Family is intrinsic to superhero origin stories, whether steeped in a loss like Batman or discovering that powers are inherited. After trying on her great-grandmother’s bracelet for the first time, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) finds out she is in the latter camp and that sometimes an heirloom is more than a pretty trinket. With each passing episode, Ms. Marvel dishes out information at a steady rate, which gives enough new details to spark curiosity (and occasionally, whiplash). “Destined” is packed to the brim with reveals, emotional stakes, and a dance sequence to rival any rom-com or teen movie from the ’90s.
At the halfway point, showrunner Bisha K. Ali has thrown plenty of obstacles in Kamala’s way, answered big questions, and offered a unique insight into the corner of New Jersey City that the Khans call home. A wedding provides the backdrop for another exuberant jolt, quickly dampened by the arrival of what we know to be this season’s villains. Matters escalate quickly, but there is still time to reflect on Kamala’s swirling emotions that Vellani embodies.
Kamala is well-versed in superheroes — and she still has Captain Marvel as her phone wallpaper — and this gives the character a level of knowledge that only increases the pressure she places on herself. Expectation versus reality is more than an internet-ready meme, and watching videos of herself on TikTok doesn’t provide much clarity. There is an assumption, of course, that the audience is also familiar with superhero tropes, which ensures that the parallel immigrant storyline packs a punch as big as Kamala’s superpowered hand. So when Kamala talks to her mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) about her current predicament, she can do so without uttering a word about Djinn, her great-grandmother, and mystical bracelets.
The mother-daughter heart-to-heart offers insight into both Muneeba’s past struggles and a link to the present. It is a beautifully directed scene by Meera Menon that allows Shroff to break down further some of the hardened edges of the Khan matriarch. Muneeba cites finding the mosque as a defining moment in those early years in New Jersey when her expectation of the US didn’t meet her reality. This is one of several moments throughout the first three episodes in which the centering of the Muslim faith adds normalcy not often afforded in mainstream Western stories.
Ms. Marvel is not the first to do this (Hulu’s Emmy-nominated comedy Ramy is another to watch). Still, it certainly comes across as significant in depicting both daily and special events. Not every viewer will be familiar with Eid, but a marriage ceremony and the celebration that takes place after is universal.
Given how often (or at least since 9/11) mosques are seen not as places of worship but as nefarious recruitment centers for terrorists, it is not hard to see why Ali uses the Department of Damage Control (DODC) as a stand-in for the government agencies (and Hollywood stories) that malign Muslims. In last week’s episode, the DODC narrowed its search of the as-yet-unidentified person with powers to the mosque, which suggested parallels to real-world harmful stereotypes that “Destined” tackles head-on.
Agent Deever (Alysia Reiner) has no respect for the sanctity of this building, so it is refreshing to hear her get schooled by a teenager regarding the required protocol for searching a mosque. Nakia’s (Yasmeen Fletcher) confidence in this scene is followed by her fury and frustration when speaking to Kamala about the notion of self-surveillance that is familiar to those practicing this faith. Again, this is an impactful conversation covering real-world themes that have never been discussed in the MCU.
Nakia’s character is fleshed out further during these scenes, and winning the seat on the mosque board ensures that she isn’t simply playing the superhero’s best friend. Fletcher and Vellani are at ease in each other’s presence, which will only make the likely forthcoming rift more painful.
Whereas Bruno (Matt Lintz) has been on the secret since day one (it helps that he was there when it first happened), Nakia only discovers that Kamala is “Night Light” by chance. Again, this is all part of Kamala being pulled in multiple directions, and there is an inevitability to Nakia’s anger at her friend for keeping a secret — and putting a target on the mosque. No one in Kamala’s family has figured out that her mysterious behavior happened to begin around the time “Night Light” showed up. This is one plot contrivance that is hard to buy, particularly when she was absent after the wedding disruption.
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Before a fire alarm calls an end to Aamir (Sagaar Shaikh) and Tyesha’s (Travina Springer) wedding reception, it is as if Kamala never received this supernatural gift. It is another case of Ms. Marvel showing different cultural touchstones and the dance number performed to Asha Bhosle’s “Yeh Mera Dil Yaar Ka Diwana” comes from the Bollywood film Don. To me, this sequence is viewed through the lens of choreographed routines in movies like She’s All That. Still, it makes me want to explore the source of the references further (see also the conversation between Kamran and Kamala in Episode 2). What makes this scene so much fun is that not everyone is the best dancer; Kamala looks like she is about to fall, and Bruno is very much a few steps behind. It is not polished perfection, which only adds to the charm.
It is noticeable that I have gotten this far without discussing the big reveals regarding Kamala’s superhero role, and that is because the family elements are still the most successful. This isn’t to say the opening scene set in 1942 doesn’t immediately suck you into the episode, but there is something more tangible about the adolescent struggles — powers or no powers. Delivering a lot of exposition about the identity of Kamran (Rish Shah) and his mother Najma (Nimra Bucha) includes some interesting nuggets about the existence of the Clandestines. They are commonly referred to as Djinn, and for Kamala, these stories are rooted in nightmares that are worse than ghosts (“because they are real”). So it comes as a surprise that Kamala is so quick to trust. Not to mention the whole being exiled from the Noor dimension and no follow-ups regarding what they did to warrant this severe punishment.
Sure, Kamran’s connection to this group could excuse Kamala’s inability to look at them critically. Her face when she finds out he is not a century-old being pretending to be a 17-year-old boy is priceless — I have questions about how a Djinn can have a child. Again, a lot of information is dished out during this scene. The same can be said about the conversation between Kamala and Bruno about inter-dimensional travel and the role she will play. Peppering these scenes with jokes adds levity, but some of the details can get lost amid the banter. Regardless of the specifics, it could severely impact the fabric of the universe (that old chestnut), and the Djinn have little patience.
“Destined” does suffer a tad from trying to cover too much ground, and I am almost as exhausted as Kamala when she gets a phone call from her grandmother telling her she needs to come to Karachi. The fight sequence is a shot of adrenaline but cannot compete with the dance number before it — even if it draws on the Jurassic Park kitchen sequence. Even with these drawbacks, Ms. Marvel continues to satisfy and is a breath of fresh air.