I actually exist, and should be allowed to live” game is tiring and aggravating, and, if I could move faster, might involve murders). It isn’t, at all. It’s the most delightfully comic book thing I’ve ever seen.

I can only speak to my experience with this series, but I turned it on on my way to bed at 11 pm (2300 for the USMC and/or my Eurovision-loving friends), thinking I’d get it cued up to play, and go to bed. I watched the whole episode in one glorious sitting after seeing the first minute.

For those of you born before the current Nerd Renaissance, allow me to describe Hollywood’s prior relationship with our tribe. We were a minor, niche demographic. Apart from the occasional sci-fi tent-pole film, like Phantom Menace or Independence Day, geek film offerings were limited to the increasingly-sneering Batman films, the Superman films (not to knock ’em, but two good films does not a genre make), and the occasional off-beat hit, like Blade or Men In Black. I mean, what were we going to do? Watch a Disney movie instead of Bat Nipples (that’s not some crude euphemism, it refers to the nadir of modern nerd existence, Google it)? No, we’d accept a truly terrible Spawn movie (I’ve since become acquainted with the utterly moronic comics, and concluded that was actually the best-possible Spawn movie), and like it, by golly. Sometime between Clooney’s shockingly boring performance behind the ears, X-Men United, and Batman Begins, I began to get that strange sensation, “Hey, someone actually cares about this weird, stupid source material, possibly more than me.” That really culminated in Rogue One, on one of the Day One shooting journals, in which the director and producers got misty that they got to work on the films that inspired them to become film makers. That absolute adoration and devotion, not just to Ms. Marvel, but to comic books, as a concept, is baked into every frame of this show. Hell, the actor Iman Vellani apparently regularly texts producer Kevin Feige to argue about Dr. Strange continuity which is second only to a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT in terms of sheer geekiness.

Which brings me to my first, “Wow, they actually did it” moment of the pilot: the producers gave me something I didn’t even know I wanted: comic book nerds, in a universe with actual superheroes. This isn’t a one-off thing, either, it’s the entire plot of the pilot: Kamala Khan, a mostly-ordinary, happy-go-lucky high school junior is told by her guidance counselor to go home and think about her career goals and future. Because Khan is an angsty Gen Z, she opts to ditch that in favor of a comic book convention. It is so clear that the producers want to use the concept of a comic con, but it’s also clear that such a thing would be absolutely redundant in a world where Steve Rogers, T’Challa, and the Avengers, all exist. So, the producers turn into what would be a comic book convention into a convention like any other subcultural or professional group — hey, if Furries and trial attorneys can have conventions, why not the Captain America Fan Club of New Jersey? Jersey, BTW, and that notorious Jersey inferiority complex, are actually a part of the story. Anyway, to get to the con, Kamala must convince her overbearing, overprotective, hyper-meddlesome parents to give her a ride. Did I forget to mention that? Yeah, this is a standard “Coming of age” story with superpowers, and no American childhood would be complete without that grim scene of prostrating oneself before the parental unit to beg for a ride to an event they have absolutely no interest in. This show does so in a way that’s not only familiarly heart-breaking for everyone who missed the Harry Potter midnight book launches, but shockingly funny. Khan and her genius inventor side-kick (really, it’s an oversight on Marvel’s part that it took them 14 years to get to the Boy Genius stock character, but I ate it up, because I’m a nerd), are forced to do what everyone does in these situations: take the bus; because Kamala’s determined to win the Captain Marvel Cosplay Competition. Now, as an aside, dressing up like people who already exist seems a little weird and almost ghoulish to me (imagine an Elon Musk look-alike competition and you can see why I’m a little suspicious of the concept), but, again, my desire to see comic book nerds exist in this universe completely overwhelms any skepticism. At the Con, Khan adds that “final flourish” to her Captain Marvel costume; her grandmother’s bracelet. And, suddenly, K. Khan, a girl who just flunked her driver’s training exam (in a previous, hysterical scene) has superpowers. And just got caught breaking her curfew.

At this moment, although the show has more than proven itself to me, on its own merits, we have to talk about Spider-Man, because the show’s overall structure and narrative is going to lean heavily on elements from that franchise. Because we got origin stories for Spidey decades ago, we overlook that crucial aspects of the Spider-Man story, that Peter Parker is the high school loser who is relentlessly bullied, struggles to get a date for the school dance, and has to figure out how to handle super powers on top of the standard horrors and indignities of growing up. We didn’t get that with the MCU, because they just got the rights to Spider-Man back, and no one wanted to see that same story, again. So, I suspect that poor Ms. Khan will end up being the character who has to learn to navigate puberty, college admissions, and powers on-screen, in lieu of Peter Parker (there’s a joke about minority women putting in emotional labor for white men, but, frankly, this series is so exuberant that joke seems mean), and, in complete honesty, I am here for it. In the pilot, the two main characters perform a minor rite of passage most Americans undergo: desperately running to the bus stop as the bus pulls away. Except, in this version, Khan does something only a few of us manage — she gets her bike caught in the bus door and is forced to leave it behind. “It will still be here when we get back, right?!” Khan panic-asks her friend. “In Jersey City? I’d give it a 0.00001% probability” he replies. This was the exact moment when the show broke me.

But, in addition to just being a comedic mayhem-filled episode, this show looks like a comic book. To recall the dark, pre-Dark Knight years, you might recall the Ang Lee attempt at a Hulk movie; about which the most-charitable thing that could be said was, “Well, it introduced international audiences to Eric Bana. And radioactive poodles, for some reason.” However, critics at the time absolutely could not stop fawning over the novelty cuts, fades, and wipe cuts that “made it look like a comic book” (it was really, “It reminded us all of comic books, because we didn’t have Zoom as a visual reference for putting a bunch of disconnected POV shots aside each other”). Ignoring the fact that the film came out in the middle of the Star Wars prequels, and a novelty fade wipe was in theaters regularly; apparently, that aesthetic overcame the shambling story and the very weird fact that the Hulk doesn’t appear — at all — in the first act, because the film’s editors were as creative as the ones at Lucas Film. But, I digress; Ms. Marvel doesn’t just look like a living comic book, it looks like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby dropped acid and went to the editing bay. Not only does it all look gorgeous, it looks like a comic book, and a clever, Eisner-winning one, at that (pay very close attention to the texting scenes for some added, slick visual zing that I usually associate with Image Comics).

And, the show gave me an entirely new emotional experience. I’ve binge watched plenty of shows; I’m very used to Star Wars shows regularly ending on a cliff-hanger; I was not expecting that weird, “Wait, there’s more, it can’t just — “ sensation as the credits rolled. Needless to say, I will be angry-waiting until the next episode drops (they have all the episodes in the can, I know that, they know we know it, why do we have to go through this grotesque pantomime of forcing us all to wait for the sake of waiting — I stood in line for four hours to see the Prequels, I’ve done my time). I recommend joining me. Again, the best part — for me — is clearly everyone involved is as joyous as the folks behind Rogue One — they would’ve been happy to make this series for Youtube, with home-made animation (if there isn’t a Sloth Baby YouTube channel by this time, Monday, heads will roll). The fact that someone actually gave them a budget and a real film crew is a rare opportunity the cast and crew are determined to seize with relish.

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