[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the end of Ms. Marvel season 1.]
A superhero’s rogues’ gallery is often more interesting than the hero. They are the architects of conflict, mapping out the plot by achieving a nefarious goal or one that conflicts with the hero’s priorities. But too often a villain’s darkness contrasted with the hero’s light becomes a flatline of monotony, rather than a shade providing depth to the story.
Take Disney Plus’ Ms. Marvel. I love this show, and its central hero. It was wholesome, funny, gorgeous to look at, and portrayed people like me as fully human. But whenever the villains were around, that magic imbuing the show was lessened. By giving too much screen time to villains who needed an entire season of breathing room, while providing too little to an established group, the show encountered the pitfalls of a short yet overstuffed season.
In just six episodes, we get three sets of villains — The Clandestines, Kamran, and the Department of Damage Control — with differing levels of personal involvement with Kamala and her new powers. The Clandestines are a group of superpowered beings who appear human but are exiles from another dimension. They are djinn who, in Islamic myth, are invisible beings made of fire or light (noor in Arabic). This group includes Kamran, who finds himself torn between his loyalty to his mother, Najma, head of the Clandestines, and being a good friend/love interest to Kamala.
Finally, there’s the Department of Damage Control, a faceless bureaucratic entity whose goal appears to be capturing superpowered individuals. Viewing such people as inherently chaotic and dangerous, Damage Control pursues Kamala and others throughout the season. With only six episodes, Ms. Marvel’s creative team took clear shortcuts that undermined the potential for establishing proper conflict — and, with the Clandestines, conflict that actually made sense.
When we first meet Najma, she exudes a calming, maternal presence toward Kamala. She fills in the blanks in Kamala’s knowledge and teaches her how to use her powers to help them return home. Kamala says she needs time to process this information before embarking on such an adventure.
However, the show barely lets us — or Kamala — breathe before the Clandestines suddenly turn evil. Najma says she will wait no longer, and the entire Clandestine crew go after Kamala on the day of her brother’s wedding.
This change of attitude was so odd and unearned; I barely knew who the other Clandestines were, only that they appeared to be a diverse, happy family who wanted to go home. Yet, here they were, decades old and proficient in their powers, going after a teenager who only recently learned about her own powers. I couldn’t fathom what their goal was; they needed her, but also were intent on hurting her, despite Kamala not doing anything to them or even saying “no.” They had already waited decades to find the magic bangle. What was a few more days or weeks?
This superficial handling also meant that we learned nothing about any of the Clandestines except Najma and her son. I don’t know their names, their powers and so on. We don’t find out why or how they were exiled, what their dimension is like, how and where they lived, what they have been doing for half a century since parting ways (in bloody fashion) with Kamala’s great-grandmother. This information could have helped create a proper conflict with Kamala, as opposed to the Saturday morning cartoon villains they suddenly became. It’s unclear what harm they were suffering — sure, they said they wanted to go home, but I want a villa in southern France. Who cares?
By not fleshing out the Clandestines, we not only lost out on potentially interesting lore, but proper conflict — something that the show better achieved with the semi-villain Kamran.
When we meet him, Kamran is caught between trying to defend Kamala and be a good son to his suddenly evil mother. By the final two episodes, Kamran seemed set up to be the final big bad (which makes sense, given he is one in the comics); he’s lost his mother as a direct consequence of Kamala’s actions. He has every reason to turn against her, using his newly gained powers against Kamala. Instead, after only a few scrapes, Kamala manages to protect him from himself. It’s an enticement that the show may do something with later, but that feels more organic to Kamran’s story than his mother’s. Though he had proper conflict, the way he acted felt true to his character.
His and Kamala’s shared culture filled in a lot of how their connection might be strengthened (or compromised) in a way that her plot line with the Clandestines just didn’t. It’s also a big part of why I could identify with the show — and see the clear antagonism of the Department of Damage Control.
Minority groups — especially in the United States — tend to raise the hackles of the state. Damage Control is a very thin stand-in for ICE and similar law enforcement arms of the (U.S.) state: Our main hero is a Muslim girl who begins her superhero project by protecting her immediate Muslim community, so Damage Control decides to target all brown people in the Jersey area to capture her.
Like all such law enforcement agencies, its agents are bullish and arrogant in their conduct with others, justifying their actions because they are trying to “protect” people. They enter Kamala’s mosque — with shoes on! — but don’t get far, thanks to Kamala’s BFF Nakia noting they require a search warrant. Other times Damage Control agents refer to Kamala and other superhero with terms like “their kind” or “their type,” often having to clarify they mean superheroes, not Muslims.
In contrast to the Clandestines, Damage Control was done dirty by not having enough screen time. Both the audience and the show already understood the antagonism between Muslim communities in the U.S. and the faceless state law enforcement. Given the small number of episodes, making the agency the villain would’ve meant less time wasted on trying to establish who they are, why they’re bad, or where the conflict was. Though we never find out what Damage Control does with the superpowered people they capture, it felt clear, in keeping with the Kafkaesque nightmare that innocent people face when navigating faceless, all-powerful and consistently antagonistic bureaucracies.
Everything about Damage Control’s antagonism felt more personal, and more dangerous. While the other villains only target Kamala, Damage Control clearly targets Kamala and her whole community. Considering how the show builds up the local Muslim community, including her lovely family, there is greater resonance with the audience.
After all, we grow to love her community as people and then get to sympathize, if not get angry on their behalf, when they are unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Ultimately, the show skillfully subverted who is considered a hero. Through the radical act of normalization, we see a superhero from a wholesome, happy, and loving Muslim community and household. This resonated so strongly with me, it was often hard to examine the show with a cool head, given the dearth of such portrayals especially on peak TV.
It’s that the show did so much right that made its failures stand out. By having such a short space within which to develop its villains, it obfuscated what made its hero so impressive, important, and timely. Kamala was the first hero I have ever, as a brown man, identified with. The show was poignant, sharp, and clear in what it meant to its creators.
I have full faith in the creative team to deliver in the future, should Marvel give them a second season. We can only hope that, going forward, as much nuance is given to its villains as was given to the show’s heroes.