The Marvel Cinematic Universe is well past its peak.
All is not lost just yet, however, as there is still a panoply of costume heroes lining up to save the galaxy from danger or time travel or god-killers. But after 15 years of formulaic (and often satisfying!) films and series, a hard reset is long overdue, as well as a true passing of the torch. As IndieWire’s Kate Erbland noted in her C- review of “The Marvels,” it’s time to burn it all down and rebuild.
And that’s where Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) comes in.
“The Marvels” is as predictable and generally uninspired as the last several MCU projects before it. There’s a glitch in the fabric of space and time, a slapdash team of heroes from multiple titles, and an intergalactic CGI adventure. To its credit, “The Marvels” is a shockingly humane 105-minute movie, and in between the insipid villain story and garish light magic, the film boasts legitimately enjoyable banter and a cast chemistry among the best of them, largely thanks to Kamala aka Ms. Marvel.
The Avengers superfan-turned-hero is gobsmacked to be fighting alongside her idol Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and eager to bond with and nickname Monica (Teyonah Parris). As with her debut series “Ms. Marvel,” Vellani brings an unimpeachable earnestness to the role of Kamala, who is awestruck, self-aware, and never grating (even when the film around her can be). Her Pakistani heritage and family values, essential tenets of “Ms. Marvel,” fit comfortably into the wider world of “The Marvels,” with Kamala’s parents and brother roped into the adventure too. And Kamala’s sparkling presence quickly becomes the glue between the titular Marvels, as she wins them over as they battle the latest big bad to take on Earth’s heroes. In the post-“Endgame” MCU, fan conduits like Kamala are a refreshing shift from the brooding, reluctant heroes of yore (including even Carol herself, here seen cracking her fair share of smiles for the first time in quite awhile).
Writer John Green likes to say that books belong to their readers, and inserting fans into the MCU feels like a version of that. The superhero life, the Avengers initiative, these are no longer the purview of an ultra-elite task force, but spreading wide as superpowers and technology become more accessible in the films’ universe. Kamala’s brand of excitement was first infused into the franchise when Tom Holland joined “Captain America: Civil War” as Spider-Man, and reinvigorated post-“Endgame” with Kate Bishop in 2021’s “Hawkeye” (Hailee Steinfeld).
And that’s one piece of how Kamala Khan is the bright spot in an otherwise shockingly dull movie: The ending. Marvel has long hinted at the introduction of young Avengers, the team that in the comics includes Kate, America Chavez (as played in the MCU by Xochitl Gomez in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”), and more. And just before the credits roll in “The Marvels,” that promise returns. Kamala confronts Kate from the shadows, doing her best Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in “Iron Man” — what better way to start over than literally harken back to the beginning of the MCU?
Start from the ground up. Build a team. Introduce new characters, new origins, new backstories and motivations. The Gen Z of Earth-616 have grown up with super-powered heroes and lived or skipped through the Blip, and exploring that chapter’s impact on Earth’s population — and other planets — has yielded some of the most interesting and complex narrative territory since 2020.
It’s also inextricably tied to the fact that much of Marvel’s fresh talent in that time — behind the camera as well as in front of it — have been fans not only of Marvel comics, but of the MCU itself. The franchise is being handed to the viewers like the books to their readers, and trusting them could give us some of the best MCU material yet (like “Ms. Marvel” itself, the highest-rated MCU project on Rotten Tomatoes to date).
No disrespect to the reigning MCU heroes, but they’ve saved the world time and again, and the audience knows exactly how that all goes. Maybe it’s time to retire, for Kamala to do more than just an impression of Nick Fury, and for the fans to take full control in front of and behind the camera. Kamala Khan knows where she came from and she’s excited about where she’s going — what’s more thrilling than that?