Episode Analysis Ms Marvel: Destined
Ms Marvel's third episode brings great dancing and some interesting character choices.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for Ms Marvel as well as all of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
Supposedly Ms Marvel is getting the lowest ratings out of any of the Disney+ shows in the MCU. Which is a dang shame because this is such a sweet and well done show. Even tonight’s ep, which I think had the weakest moments of the series thus far, was still leagues better than - look we all know I’m going to make a Loki joke at this point so let’s just move on.
I haven’t done any analysis on ratings beyond seeing the stories. If I had to guess it’s not helping anybody that for some reason they decided to release Ms Marvel at the same time as Obi-Wan Kenobi (aka the “Ewan MacGregor can just stand there and breathe as far as I’m concerned” show). Like yes, Star Wars and Marvel aren’t the same fandom so it isn’t completely the same audience but they are fandoms with a lot of overlap and I’ve got to imagine if you’ve only got time to watch one show when it’s uploaded you’re more likely to err on the side of the character you know and already care about.
I mean a lot of people know and care about Kamala, but Obi-Wan’s got a lot more decades on her in terms of building up a fanbase. It’s understandable.
Of course we can’t deny the white people of it all, and the female protagonist of it all. Which is so frustrating on so many levels and just - argh.
Anyway, the ep! Which had a dance sequence in it and yes I will be talking about that because you have met me before and I can assure you I have not been replaced by a malfunctioning Life Model Decoy.
But I’m also going to talk about the ep itself, particularly the writing. Because while there was a lot of good - I mean they said the thing! - there were some aspects which didn’t quite work for me. But a didn’t quite work episode of Ms Marvel is still a good episode of television, so let’s get into it.
The Good and Bad of Ms Marvel: Destined
Look I am not immune to the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme. We finally got “Good is not a thing you are, it’s a thing you do” which on the one hand, yes, they said the thing. But on the other hand these words are a core concept for Kamala. This is her “With great power comes great responsibility.” And, I’m going to be frank here, I honestly think Kamala’s is better.
I mean think about it: how many of us get access to great power? Even putting aside the part about being bitten by a radioactive spider, great power isn’t common. It implies some level of being above other people. Which, sure, does happen. But most of us are living our day to day lives.
Which is why pound for pound if you’re asking me for a great Spider-Man thesis statement the far better one is anyone can wear the mask. And it’s also why “Good is not a thing you are” is much more meaningful. It reminds us that we don’t have an innate goodness. None of us are good because we say so. Being good is an active choice, and one we have to make over and over again.
Another part of what makes this so, well, good is that it shows how Kamala’s faith shapes who she is as a person. In the comics she came to “Good is not a thing you are” on her own but that was after it had already been established that she does care about being Muslim, and that she learns from the wisdom and experience from people like Sheikh Abdullah. The show makes this more explicit by having Sheikh Abdullah say it to her directly and that’s totally fine. The show has less space to work in than the comics did and doing it this way is a multitasking moment: We get the lesson, we get the show don’t tell of her faith, and we also see one of many reminders the show gives us that Muslim characters and people are so much more than the terrorist stereotypes media likes to depict them as.
This also came through in all the moments involving the wedding. Sure things like the henna have been seen in other shows but how many get down to the little details like hiding the shoes? (And being clever enough to have a kid run by in the background holding an armful of shoes to then pay it off later with Aamir talking about it?)
Plus we had so many beautiful character moments, like Kamala overhearing Yusef talking to Aamir before the wedding, and Muneeba talking about how hard it was to come to America (and again stressing the importance of religion both as a place of comfort and also as community).
I also loved character beats like Kamala being there for Nakia when Nakia needed to vent at her and announce that she’d won the election. A lot of other shows would’ve had their hero character be too wrapped up in their superhero problems to care about their friends anymore. It was nice - and character accurate - for Kamala to still care. Plus it’s always great to see examples of supportive female friendship in popular culture.
I won’t comment on the bit of a cliffhanger at the end with Nakia finding out about Kamala’s powers because I know how that turns out in the comics and I don’t want to risk spoilers. I will say, though, that I felt that whole setup was a bit off but that gets into the issues I had with the episode so let me take a step back and talk about those.
The thing that stood out to me about the episode which wasn’t great is that, other than the character moments with the wedding, everything felt very rushed and like it was happening because the script said it had to happen. For example, Najma and the others start out friendly and supportive and then a hot second later they’re ready to burn it all down? They’ve been waiting decades, why is an extra couple of days suddenly a bridge too far? Also why would they expect a child who only found out about all this five seconds ago to be able to figure out how to do it at all?
The lack of a proper connecting thread between all those plot beats was making my production senses tingle and sure enough at the end of the ep we find out that it was written by Freddy Syborn, AC Bradley, and Matthew Chauncy. And while we may not be able to speak to how Freddy Syborn does, long time readers of the site know we’ve already cracked the AC Bradley and Matthew Chauncy code to know that Matthew Chauncy gives good character beats and AC Bradley writes scripts and checklists as though they’re the same thing.
I mean maybe some of this could be the fault of - not editing per se but things left on the cutting room floor. Maybe there were connecting scenes and we didn’t get them for some reason. But things escalated very quickly with no time to get character motivation as far as the Inhuman - I mean the Clandestines were concerned and that smells like AC Bradley to me.
(Matthew Chauncy’s weaknesses, I suspect, making appearances in things like Kamala's out of nowhere and very much out of character nastiness about Bruno’s lack of a social life since, well, we know Matthew’s got issues with women.)
Since this could go either way and we do have a third party here I don’t know who to blame for another notable weakness in the writing, which was making Bruno the audience surrogate for Aamir’s wedding.
See, in the comics it’s established that Bruno’s been an unofficial member of the Khan family since he and Kamala were little kids. While the show hasn’t said that specifically, it did show us enough of the dynamic between Muneeba, Yusef, and Bruno in episode one that you can get there from here. Which is why Bruno is doing things like installing technology for Kamala’s father and even scoring an invite to Aamir’s wedding.
But if you say that Bruno’s been with the family that long you can’t make him all “What’s taters, precious?” about everything else. I’m not saying he’s got to be fluent in Urdu and leading the marriage ceremony, but it doesn’t make sense that he’d be ignorant about everything, especially if he was involved enough in the wedding planning to be part of the dance number (and I’m getting to that, believe me).
For example, in the scene of Kamala talking about how she might be a djinn, you can get the same information to the audience without making Bruno completely ignorant. Remember that we’ve been told (and reminded by the previouslies) that Kamala has had a lifelong fear of djinn. So if we’re supposed to believe that Bruno is her dearest friend (and in his mind the only one who deserves to bone her) then it makes no sense he doesn’t know what djinn are.
Instead the scene just as easily could have been Bruno saying something like “Djinn? I thought those were just stories about XYZ!” and Kamala replies “Yeah, turns out it’s actually ABC.” Boom, same info to the audience, more believable for the characters.
For the wedding it gets harder because the more believable way to get an audience surrogate in there was with Tyesha’s family and friends, since the way they were dressed tells us that they are not Pakistani. However, that gets into matters of budget because you have to pay more to actors like the ones playing Tyesha’s parents if you give them more lines. So Bruno, a main character who’s in the budget regardless, makes sense from a money perspective but not a characterization perspective. If we’re stuck with having to use Bruno then an option like changing Auntie Ruby’s lines to more of a “I remember my wedding when people used the excuse of bringing fortitude to my marriage to knock our heads together harder than they needed to.” might have worked better.
As with last week I do have more comments on things like what’s going on with Kamran and his family but I’m holding off in case knowledge from the comics turns out to be spoilers. I will only briefly touch on the change from Kamala and Kamran’s family being Inhumans to Clandestines is whatever. I mean they didn’t want to go with Inhumans for various reasons so swapping in another bunch of super powered people with a family legacy makes as much sense as anything else. I’ve got no problem with it.
(Warning that that Clandestines link leads to comics spoilers. Not about Kamala, but the group they’ve now connected her with.)
With all that covered, let’s talk that dance scene!
Ms Marvel’s Dance Scene vs The Eternals’ Bollywood Number
Look it’s the obvious comparison so let’s just go there. And so we’re all on the same page here’s a clip of Ms Marvel’s dance number and here’s the one from The Eternals.
When Marvel released the promo footage of the dance number from Destined of course me being me I went right to finding out who the choreographer was. Surprisingly they went with Dondraico Johnson. Which I say not to throw shade on the man but because he has zero experience with Bollywood or any type of Bollywood related dancing. I mean here’s the man’s own sizzle reel.
So this choice confused me because to date Ms Marvel the show has given every impression of wanting to hire within the culture it’s representing (the Moon Knight treatment, in other words.) Why stop at the dance number?
But the more I thought about it and the more I looked at what Dondraico Johnson has done, it made sense to me. Reason being this isn’t a capital-B Bollywood number. It’s a dance that’s happening at a party which happens to have elements of south east Asian dance in it. Now in a platonic ideal they maybe find someone who has experience with the dance style and with making it informal. But out of all the potential choreographer options, if they couldn’t have that then picking someone who can coordinate a good party dance scene makes sense.
This is also why the rapid edits in the Ms Marvel number don’t bother me, even though regular readers of the site both know and are probably still traumatized by my long rant about, among other things, the proper editing of dance numbers. But again lets compare the goal of the Ms Marvel scene vs, say, this part from America.
First up with Ms Marvel we’re not dealing with the same goal as they should have been for West Side Story, which is that when you have dancing you show the dancers. Why? Because nobody in Ms Marvel is a dancer. This isn’t a musical TV show and Kamala and her family aren’t dancers in character either. What’s being presented to us is people having fun at a party, so that is what the visuals need to show.
So it’s okay that the edits come fast and quickly rather than lingering because the edits are helping to highlight the emotions of the scene, which are more important than the movement. Kamala does something, Aamir reacts, another thing happens, we see the photographer take the picture for the wedding album, and so on.
Second, note how even though these are not capital-D dancers the editing still shows proper movement. The America clip cuts the dancing before any movement is finished. The Ms Marvel scene lets a motion complete then cuts to something else. It cuts on beat, it cuts on purpose, this is what any dance number, even a dance being done by people who in character aren’t great at dancing, is supposed to do.
Also credit where due, our editing heroes for the ep were Emma McCleave, Sushila Love, and Sabrina Plisco, ACE.
Comparing this to The Eternals, obviously we’ve got a whole other set of needs here because it’s supposed to be a Bollywood number. So it makes sense they got Nileeka Bose to do the choreography. You need someone with serious Bollywood dance cred if we’re supposed to believe that Kingo is a famous Bollywood star. And, again, note how in The Eternals we get those gorgeous, beautiful, long shots of the dancers all the way down to their feet.
Though once again I’m back on being unable to tell if, in that scene, Kingo is intended to be a bad dancer in character or if, god bless, Kumail Nanjiani just could not remotely hack it. Which again is no shame! Bollywood is extremely hard! But on the one hand you’ve got Nileeka Bose talking about how Kumail rehearsed for three months and on the other hand we have… that clip.
Three months. And that was the best footage of him they got in the can. I’m just saying.
Look at everyone dancing in Ms Marvel and then compare it to Kumail. Ms Marvel has loose and sloppy movements but that’s okay, because they’re having fun. I imagine it was actually a bug that turns into a feature that nobody in the scene actually had to hit anything particularly well because if they were a little off it was in character.
On the other hand all we see of Kingo is a robotic (and not in a good way), “I put my hand here and then here and cut!” And Kumail is a great comedic actor so if the point was that Kingo is supposed to be bad at dancing I think Kumail could’ve sold that very easily. So yeah, points to Ms Marvel here and a bless your heart to The Eternals as always.
(My favorite quote from that interview, by the way, is Nileeka saying “you’ll notice that Kumail does a little bit of jumping. He does a little bit of like smooth moves” because 1) is he though? and 2) I can only assume this means, in spite of what Nileeka later claims in the interview, that like most of the world she never actually watched the movie.)
The one last thing I want to touch on with the dance, and the one thing which didn’t work for me with the dance and which continues not to work for me with Kamala’s story, is our old buddy Bruno. Because why in the hell are we getting this:
Bruno isn’t Aamir’s friend! He’s Kamala’s! Why is he getting a featured position in the dance number? Why is he even in the dance number? Why are we consistently being presented with Bruno as though he’s somebody we should be liking and rooting for instead of encouraging to head off to California as of yesterday, bye now!
Ahem. I have feelings, people.
(As always, no hate on the actor who’s doing a great job. It’s not his fault the character is an incel.)
As always, things which didn’t fit anywhere else:
- The word bangle has lost all meaning now
- I side eyed the reference to the government monitoring mosques when it came up in last week’s episode, but I felt better about it in this week’s ep. Reason being because we saw the impact and tension this created from the point of view of characters like Nakia and Sheikh Abdullah, rather than centering the (mostly white) agents from the Department of Damage Control. To me this felt like a good way to use a superhero story to address real world concerns. Granted I’m a white lady so I don’t get the final say on if it works or not.
- I’m not an expert but the hair and makeup in the flashback scenes felt distractingly modern.
- More reasons I hate Bruno: Kamala says she’s physically hurt and Bruno complains that she’s not paying enough attention to him. Also Kamala reveals that she and Kamran are djinns and Bruno immediately talks about this being proof that Kamran is creepy. Dude! She’s a djinn too! Stop negging her!
- Not for nothing but the undisputed Baron of the Valley agrees with me on Bruno so I’m just saying.
- (I’m aware that not all of you will get that reference. Sometimes my jokes are small batch, artisanal punchlines and I’m okay with that.)
- I really wanted Nakia to be the one who made the surprise appearance to help Kamala in the fight. It was actually confusing that she wasn’t since the last we saw was Bruno standing still ineffectively while Nakia made the decision to leave the crowd and do something. Why did Bruno show up so quickly while Nakia was late with Starbucks?
- That being said, we can’t discount the symbolism of Bruno, the white boy, being the hurt person who Kamala, the brown girl from Jersey City, has to save.
- The comment about the long flight with multiple connections felt like something that came directly out of someone’s life in the writing room, which I loved.
- Why did Najima turn off the lights in the kitchen when she was stalking Kamala? I get that from a practical perspective it made the CGI easier to hide but from an in character perspective what was the point? She doesn’t have magic dark vision.
- Other interesting items from the credits are that they have a Hijab consultant, Shareefa Carrion, and Partition Consultant, Dr Priya Satia
- Bangle bangle bangle. See what I mean?
And that’s all for this week. See you next time!