The latest addition to the Marvel universe has the potential to be 2022’s most revolutionary superhero event. Ms Marvel, which debuts this week on Disney+, stars Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American high school student from a Muslim family who lives in Jersey City. Written and directed by Pakistani-British comedian Bisha K Ali (whose CV includes Netflix’s Sex Education), the six-part series – about a magical bangle that grants Kamala cosmic powers and transforms her into the hero of the title – promises to raise the bar for representation in the superhero genre on both sides of the camera.
But while Ms Marvel, the seventh of Disney+’s Marvel shows, may well represent a shining light in caped entertainment – Ali has spoken of wanting to portray a “realistic, non-stereotypical, Muslim family” – it remains to be seen whether it can shine brightly enough to obscure the huge flaws in Marvel’s TV strategy. Having stumbled from misfire to misfire since the arrival 18 months ago of WandaVision, the studio’s straight-to-streaming television offerings have already undone much of its good work in film.
Until Disney+, Marvel had seen off every challenge thrown at it. It overcame the early failings of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk – starring incredible sulk Edward Norton – along with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor Who baddie routine in Thor: The Dark World in 2013. And it somehow made us forget Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), with its convoluted plotting and incoherent action – not to mention the rapidly aborted romance Joss Whedon cooked up between Black Widow and Bruce Banner.
Marvel instead soared higher and higher with its further Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy films, along with witty, self-aware brand extensions such as Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. Yet that sense of a unified vision falls away completely with the six Disney+ series released to date, which have included Loki and Hawkeye. The undeniable fact is that Marvel’s TV universe has been wildly inconsistent in tone and quality – and thus has the potential to take the gloss off the previously impeccable Marvel brand.
The obvious counterpoint is that there have been duff Marvel movies, too – the aforementioned Hulk and Age of Ultron, for instance. Not to mention last year’s ponderous Eternals and Sam Raimi’s recent Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which has languished in two- and three-star reviews. The difference is that even iffy Marvel films go down relatively easy, always harmonising with the wider cinematic universe. Whereas WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the just-concluded Moon Knight are often jarringly paced and tonally confusing, thus breaking the spell Marvel has worked so hard to conjure. They don’t so much blot its copybook as rip up the copybook and chuck the shredded pages out the window.
It’s difficult to deny that all of Marvel’s TV series have been massively flawed. WandaVision, for instance, disastrously jettisoned its early black-and-white sitcom look for an underwhelming finale drenched in CGI. The generally excellent Loki likewise threw away all its hard work with a flop conclusion that pulled a new villain – a version of Kang the Conqueror – out of a hat. It reduced the storytelling of the previous five episodes to a glorious distraction, namely the highly significant revelation that Tom Hiddleston’s titular trickster was bisexual.
Some of the shows’ other decisions have been straight-up terrible. Early into WandaVision, Marvel diehards twigged that nosy neighbour Agatha (Kathryn Hahn) was cosmic witch Agatha Harkness – and hoped major villain Mephisto would finally be unveiled as the one pulling the strings. There was disappointment when that failed to happen (perhaps comic-book fans should learn to accept that a female villain is as valid as the male variety). In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, copious hints about a “big bad” named The Power Broker yielded the damp squib revelation that the hidden nasty was actually Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That was a double let-down– a twist that fell flat, and a betrayal of a protagonist who’d deserved better.
Those are just the stand-outs. The worst Marvel shows have been entirely a waste of everyone’s time. Hawkeye served only to remind us why we were so bored by Jeremy Renner’s bow-and-arrow-wielding tough guy to begin with (it would have flopped completely without his charismatic co-star Hailee Steinfeld). And, a few weeks on from its finale, the only thing anyone remembers about Moon Knight is Oscar Isaac’s sanity-impinging Frank Spencer accent. Shockingly, all of this has unfolded under the watch of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. He is the architect of the MCU – so why has his golden touch deserted him when it comes to the Disney+ offerings?
Marvel’s movies are testament to its ability consistently to pull rabbits out of hats. With 2008’s Iron Man, it turned a C-list hero and a washed-up Robert Downey Jr into megastars. Guardians of the Galaxy made us invest in wacky heroes that included a talking shrub voiced by Vin Diesel. It should not have worked. And yet it did. So it’s strange that the studio’s miracle-working ways have so emphatically deserted it when it comes to television.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial
There is the additional problem that, in shunting Ms Marvel off to the small screen, Disney is denying her a shot at multiplex glory. How much more revolutionary it would be to give her the full movie treatment. Television is well and good, but not everyone has a Disney+ subscription, while a theatrical rollout would potentially have put Khan in front of a lot more eyeballs. Imagine how much less iconic Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther would have been if he were relegated to a six-part limited series.
Ms Marvel and this August’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (Marvel does Ally McBeal, judging by its trailers) may well buck that trend and provide a genuine reason for subscribing to Disney+. But the risk is high: one more TV disappointment would register as a further blow against Feige’s Marvel. For years the studio defied gravity and demonstrated that superheroes could be likeable, quippy and full of emotional depth. But something has been lost in their transition to the small screen. The questionable quality of these shows is the loose thread that could cause the entire endeavour to unravel.
‘Ms Marvel’ begins 8 June on Disney+