In ‘Ms. Marvel, ‘Family Continues to Trump Mythology

Spoiler warning

At a family dinner midway through the second episode of Ms. Marvel, Yusuf Khan tells the story of how Kamala’s grandmother, Sana, got lost on the night of the Partition. Although Muneeba prefers to avoid the subject altogether, her husband explains how, despite being only a toddler, Sana was able to find her way back to her father by following a “trail of stars.” Kamala and her brother Aamir know this story by heart, having likely heard it throughout their childhoods, and Yusuf delivers it as if he were telling a fairy tale — an unexplainable miracle amid an indescribable tragedy. Neither Kamala nor Aamir ever seemed to read into the fantastic implications of the tale; as Aamir says, “Every Pakistani family has a Partition story.”

In this week’s episode — the penultimate chapter of the six-part season — we see that Partition story unfold firsthand, as Ms. Marvel travels back in time to British-occupied India in 1942. And unlike the brief flashback sequence that served as the opening to the third episode, “Time and Again” stays locked in on the mid – 20th century setting for the majority of its running time ; Kamala does not appear until about 20 minutes in. Thanks in large part to the performances of renowned Pakistani actors Mehwish Hayat and Fawad Khan (who play Kamala’s great-grandparents Aisha and Hasan), and the narrative groundwork that was laid in previous episodes, the penultimate chapter is one of the strongest of the season . But while it maintains the show’s high standard of storytelling concerning the young superhero’s family saga, it also demonstrates its ongoing (and possibly irreparable) problems creating compelling villains in the Clandestines.

Screenshots via Disney +

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, “Time and Again” is the culmination of the family drama that has been building steadily ever since Kamala found her great-grandmother’s bangle in the premiere. From the moment Kamala opened that box in front of Muneeba, it was clear that Kamala’s mother was hiding something about her family history. Subsequent episodes only added to the mystery surrounding Aisha, through rumors spread by the Illumin-Aunties of her infidelity and how she once killed a man, and the ageless friends arriving to announce that Aisha was a Djinn from an alternate dimension. Last week’s “Seeing Red” brought the series to Pakistan and continued to build on the family story by further exploring the tense relationship between Muneeba and Sana and revealing the sources of pain on both sides as distance grew between them.

All of these incremental moments came to a head in “Time and Again,” as Ms. Marvel finally pulled back the curtain on one of its biggest mysteries. There’s still a lot we do not know about Aisha’s life in the Noor Dimension, but the fifth episode illuminates what kind of person she was, how she fell in love with a human and started a family with him, and how she was killed during the Partition. By the time Kamala arrives at the train station after being transported from the future, Aisha has already been stabbed by Najma and is about to die, but not before she tells her great-granddaughter to help find little Sana. As Kamala uses her powers to guide Sana back to Hasan, she realizes that not only had her grandmother’s Partition story been true all along, but that she was responsible for the “trail of stars” in the first place — a classic time-traveling scenario of predestination called a causal loop.

When Kamala returns to the present and Muneeba and Sana track her down, their family’s lingering emotional wounds, inflicted by the Partition, can finally start to heal.

“It was all true, Nani,” Kamala says, while giving her grandmother the only photo that she’s ever seen of her and her parents.

“This photograph, and those lights… how did that happen?” Muneeba asks her daughter.

“I do not know,” Sana interjects, as Kamala hesitates to reply. “But I’d like to think two people fell in love and created something — something much bigger than either of them could have created alone.”

Between Aisha and Hasan’s tragic romance and Kamala’s reunion with Muneeba and Sana in the present, “Time and Again” is full of touching emotional beats that tie together everything that Ms. Marvel had been working toward in its telling of Kamala’s family history. It all culminates in satisfying fashion when Muneeba hugs both her mother and daughter. At last, she’s able to see the truth in the fantastic stories that drove her and Sana apart years earlier, and she grasps that Kamala is a superhero, not the mere rebellious teenager and disobedient daughter she believed she was becoming.

But while all of the family drama in Ms. Marvel has worked well in tandem with Kamala’s coming-of-age origin story, the adjacent plotline about the Clandestines has only distracted from the show’s achievements. Given all of the focus on Kamala’s family, the Clandestines — and their mission to return to the Noor Dimension — have felt like an afterthought, despite their serving as Kamala’s primary antagonists. There are four members in the group, and yet their leader, Najma, is the only one who ever speaks; all we really know about any of them as individuals is that Najma has a son named Kamran and that one guy is weirdly into a high school influencer’s video about low-calorie popcorn. The Clandestines, who seem loosely inspired by a cohort of similarly secretive, long-lived beings in the comics, have an almost cartoonish presence in Ms. Marvel; they often bust into scenes like the Kool-Aid Man in an attempt to inject an action sequence. It’s only fitting that Najma’s and Fariha’s sudden deaths in “Time and Again” are just as cartoonish: When the Veil between Earth and the Noor Dimension is torn open, they become encased in some sort of purple, crystalline matter before being reduced to skeletons in seconds.

Beyond the lack of individual character development, the real issue with the Clandestines is that their collective backstory and motivations have not been firmly established. Now, ahead of the season finale, they’re all already dead, save for the half-human Kamran. The majority of what we’ve learned about the Clandestines and their Noor Dimension to this point came during the big exposition dump in the third episode when Najma properly introduced herself and her group to Kamala, along with the additional information that the Red Daggers were ( somehow) able to provide in “Seeing Red.” Ms. Marvel establishes the greater conflict at hand — that the Clandestines have been exiled from their reality and want to return to it — but it does not devote sufficient time or care to their story to supply it with the emotional stakes that infuse Kamala’s family history.

Nor is it ever clear whether there’s a particular reason for the Clandestines’ sense of urgency to go home. “We do not have more time,” Najma tells Kamran in the third episode, but the Clandestines have been waiting around for decades and seem to be doing just fine, so what’s the rush? (Like, did Najma really need to shank Aisha on the train platform like that during the Partition? Wouldn’t it have made sense to at least, I do not know, try to kidnap her wandering child? And in the next centurythe Clandestines could not just wait for the Khan family to get their groove on at Aamir’s wedding instead of antagonizing Kamala and getting themselves locked up in a supermax prison?)

As the season finale approaches next week, there’s still time for Ms. Marvel to salvage this Clandestine story line. With Najma’s dying breath, she managed to close the Veil spirit somehow transfer energy from the Noor Dimension to Kamran from across the globe, giving him supernatural abilities that look similar to Kamala’s without the need for a bangle. (In the comics, there is some precedent for this development: Like Kamala, Kamran turns out to be an Inhuman, though his powers look and function differently than they seem to in the Disney + series.) By the end of the episode, Kamran has teamed up with Bruno (and finally learned his name in the process), and together they still need to handle the loose thread of the Department of Damage Control, which has shifted its attention away from Kamala and onto the Clandestines in recent episodes. Given how late into the season we are, though, it might not be possible to deliver an emotional payoff to this plotline now that Kamran’s mother and her allies are all gone. Considering how adeptly Ms. Marvel weaved Kamala’s family history into her discovery of her superpowers, it’s hard not to wonder whether the series would have benefited from having more of a runway than six episodes to round out the rest of this Clandestine plot — or, perhaps, from reworking or deemphasizing it altogether, given that Kamala’s origin story, and its connections to her culture and lineage, could function so well without the grafted-on and half-baked mythology.

Despite some of its shortcomings, Ms. Marvel has been a refreshing entry in the MCU from its first episode on, introducing a delightful new star in Iman Vellani while allowing her family of costars to share in the spotlight. The series has also crafted that narrative around a historical event that is not often covered in mainstream American media, with authentic voices leading the way, a testament to the strides that Marvel Studios has made in improving representation to better reflect the diverse audience of fans it attracted over the years. But with the finale coming next week and likely featuring a connection to The Marvels, Ms. Marvel still has to prove that it can seamlessly incorporate its protagonist into the MCU’s future just as it’s already worked the MCU’s past into Kamala’s character.

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