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Networks Watch Ms Marvel: an unexpected examination of social, cultural and political fault lines

DENNIS BROE suggest the new series has a clear liberatory potential that is to be welcome

THERE are two groups that the recently concluded Disney+ Series Ms Marvel may have turned off initially but who should follow this groundbreaking series through to its end to experience its transformational and liberatory potential.

The first are the usual Marvel fans who see themselves as caught up in the studio’s “commodified seriality” where every series and film relates to every other and who search for “Easter eggs” which identify these affinities and hint at future projects.

They will find this series adds a social dimension to the studio’s offerings correcting past semi-colonial productions (ie the much-praised Moon Knight) and illustrating how the “phase 4” multiverse can be used not just to hook fans through its interminable complexity (Loki) but also through its ability to tell historical truths, in this case, its revelation of the sadness and horror of the British partition of India, marking Hindus and Muslims as enemies in the creation of Pakistan.
 
The second group are those who believe that nothing good can ever come of the Marvel Universe when in fact there are projects which point the way towards a better world, such as the Afro-Futurism on display in the kingdom of Wakanda in Black Panther.

To that we can add Episode 6 of Ms Marvel, and the weight of the series itself, which is, in slightly veiled form, the history of US persecution of Muslim peoples and neighbourhoods post 9/11 and a recounting of the resilience of those communities in fighting back.

Ms Marvel starts out as just the usual plug for the Marvel Universe with the US teen Kamala Kahn (a charmingly authentic Iman Vellani) part of a lovingly detailed South Asian Muslim community in Jersey City, who adores the Carol Danvers’s Captain Marvel superhero and sneaks away from her controlling Indian/Pakistani parents to go to “Avengers Con.”

Here her powers are revealed, flowing from a bangle, a magic bracelet, a gift from her grandmother in Pakistan. On a rooftop afterwards, she despairs of ever becoming like her idol because “it’s not … brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” pointing up not only the dominance of whiteness but also of the rich, such as the defence industry entrepreneur Tony Stark (Iron Man), in the superhero genre.

The series, written, directed, and produced by an ensemble of US and British Asian and South Asian artists, led by series creator Bisha K Ali, then takes a dramatic turn at the mid-point as Kamala and her family are called to Karachi by her grandmother to explain her powers and a mysterious 1940’s train that appears to Kamala and seems to be a part of the typical Marvel time-warp, multidimensional world.
 
Ms Marvel though goes each of those one better and points to the way the Marvel Multiverse might acquire meaning other than simply as time-shifting graveyard of past Marvel products as the windup of the current Spiderman trilogy Spider-man: No Way Home brought back the other two Spidermen from the previous trilogies as well as their foes in what amounted to a nine-film plug for the Marvel catalogue.

In episode five, of six, Kamala is returned using the bangle to the moment of the partition as, perched atop a train, she watches a momentous scene of people fleeing with all their possessions and attempting to clamber aboard the last way out of India for Pakistan.

The episode opens with a short documentary explaining the harshness of the British decision to divide the two countries then flashes back to a story of love between a Muslim woman and a backer of Indian independence that will finish in a tragically tearful moment that Kamala tries to right as the train is departing.

And when was the last time you cried at a Marvel film or television show? Never, I reckon.

The subject of the last episode, where Kamala and her family return to Jersey City, is the attempt to wreak havoc on the community by a government organisation which is attempting to capture Kamala.

Called the Department of Damage Control (DODC), the agency is clearly a stand-in for the Department of Homeland Security and its overzealous female persecutor may be a stand-in Hillary Clinton who boasted about destroying the Muslim country of Libya.

The agents, in a swat squad, violate the mosque which Nakia explains is under surveillance even by “The Department of Sanitation.”

In her battle against the US forces of order, Kamala is given her costume, a big moment in any superhero origin story, sewn by her mother, who then acknowledges her daughter’s independence in a way that heals a rift in the mother-daughter relationship.

The costume is ablaze with colour, reflecting the splendor of Muslim female fashion, and much more authentic and bounteous than the fake Captain Marvel costume she had worn at the opening.

Her father later explains to her that her name Kamala in Urdu, the family’s mother tongue, means “marvel,” in a way that makes of her something more than just a franchise namesake.

Kamala and her cohorts, who form a kind of Nancy Drew or In The Dark, group, though far less cynical than those outfits, defeat the swat squad through their knowledge of their surroundings as the troopers with their sonic boomers invade and are foiled in the teen’s high school.

She defeats the legions of federal agents with the community, and even the local police, cheering her on. Finally, however, she is trapped and about to be captured when the entire community comes together to save her and allow her to escape.
 
This is a truly remarkable series and shows how the various “verses,” Facebook’s Meta- and Marvel’s Multi-, can be a space for an examination of social, cultural and political fault lines rather than simply a commercial paradise used for advertising and marketing.

Dennis Broe is the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and Diary of A Digital Plague Year: Corona Culture, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is currently working on a book titled Marvel Studios and Commodified Seriality.

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